The K-12 guide to promoting teacher wellness and avoiding teacher burnout
Here's how school leaders can address teacher burnout, overcome staff shortages, and promote teacher wellness.
To address the long-term school staffing shortages exacerbated in recent years, school leaders around the country are adopting innovative strategies to foster teacher wellness in the hopes of avoiding teacher burnout.
After all, the benefits are loud and clear: By providing extra support for teachers, schools don’t simply improve recruitment and retention among staff—they also enhance teachers’ ability to do the important work of fostering students’ well-being and improving academic outcomes.
Bolstering teachers’ well-being: How can you prevent teacher burnout and stress?
What are the reasons for teacher burnout? Even before COVID-19, teachers regularly went above and beyond their contractual obligations—and this added workload has only ramped up symptoms of teacher burnout through the pandemic. In addition to their usual responsibilities, teachers found themselves:
- Negotiating safety risks at the front lines of the pandemic.
- Providing learning continuity as COVID-19 disrupted in-person classrooms in ever-changing ways.
- Addressing the many pandemic-related learning disruptions that have accumulated over the last two years.
Not surprisingly, teachers are experiencing higher levels of both stress and depression than the general adult population, according to a 2021 survey. At the same time, classroom teachers are considering leaving their jobs. And even for those who stay on the job, teacher exhaustion affects teaching quality and, ultimately, student outcomes.
Reducing stressors outside of teachers’ day-to-day roles
The added pressures of COVID-19 have exacerbated role-related stress, which is one of the key causes of teacher burnout, according to research from Deakin University.
In short, role-related stress results from the overwhelming feeling of having to juggle the wide variety of responsibilities educators’ jobs require of them. Case in point: Teachers are “often ‘voluntold’ to place additional tasks on their plate, like chaperoning, coaching, coordinating programs, or tutoring,” writes Kevin Leichtman, an education consultant.
Again, along with isolation and organizational pressures, this role-related stress “can result in teachers, particularly early career teachers (ECTs), experiencing greater risk of burnout,” according to the Deakin University study referenced above. With this in mind, districts must consider what they can remove from teachers’ plates. And considering that any benefits gained by having teachers take on extra work will likely be offset by higher resignation rates, in-the-know administrators are actively working to reduce the number of roles teachers take on.
Freeing up teachers with help from 24/7 virtual tutors
To relieve some of the burden of assisting students outside of school hours, Illinois’ Meridian Community Unit School District 223 (MCUSD 223) and many other districts around the country are investing in on-demand virtual tutoring programs—and for good reason. A slew of recent studies has shown how tutoring programs can both increase educational equity and enhance student outcomes.
These tutoring programs also have the potential to enhance teachers’ work-life balance. In particular, on-demand virtual tutoring programs can provide relief for teachers in a number of ways:
- After-hours support: As mentioned above by Caposey, rather than fielding students’ questions late into the evening, teachers can redirect them to online tutors. This frees them up to catch up on grading, prepare the next day’s lessons, or simply get the rest they need to get refreshed and recharged.
- Writing review: By providing an initial review of grammar, style, and organization, tutors can help students turn in cleaner essays that are easier to grade. Teachers can then direct more focus toward key concepts they need to teach.
- Virtual teaching assistants: Teachers can also incorporate online tutoring into classroom lessons. As students work on exercises together with their online tutors, teachers can focus on other priorities—such as relationship-building and providing one-on-one attention—for students who would benefit the most from it.
Listen to teachers and let them set the agenda
Before crafting a wellness strategy to combat teacher exhaustion, district leaders should first consider truly listening to teachers to empathize with the particular pressures they face.
“We need to listen to our staff and involve them in the process of serving them,” writes Mike Woodlock, a principal at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. “We need their feedback, and there are different ways to obtain it … Let’s channel our inner Ted Lasso and find ways to show our team that we care deeply about what they have to say,” Woodlock adds.
He suggests the following for improving teacher well-being:
- Scheduling conferences with trusted teachers and asking direct questions.
- Creating surveys to gather feedback from staff.
- Inviting specially designated teachers to identify specific targets for improvement.
Remember that to optimize teacher retention and avoid staff shortages, such conversations with teachers should be ongoing—not just one-off stopgaps.
“I can tell you from experience that being vulnerable and asking about how your leadership, or lack thereof, creates conditions of nurture, growth, and excellence in our schools is frightening,” writes Woodlock. “It’s also completely worth it.”
Likewise, leaders should remember to also check in on teachers' self-care routines. “We always pride ourselves on making sure that our teachers mentally are healthy,” says Justin Jennings, CEO of Youngstown City School District in Ohio. “Every week, we have Wellness Wednesday. I ask them, ‘What are you doing for yourself midweek?’ Then on Friday, I'll also ask, ‘What are you going to do for yourself this weekend to take yourself away from work?’”
Remember to keep these considerations in mind to continuously reduce the effects of teacher burnout.
What questions should you ask teachers?
Overcoming critical teacher shortages and building diverse educator pipelines
The teacher shortage is widespread, and research indicates that the pressure of COVID-19 is likely to make it worse. “Two-thirds of survey respondents report teacher shortages, a record high since we launched our first teacher shortage survey in 2015,” reports Frontline Education.
What should education leaders do to bridge this gap? Below are some key strategies for building and improving teacher recruitment and retention while also promoting faculty diversity—another pressing concern in the education sector.
Improving teacher preparation
Strong educator preparation is critical not just for teacher efficacy, but also for teacher retention, according to a Learning Policy Institute study.
“Attrition rates are found to be two to three times higher for teachers who enter the profession without full preparation, than for teachers who are comprehensively prepared,” write the study’s authors.
Luckily, retaining more teachers, building a stronger recruitment pipeline, and encouraging educators’ growth is an attainable goal for prepared districts and schools. To achieve this, the Frontline Education article mentioned above suggests cultivating a psychologically safe and diverse culture, creating individualized development paths for educators, and giving teachers measurable data that helps inform professional development pathways.
Supporting new teachers
New teachers are always the hardest hit by burnout and turnover, and the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the situation. In an article for Edutopia, Michele Lew, an assistant principal at Southern California’s Arcadia Unified School District, laid out her three-point plan for supporting teachers new to the industry:
- Communicate expectations clearly: “Students need to know expectations to be successful, and so do new teachers—an administrator should clearly communicate with them,” writes Lew. To achieve this, she encourages new teachers to ask lots of questions. She also helps foster connections among teachers based on shared passions and interests, creates an environment where mistakes are OK, and encourages teachers to make their jobs fun.
- Support mentorship: Lew recommends pairing teachers with instructional coaches based on personality, academic content, and individual needs. Among other things, mentors can provide invaluable help with instructional strategies, lesson design, and behavior management.
- Host monthly meetings with new teachers: Monthly meetings with teachers are a constructive way to build trust and positive relationships and for districts to better understand the additional resources teachers require.
The right team of tutors can go a long way in tackling key challenges facing your teachers. Here’s how.
How can you recruit a more diverse faculty?
When teachers from traditionally underrepresented communities thrive, the entire education field benefits. To ensure that teachers better reflect the students they serve, districts can consider the following when recruiting teachers:
- Give existing staff a chance to reskill into teaching roles: Howard recommends that districts begin recruiting racially and ethnically diverse professionals who already work in schools, from teacher assistants and paraeducators to administrative assistants. Although these professionals often encounter systemic barriers to obtaining teaching degrees or certifications, many are interested in lead teaching roles—and they “often live in the communities where they work and have forged deep, trusting relationships with students,” writes Howard.
- Identify causes of attrition: A 2021 Educational Researcher study found that racism was a principal reason Black mathematics teachers considered leaving the profession. “Even when we account for salary, age, gender—all of those other things that people have accounted for before in previous studies—racist microaggressions had a lot of explanatory power in our model,” said Toya Frank, the study’s lead and a professor of mathematics education at George Mason University.
- Proactively build a diverse pipeline: To help foster a new generation of racially diverse educators, Colorado’s Cherry Creek School District has created a “future educator” program where high school students of color shadow local primary school teachers and serve as paraprofessionals. Participating students also receive an income.
Offer effective mentorship, professional development, and PLC programs
When teachers have the skills and resources to take on the various roles required of them, they don’t just help foster better student outcomes—they also suffer less frequently from teacher exhaustion, which is a leading cause of teacher shortages. That is why effective mentorship, professional development, and professional learning community (PLC) programs are so important.
What makes professional development impactful?
To understand which factors make professional development highly effective for educators, the Learning Policy Institute evaluated 35 “methodologically rigorous” studies and found seven factors that contributed to success:
- Curriculum-focused content: Development that focuses on teaching strategies for specific curriculum content tends to be more effective.
- Active learning: Encouraging teachers to learn actively—for example, by designing and testing teaching strategies—is more effective than a passive lecture-based approach to professional development.
- Clear collaboration: For teachers, sharing ideas and learning collaboratively—especially in the context of their job—can positively affect both instruction and the workplace culture.
- Modeling best practices: Modeling curricular and instructional best practices provides clarity.
- Coaching and authoritative support: Foster one-on-one sharing of expertise about content and evidence-based practices focused on teachers’ individual needs.
- Feedback and reflection: Providing time for reflection and feedback helps teachers incorporate new practices.
- Lasting duration: Effective programs provide adequate time not only to teach new strategies, but also to practice, implement, and reflect on them.
Research indicates distance learning can also be a cost-effective and constructive alternative to traditional in-person professional development programs.
How can you create sustainable PLCs?
A PLC consists of a group of educators who meet regularly to collaboratively ask questions, share expertise, and develop more effective teaching skills. Research consistently shows that PLCs are effective at boosting student outcomes.
However, PLCs aren’t only about student outcomes; they also build stronger relationships among team members, which in turn reduces the risk of burnout, isolation, and other stressors that lead to teacher attrition.
“To shape our culture and build the capacity of our staff, we promote PLCs, common planning time, and other spaces where they can build community and learn from one another—whether that learning is social, emotional, or cognitive, there's space and time built into the calendar for us to honor that,” says Dr. Lindsa McIntyre, secondary superintendent at Boston Public Schools.
Ideally, PLCs engage in cycles of learning, writes Andrew Miller in Edutopia. These include:
- Poring over data.
- Forming goals.
- Learning individually and as a group.
- Monitoring and revising practices to meet every learner’s needs.
Miller suggests that PLCs should not only have specific criteria for the group, but also unpack those standards. The goal should not be overly tight alignment, however—teachers still want and need autonomy. In addition, PLCs should encourage innovation, but also put those innovations to the test in the classroom. Finally, PLCs require strong facilitators who can create a safe space to enable discussion of conflicting ideas.
Some parting words on teacher wellness
Although an investment in teacher wellness requires time and effort, the potential benefits are significant. From offering more effective professional development to having after-hours support from trained online tutors, districts have ways to both attract and retain talented teachers while also creating more collegial relationships. Ultimately, they can better serve their students.