COVID-19 & Teacher Trauma

Caring for Educators is the First Step in Serving Students

With studies showing that teachers are more stressed than soldiers returning from battle, now is the time to focus on their mental and emotional health.

Meta-analyst Dr. John Hattie, whose work on “visible learning” draws from one of the largest sets of research data ever assembled, asks the simple question, “What makes the biggest difference in educational outcomes?” Year after year, the findings are the same. Teachers’ self-confidence ranks at the very top of the highest-impact factors for learning.

The idea for a book I co-wrote, Whole: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive, began with a provocative finding: teachers are the fourth-most stressed occupation in the United States. According to Gallup, more than one in 10 teachers are desperate to leave the profession, and more than half of all educators are not fully engaged in their work.

As my fellow authors and I visited schools in neighborhoods blighted by poverty and hopelessness (a sort of “urban battlefield”) we found one central, common factor across schools that were succeeding despite their local environment: a priority of caring for the mental well-being of their educators. Successful student learning outcomes began with caring about teachers, prioritizing their mental health and feeding their combined self-confidence.

And then there was COVID-19. Confined to working from home, with existing lesson plans no longer adequate, challenged to quickly learn new technologies and removed from students themselves, the American teacher corps is experiencing the single most traumatic and transformative event of the modern era. What are the mental health priorities now?

First, we must honor that our educators are experiencing just as much anxiety and stress as many of our students.

Because they are part of an aging demographic, we can expect some of our colleagues will not return this fall, taken from us by COVID-19. A greater number will be impacted by the loss of a loved one, by the emotional hardships of social confinement and by the increased anxiety caused by economic uncertainty for their family. We cannot expect educators to return to us this fall without mental and emotional needs resulting from their grief, their economic anxiety, and their personal loss.

Good schools begin with great leaders. The mental health, positive outlook and self-confidence of our school leaders are equally important. What is true for teachers is also true for our leadership. They will need care and support.

We are quickly beginning to find solutions to the immediate problems of self-care, vigilant observation of student risk factors, and effective crisis teaching. My co-author Michelle Kinder and I have collected a set of key “nudges” to prioritize in our daily conversations with our colleagues.

  1. Establish a routine in your day, get dressed professionally, and put on your “teacher persona.” While sweatpants are inviting, our mental health is impacted by our routine and our costume, as is our self-confidence and positive outlook. That said, sleeping a bit later (no need to commute!) can help energize and ignite your passion.

  2. Speaking of passion, now is the time to escape the weariness of mandated curriculum and engage your creative mind and curious self. Consider the skills you want your students to learn, connect those skills to an area of study or topic that interests you, and let your own passion ignite that of your students. Excitement, curiosity, interest, and engagement can be communicated via a webcam and digital platform.

  3. Speaking of webcams, please use one. Ask your students to do the same, if possible. More than 90 percent of communication happens non-verbally. We are not fully engaged in teaching and learning if we cannot see each other.

  4. Exercise, be mindful of alcohol intake, and take time for daily reflection. Embracing that each of us is hurting, and giving ourselves permission to grieve our lost routines and joys, are the first steps towards healing.

  5. Make learning bite-sized, assume it will take students two to three times longer to learn a skill, and honor that we’re not engaged in distance learning—we’re engaged in crisis teaching. Check in daily with students about their feelings and emotions. Minds follow hearts. Care about the kids before you concern yourself with tests, grades, and other outcomes.

  6. Finally, plan now for a transformed school environment. Flexible classrooms to allow physical distance, professional development focused on teacher-student relationships and trauma informed teaching, and strategies for measuring student learning readiness are urgent next steps.

The lesson we learned in researching our book is simple: Educators’ mental and emotional health is the foundation of effective teaching and learning. Today, teachers’ self-confidence is diminished due to high levels of occupational stress. In a COVID-19 world, caring for our educators is an area of urgent priority.

About the Author

Kevin E. Baird serves as chairman at the non-profit Center for College & Career Readiness. He is a recognized leader in the application of technology for accelerated human learning and development. He provides free tools for schools at Habitat4Heroes.org.


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