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Building Systemic Supports for Educator Mental Health

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

By Anthony Albanese, CASDA Educational Facilitator, and Jerome A. Steele, CASDA Assistant Director of Research and Program Development

Teacher and staff mental health have become increasingly prominent priorities as schools reckon with the unprecedented stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying budget reductions. However, evidence of the need for systemic supports for educator well-being existed long before 2020’s multiple crises. In 2016, for example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a Penn State study entitled “Teacher Stress and Health.” Authors M.T. Greenberg, J.L. Brown and R.M. Abenavoli reported “Forty-six percent of teachers report high daily stress which compromises their health, sleep, and quality of life” and linked this stress to “lower levels of student social adjustment and academic performance” (Greenberg, Brown, Abenavoli, 2016). The study concluded that the impact of stress on both educators and students could be mitigated by “interventions on the organizational or individual level, or those that reach both, can help reduce teacher stress by changing the culture and approach to teaching.” Given the urgency brought on by the pandemic and other events, how might districts begin to implement systemic support for staff mental health?

In her book, Trauma Stewardship, An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky shares a story: She was enjoying the effort of a hike with friends to some small cliffs with a marvelous view on a Carribean Island. While overlooking the sea painted with turquoise water she reached the edge of the cliffs. Her first thought, “This is unbelievably beautiful”. Her second thought, “I wonder how many people have killed themselves by jumping off these cliffs.” A friend asked, “Are you sure all this trauma work hasn’t gotten to you?” Quite a reality check for someone who spent several decades as an emergency room social worker, immigrant and refugee advocate, and educator working with those experiencing different types of acute trauma: homelessness, child abuse, domestic viloence, substance abuse, community tragedies and natural disasters. It was time to re-group and re-evaluate her inner thoughts as to how associated trauma played a role in her own life. (van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk, 2009).

Frontline professionals, teachers and education staff (bus drivers, teaching assistants, teacher aides, cafeteria personnel, custodians, etc.) may need to be asked the same question, “Are you sure all this trauma work hasn’t gotten to you?” Trauma comes in all types of shapes, sizes, sometimes clearly articulated, but often masked by emotional distress and hidden scars. Are teachers provided the necessary training to identify important internal and/or behavioral symptoms of trauma in their students and themselves? How does one address such matters and what happens when one’s own personal and professional experiences collide?

The model presented in this piece is designed to facilitate pathways to “thoughtful conversations” discussing the stress, anxiety and challenges faced by teachers/staff especially during the uncertain times of COVID-19, remote learning and social distancing in the school and home settings.

Fortunately, educators and administrators are familiar with the concepts outlined in the robust body of research on tiered support for students in the form of RTI (Response to Intervention) and MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) models in both academic and behavioral domains. While this logic appears easily transferable, a simple 1:1 transposition of RTI models used with students may not be effective to support new skill acquisition and the mental health of adults. Within multi-tiered systems, interventions of increasing intensity are prescribed to remedy a perceived or actual skill deficit in learning or behavior, often according to an empirically validated assessment instrument. The logic of interventions, however, may not be appropriate for this purpose. An intervention, quite simply, is something that is done to someone - the subject’s autonomy, agency and willingness to participate is an ancillary consideration. It is a correction or remediation. If schools are to meaningfully support the emotional well-being of their staff members, then the staff members themselves must play an active role in the construction of the support system.

School Wellness Policies are another vehicle through which teacher/staff mental health might be supported. Typically these policies are created and reapproved each year, but revisiting the policy represents an opportunity to begin substantive dialog on student and teacher/staff mental health needs. While these policies are not supported by external funding or resources, the policy development process can serve as a means of identifying resources within the district and larger community that support sustainable mental wellness for educators. Outreach to local community based organizations and healthcare providers can build upon partnerships that may exist to promote student and teacher/staff mental health and social emotional learning.

The process of developing an appropriate support system is unique to each district - there are no one size fits all solutions. Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health, however, have identified some fundamental practices such as “mental health workshops and therapeutic group discussions for students and employees with different needs” that can be applied in most school district settings (Lin, LIn, Brault, Pacquette, and Pollitt, 2020). Making therapeutic group discussions available could represent something like a universal, or tier 1 support within an MTSS framework. The best way to facilitate, schedule and structure this universal support could be identified through a collaborative process between all relevant stakeholders.

COVID-19 Crisis Impact and Outcomes

A recent article by Christina Cipriano and Marc Brackett (April 2020) entitled, “Teachers are Anxious and Overwhelmed. They Need SEL Now More Than Ever” highlights a survey response from 5,000 teachers. Developed by a team at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in collaboration with colleagues at the Collaborative for Social emotional And Academic Learning (CASEL) the five most mentioned feelings among all teachers were: “anxious, fearful, worried and sad.” Anxiety was by far the most frequently mentioned emotion. Two specific areas stood out based on the teacher responses. The first was based on personal conflicts such as someone from their family would contract COVID-19. The second related to the stress around “managing their own and their families’ needs while simultaneously working full-time from home and adapting to new technologies for teaching.”

In 2017, the same center conducted a similar survey on teacher’s emotions with 5,000 respondents across the nation. The five top emotions listed were: “frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired and happy.” Their primary source of frustration and stress pertained to not feeling supported by their administration around challenges related to meeting all of their students’ learning needs, high stakes testing, an ever-changing curriculum and work/life balance.

The article points out, “So, before the pandemic, America’s teachers were already burning out. Add in new expectations of becoming distance learning (remote) experts to support uninterrupted learning for all their students and caring for the ever-evolving demands of their families, and it’s no surprise that 95 percent of the feelings they reported recently are rooted in anxiety.” Most notably, the authors state, “We can’t control what is happening to us and around us, but we can control how we respond to it.”

As districts build organizational structures to support the social-emotional wellbeing of their employees as part of their COVID-19 response plans, they must be sure to center the voices of the teachers and staff members doing the work on the front lines. Thoughtful conversations, transparent dialog and honest assessment of needs and resources will build a culture of trust that will improve the likelihood of any system’s success. CASDA is ready to work with districts to facilitate this process and help districts develop systems and policies to promote social-emotional wellness during this unprecedented time.

About the Author:

Longtime educational leader and retired school superintendent, Anthony Albanese joined CASDA’s faculty in the fall of 2017. Prior to joining CASDA, Albanese retired as the Superintendent of the Margaretville Central School District in Delaware County where he served in the role for six years. He also served as the Interim Director of Special Education at Niskayuna CSD as well as the Director of Pupil Personnel Services in the City School District of Albany and Director of Pupil Personnel Services at Scotia-Glenville CSD. He also worked in many capacities over 23 years at the Wildwood School in Latham, including as executive deputy director.

Albanese brings a background in mental health counseling and social work and knowledge of special education programming and the full-range of student support areas to CASDA.

For more information, please listen to our podcast episode "Systemic Mental Health Supports for Educators."


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