Teacher Burnout & COVID-19: Supporting School Staff

Pre-pandemic, teacher burnout and retention were not new areas of concern for school districts. Now, recent data show that nearly 14% of teachers are either leaving their school or leaving teaching altogether. There’s also a reduced pipeline of new teachers as fewer people are entering teaching programs, and turnover rates are even higher in high-poverty schools. To avoid a teacher burnout crisis within the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, school leaders are looking to address the needs and concerns of educators and staff, and ensure they feel supported.
Psychology Today describes burnout as “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

Since remote learning began a few months ago, the majority of teachers reported that they feel “somewhat” or “extremely” uncertain (81%), stressed (77%), anxious (75%), overwhelmed (74%), sad (60%) and lonely (54%), according to an extensive survey of K-12 teachers. They are facing their own pandemic worries, in addition to the challenges of teaching online which in some circumstances seems to change daily.

Here are some ways to help acknowledge and address the mental load being placed on teachers, and how to best support them during this time.

Acknowledge and support mental health needs of school staff

Students aren’t the only ones facing mental health challenges or trauma due to the pandemic. Psychological and socio-emotional distress can lead to teacher burnout. Teachers and staff members themselves may have had their own traumatic experiences, as well as concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones. The additional strains of supporting students experiencing stress can exacerbate their own. Much like the recommendation made in airplane safety procedures, teachers need to “put their own masks on first before helping another with theirs.”

Schools should offer resources to teachers and staff to support their own wellness. This may include wellness programs, school-wide policies, and mental health-focused professional development opportunities (which you can fit into a tight budget using these tips!).

Look for signs of teacher burnout

When it comes to coping with their own mental health, 61% of teachers said they would turn to peer teachers for support, highlighting the strength and importance of the school community. Make teachers and staff are aware of signs of distress to help create a community of care and avoid teacher burnout. Some signs (similar to the signs to look out or in students) include:

  • High rates of absenteeism
  • Fatigue and sleep issues
  • Behavioral changes, such as withdrawn social interactions
  • Appearance changes, like drastic weight gain/loss, and declining groom or hygiene

Preparing your workforce to become trauma-informed not only helps staff address student trauma, but can also help them recognize and address trauma among their peers.

Prioritize safety and communicate about it often

For those returning to in-person or blended learning models, safety is a top concern and source of stress for teachers, according to a national teacher poll from NPR/Ipsos. More than 3/4 of teachers are worried about risking their own health, and 78% said they are concerned specifically about accessing sufficient personal protective equipment and even cleaning materials for teaching in person. The fact that nearly 1/3 of teachers are considered high risk due to their age could be a contributing factor that adds to the stress. Some consider early retirement to avoid the risk.

Along with following guidelines from the CDC and local government regarding safety, it’s important to clearly communicate these policies and efforts with teachers and staff. When changes and updates are made, communicate early and often, and make it clear that teacher and student safety is a top priority to help alleviate concerns. Knowing that the availability of PPE and cleaning materials are a particular concern, supply adequate resources when at all possible.

Empower teachers and staff to have a voice in important decisions

When returning to the classroom, UNESCO, the Teacher Task Force, and the International Labour Organization emphasize the importance of empowering teachers to make decisions about teaching and learning, and that their voices should also be heard in regards to safety and health policies (as stated in their back to school toolkit).

Unfortunately, only about half of school staff believe they have a voice in decision-making, and less than half believe their school has effective communication, according to the Teacher Voice Report 2010-2014.

Giving teachers and staff a seat at the table was important before, but it’s even more crucial now—especially if you’re trying to prevent teacher burnout. Teachers are working overtime to quickly transition and adapt to the new environment created by the pandemic. Do everything you can to make them feel supported and appreciated. Keeping them updated, seeking out their opinions on a regular basis, and giving them a voice in policies and changes shows through action that their input is valued.

Facilitate peer collaboration

UNESCO, the Teacher Task Force, and the International Labour Organization also share in their back to school toolkit that “Training, peer-to-peer learning and collaboration with other teachers, both within the school and more broadly, will be critical [upon re-entry].”

During this time of uncertainty and change, it’s important for teachers and staff to share and collaborate with one another—especially if they’re teaching remotely. Physical distancing should not mean professional isolation. Facilitate virtual connections for collaboration, problem-solving, and resource sharing. Consider following up virtual professional development trainings with staff-facilitated virtual discussion. Opportunities to bring school staff together can help strengthen the community, increase knowledge, and provide a network of support—all which can help provide the necessary support to help prevent teacher burnout.

Equip teachers and staff with resources to engage students

There’s a proven link between teacher burnout and student disengagement. Keeping students engaged with virtual learning and social distancing practices in place—especially students who may be experiencing trauma—is a huge challenge and source of stress for today’s educators.

To address the social, emotional, and behavioral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Child Trends recommends educating all school staff about trauma and mental health, and ensuring that all staff know how to connect students to mental health services when needed.

Online trauma-informed training for educators can help fulfill this need in a safe, effective, and efficient way. Our virtual simulations for K-12 educators teach evidence-based concepts, and give learners hands-on practice speaking to virtual students.

At Kognito, we believe that learning concepts is great, but practicing them is even better. In fact, it’s proven to be better. In a study led by researchers from Boston University, participants who completed one of our K-12 simulations reported significant improvements in preparedness and confidence in their ability to identify and respond to student mental health needs, as compared to control group participants.

Bring trauma-informed practices and mental health skills to your district

Kognito simulations can be deployed in less than one week, so you can give your teachers and staff knowledge and skills they can quickly put into practice. Plus, the interactive simulation is completely online, so they can access it from any device, anywhere. It’s an effective way to address the social and emotional needs of your students and staff and improve your staff’s confidence in addressing student trauma—which can help in your efforts to support your educators and prevent teacher burnout during the ongoing pandemic.

Want to discover how Kognito’s suite of K-12 simulations can help you support student and staff wellbeing? Learn more and access a free demo of our student training here.

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