Teacher stress, burnout: School districts focus on mental health

A growing number of schools across the country are exploring new ways to support teachers’ mental health.

CONCORD, NH — With Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” blaring in the background, about 20 New Hampshire educators grabbed wooden sticks and began banging their desks to the beat.

Emily Daniels, who led a two-day workshop on burnout, encouraged the group, consisting of teachers, school counselors, occupational therapists and social workers, to stand up in a hotel conference room. It wasn’t long before the group was hitting walls and anything else they could find. Laughter filled the air. Some started dancing.

“Making rhythm gives the body a different kind of predictability that you can do every day,” said Daniels, a former school counselor who created The Regulated Classroom, which teaches teachers how to manage their own nervous systems to reduce stress can in the classroom.

The training session is part of a growing and, some would say, long overdue effort to address the mental health burdens on educators.

Addressing the mental health challenges of students coming through the pandemic has become a priority for schools across the country. Many districts facing attitude issues see mentoring educators as a way to help them help students and keep them amid stressors ranging from behavior issues to fears of shooting.

RELATED: A parent’s guide to mental health when school starts again

School districts have increased mental health training for staff, instructional support, and resources and systems designed to identify burned-out teachers and connect trainers with help.

Karen Bowden-Gurley, a fifth-grade teacher, said she attended the training in New Hampshire because of teacher burnout, but she also had student burnout.

“The demands on all of us have been very high and we have been trying to make up for lost time in the few years they have drawn on their curriculum. But we forgot that they haven’t been to school for a few years, so they missed that social-emotional part. We deal with that in class.”

In a Rand Corporation survey, twice as many school principals and teachers reported frequent work-related stress as other working adults. A study by a coalition of mental health organizations in New Orleans found that educators working during the pandemic reported rates of emotional distress similar to those reported by healthcare workers — 36% tested positive for anxiety, 35% for depression, and 19% for post-traumatic stress disorder tested.

“It’s all pretty bad,” said Leigh McLean, the principal investigator at the Teacher Emotions, Characteristics, and Health Lab at the University of Delaware School of Education, who found levels of depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion in elementary school teachers ranged from 100% to 400% % higher than before the pandemic.

She saw that these problems increased most among junior professionals and color teachers.

“So it seems like the patterns among teachers are mirroring injustices that we’re seeing in the general population, with underrepresented groups being hit the hardest, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

Some districts have invested federal COVID-19 relief funds in teacher mental health, or plan to see it as a way to also improve the classroom, encourage bonding, and ultimately benefit the students themselves. States that are singled out for teacher mental health as priorities include Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

The Atlanta School District created a service with Emory University that uses federal funds to provide mental health services. Named Urgent Behavioral Health Response, it funds 11 Emory-based clinicians who provide emotional and behavioral support to struggling school workers during the school year.

A district in Delaware, meanwhile, hired two social and emotional learning coaches to work to address problems teachers face in the classroom.

“If you can imagine a teacher having a classroom where students are engaged, they help each other, and there’s a positive culture of support, their job satisfaction is likely to be higher,” says Jon Cooper, director of the Health and Colonial School District School Wellness Department. “They are less likely to leave the profession, which in turn promotes their well-being.”

According to Sean Ricks, the Houston Independent School District’s senior manager for crisis intervention, Houston, which has begun building calming rooms where students can go for decompression, hopes to do the same for teachers who have been in need.”

The rooms would be different from traditional teachers’ break rooms and would be a place for teachers to “settle down and relax” during their free time, Ricks said, adding they “could have had some aromatherapy, maybe some soft music.” .

“We want them to understand that sometimes during the academic day we need to take mindfulness breaks and self-care breaks,” Ricks said.

An Indiana elementary school starts the week with mindful Mondays, where teachers guide their classes in deep breathing techniques. There are also Thoughtful Thursdays, where a student is encouraged to write a letter to a staff member to show their appreciation, and Friday Focus, where students and teachers talk about self-care.

“My teachers know when they need to take breaks throughout the day, I want them to take those breaks,” said Allison Allen-Lenzo, principal of O’Bannon Elementary School.

More and more groups are offering workouts that include breathing exercises, yoga, gentle movements, and meditation.

One of them is cultivating awareness and resilience in education or care. In studies using it among 224 New York teachers, researchers found statistically significant improvements, including a reduction in emotional distress, stress stemming from lack of time, and improvements in the quality of classroom interactions. The researchers also found that it extended to those students who showed increased engagement.

“Your stress levels can increase without you even realizing it because your attention is so outwardly focused on everything else that’s going on around you,” said Tish Jennings, an education professor at the University of Virginia who led the team who developed CARE and was the lead researcher studying the program. “So these practices build the ability to be more aware of how you’re feeling in a given moment so you can be proactive.”

Back in New Hampshire, educators pushed the tables aside and mastered a series of stretches known as qigong. Then they gathered in a circle for an exercise aimed at synchronizing their nervous systems. Known as collective rhythm making, they began clapping their hands and snapping their fingers simultaneously.

The educators at The Regulated Classroom training believe that these new tools — while a little unorthodox at first glance — have revitalized them. Bowden-Gurley felt they were allowing her to “train her brain to think differently” and planned to use them in the classroom to build a better sense of community and confidence with her students.

Kelly Hurd, a kindergarten teacher, said the training gave her a glimpse of what’s possible in the new school year.

“I love teaching and I love the kids, but it’s also hard,” said Hurd, who suffered from burnout before the pandemic and was part of the New Hampshire workout. “The pandemic has been so tough and so impactful and so stressful. I feel a sense of renewal and excitement and feel like I have been given permission to have more fun and focus on the joy of school.”

Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.

https://www.king5.com/article/news/nation-world/teacher-mental-health/507-f6c848ac-67ae-4d8e-9fff-5b0f7da569ed Teacher stress, burnout: School districts focus on mental health

Alley Einstein

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