The signs could not be more evident- educator mental health support is a critical need in schools across the country. The compassion fatigue, overwhelm, stress, absenteeism — and resignations — are adding up. The latest research indicates that teachers are reporting higher rates of depression and anxiety, and principals are unsure how to help.
There is good news. Districts now have access to effective social-emotional support not just for students — but more importantly — their staff. This investment in their mental wellbeing is making a huge difference in both teacher retention and student learning. And spring and summer are perfect times to get started.
Workplace Support Matters
In my years working as a school counselor, it seemed to me that strength, courage and perseverance were wired into an educator’s DNA. For even the grittiest teacher, the last two years have been stressful and overwhelming. And the challenge of supporting students who are struggling more than ever has surely worn down the mental health of even the most resilient teachers.
EdWeek Research Center recently found that, since March 2020, only one third of district and school leaders have made mental health services available to staff, or added to existing offerings. It’s easy to understand why the demands of unpredictable learning and health risks dominated the energy and focus of leaders. But as time passed and educators’ sense of wellbeing slipped, many were uncertain about how to help themselves or others.
The notoriously busy schedules of educators only added to the overwhelm. Many teachers or principals who knew what needed to be done to improve mental health supports for themselves or others likely felt discouraged by the lack of time in a day — not to mention zapped energy in the evening.
All of these factors point to one big truth: School systems have a powerful opportunity to support educator mental health. Businesses and organizations everywhere are adapting to their employees’ growing mental health needs, according to the Harvard Business Review. And the time has never been better for school leaders to create systems and structures to support educator mental health and wellbeing.
And when school leaders consider the limited resources of time and money — not to mention retaining great educators — good things can happen.
Educator Mental Health Support That Works
For most school leaders and educators, recognizing a wellbeing problem is easy. Finding the right way to support teacher mental health can feel complicated, with so many options and limitations.
These key considerations will help you find the best way to support teacher mental health and create lasting positive results for your school.
Evidence-Based SEL for Adults
Mental health supports for educators are not all equal. In fact, the most popular approaches, such as a keynote speaker or team-building event, are unlikely to create lasting change in the wellbeing of your team.
Instead, look for an approach built on the principles of adult SEL, or social-emotional learning. Healthy stress management, emotional regulation and goal setting are skills that can improve teacher wellbeing. And educators with a more personal and applicable SEL skill set will benefit as individuals — and be better able to support the wide range of students in their classroom.
This course was very eye-opening in many areas. I was reminded that my job is not only to teach my subject but also to help the WHOLE student. I grew a lot as a person, and became healthier mentally, and physically.
— High School Teacher
Before you select any resource for educator wellbeing, ask about results. What can individuals expect to learn? What can the school expect to gain as educators complete the program? How are benefits measured, short term and in the months and years to come? How might this resource ultimately improve student learning and academic outcomes?
Time is one thing we can’t create more of, and few people know this fact as well as educators. When every day is laser focused on supporting students in their care, even the shortest break to eat lunch or run to the restroom is a luxury. How could there possibly be time for mental health support — without making it just one more thing?
The reward is great when school systems can protect time for evidence-based wellbeing strategies. What calendar structures, such as professional development (PD) time, could you use to offer mental health support to your educators? And don’t hesitate to ask your teacher leaders how they might prefer protected time for evidence-based mental health support. Their opinions can certainly help you create a plan that works for your team.
Sometimes the calendar just doesn’t offer enough time to meaningfully support mental health at work. Especially as the school year wraps up, changing PD plans may be difficult — or create more stress.
The key to finding the right fit for your school system is looking for mental health support that is developed to fit the needs and routines of educators. An online tool that offers short, self-paced lessons allows educators to learn and reflect at whatever rate they choose. Flexible tools should include personalized coaching or a system to prompt educators to keep going when participation slows.
Some districts have offered stipends to teachers who complete an approved resilience training or adult SEL program. Compensating educators for their participation time can increase results for the school and reward teachers for their effort.
Shared Language Building
A real advantage to adopting an evidence-based resilience course to support educator mental health is the way it can change a school. As teachers and others complete the course, they will acquire a new, richer vocabulary to describe both struggles and wellbeing. This can make them more confident in their classroom when a student needs support.
It also contributes to a stronger sense of community within the school. The Harvard Business Review study found that a more open workplace culture around mental health was the “resource” the most respondents desired. Shared vocabulary can be a simple way to create openness and increase mutual understanding.
Summer Is a Perfect Time
Summer is the perfect time for school leaders to help their teams learn new strategies to manage stress and increase resilience. Summer schedules allow educators to learn and reflect at whatever pace they choose. A self-paced online course will fit into a teacher’s time at home, on a road trip or in the stands during baseball practice.
And consider the potential that next fall holds, if even half of your team completed a program for educator mental health support this summer. New levels of resilience and motivation will make a real difference in the new school year — for your staff and your students.
Everyone Benefits From Teacher Mental Health
Teachers, principals and other educators need mental health support to be effective in their jobs — and stay in the profession. And the return on investment gained from an evidence-based course for educators is impossible to ignore.
This course has helped me be more self-aware, be more forgiving to myself, and remember my why. I feel more connected and hopeful.
— Elementary Teacher
We also know that students learn best from educators who are emotionally healthy and mentally well. And the pandemic years have shown all of us that overwhelmed teachers are far more likely to take a leave of absence or leave the profession.
Our communities depend on educators for teaching and learning today — laying the groundwork for a vibrant local economy in the years ahead. School leaders who invest in educator mental health support are positioned to retain talented teachers and make a lasting difference in the health of their community.
ABOUT KATIE DORN. Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. A mother of seven grown children and a successful entrepreneur and author, Katie is a strategic thinker with an ability to connect and build functional and productive teams. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015.
ABOUT EMPOWERU. EmpowerU’s highly personalized, data-driven SEL Tier 1 and Tier 2 solutions equip students to be resilient, self-directed learners and reach their goals — without additional hires or a heavy lift from schools. The program provides each student with interactive lessons and personalized coaching, pairing technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students, empowers their growth and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression. Multi-year data makes it clear: nobody understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and approaches SEL the way EmpowerU does.