Addressing Teacher Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Jennifer Greif Green & Elizabeth Bettini - July 31, 2020
When teachers return to work in the fall, the schools they reenter will look quite different from the schools they left behind in March. Schools are anticipating substantially increased demand to support student mental health, as many will return to school having experienced loss and grief, months of social isolation, and heightened rates of familial violence and poverty (Galea et al., 2020). To meet the needs of these youth, it will be crucial to support the mental health and wellness of teachers and school staff who provide their care.
According to the most recent data from the National Center on Educational Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020), there are roughly 3.5 million full- and part-time public school teachers in the United States (in contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports there are fewer than 100,000 pediatricians). Teachers are undoubtedly the largest workforce involved with children. However, upon return to school in the fall, we can also anticipate that teachers will be managing their own experiences of stress and anxiety, isolation and depression, financial loss, and grief. For example, New York City alone reported that as of June 22, they had lost 75 Department of Education employees to COVID-19, including 31 teachers, 28 paraprofessionals, and 3 guidance counselors (New York City Department of Education, 2020); many educators will have lost colleagues, and many more will have lost loved ones, be recovering from illness themselves, or be supporting family who are recovering. Importantly, teachers own mental health is associated with the academic success of their students. For example, a series of recent studies demonstrated that third grade teachers with elevated depressive symptoms provided lower-quality classrooms, and their students who struggled with math made more limited academic progress than peers in other classrooms (McLean et al., 2018; McLean & Connor, 2015, 2017).
Changes in school structure and available resources will likely impact teacher stress and wellbeing. Substantial budget cuts anticipated across the United States as well as school reconfiguration to meet new health guidelines may lead to further, seismic shifts in job responsibilities and work expectations for teachers, potentially including shifts between remote and in-person contexts, and reductions in specials periods (e.g., PE, art, music), which may result in decreased time for planning and collaboration. Teachers depend on colleagues for support with lesson-planning, addressing complex student needs, and instructional decision-making. Reduced opportunities for collaboration with skilled colleagues have been shown to be associated with reductions in teacher effectiveness and commitment to continue teaching (Borman & Dowling, 2008; Johnson et al., 2018; Ronfeldt et al., 2015; Valli et al., 2007). Even more concerning are potential cuts to student support services, including the school psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and paraprofessionals who will be necessary to support increased student health and mental health needs.
Within the context of working with decreased resources, teachers can also expect to dedicate more time than ever to supporting student mental health. A particular concern is that student trauma resulting from COVID-19 may masquerade as emotional reactivity and poor emotional regulation, mechanisms that lead to the same externalizing behaviors (McLaughlin & Lambert, 2017) that cause teachers to call on support staff and which, in the absence of adequate support, can lead to student discipline, suspension, and expulsion. Research clearly demonstrates that youth of color are more often subject to harsh and exclusionary disciplinary policies (Bradshaw et al., 2010; Skiba et al., 2011) and are less likely to receive mental health services. These facts should compel school staff to consider how best to support students experiencing trauma, particularly in disadvantaged communities that are also most impacted by COVID-19. Teachers will also need to be especially attentive to youth with pre-existing psychiatric disorders, as COVID-19 school closures and the move to telehealth may have disrupted the receipt of services on which these students rely. Teachers ability to provide supportive routines, use equitable disciplinary practices, proactively identify youth requiring mental health services, and facilitate service access will be key to preventing or ameliorating the potential long-term effects of COVID-19.
Thus, as schools plan for re-opening in the fall, we urge them to prioritize the mental health and wellness of their staff, especially their teachers. Teachers feel largely unprepared to identify and respond to student mental health needs in usual times (Reinke et al., 2011; State et al., 2011), but these skills may be even more challenging in this most unusual time, and teachers capacity to provide these supports well will have great consequences. Teachers will need the school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses who are equipped to effectively and systematically screen students to determine who needs mental health supports, and to provide these supports.
Teachers will also need school leaders who understand the importance and challenges of maintaining routine, community, and reasonable expectations for youth in the context of tremendous ambiguity and uncertainty. To support them in meeting the demands of school reopening, school leaders should help teachers prioritize their most important responsibilities in the face of increasing demands and find ways of maintaining a strong sense of community despite likely changes in the structures for collaboration. Leaders should also provide teachers with information about their own mental health (along with the mental health of students) and actively work to remove barriers to accessing mental health services, including through the selection of health insurance plans and, when possible, schedule flexibility. Most of all, teachers will need communities that care for their wellness and mental health, just as we care for the wellness of our children, as teachers will best be able to support youth when they feel supported in their school environment.
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