Teachers have always been caregivers, but the coronavirus has thrust them into the role of first responders for children and families navigating a crisis.
Our research suggests the additional weight of care is taking a heavy toll.
We research education in crisis situations and how schools can support social and emotional well-being, and since March, we have been interviewing elementary school teachers in a diverse, midwestern, suburban school district about their experiences with remote learning. We have been struck by the immense weight of care that these teachers are shouldering during the pandemic as well as their commitment to bearing it with grace.
As the turbulent school year sputtered to a close with fresh trauma around racial injustice compounding the coronavirus crisis, we heard how teachers' care work further expanded even as their resources dwindled. Although the teachers we speak with are dedicated as ever to their students' learning and well-being, they are emotionally spent.â¯
With still no certainty on the horizon, what can be done now to support teachers?
As educational leaders scramble to plan models of remote, socially distanced, and hybrid learning for the fall, their planning must also prioritize caring for teachers. In particular, our research points to the following four ways educational leaders can plan now to ensure teachers are supported going forward, whatever the fall holds:
1. Equip teachers to quickly connect families to the systems, resources, and supports available in their community. Resources may be school-based or community-based, and can include social workers, nutritional support, school counselors, health care providers, school psychologists, among many others. Leaders can support teachers in recognizing needs and making appropriate referrals, so teachers aren't left to address them single-handedly.â¯
The pandemic arrived at a time of increased attention to student mental health. It then altered children's routines, shrunk their social worlds, and increased their emotional needs. As the crisis has worn on, families have been weathering deepening and new financial, emotional, mental-health, and social stressors. In response to increasing urgency, teachers have moved to fill in gaps of care that, in pre-pandemic times, other colleagues and systems would have also supported.
Teachers have told us stories of dropping off food at hungry students' homes, calming anxious parents whose children refuse to engage, and lying awake worried for children sheltering in abusive homes. This care work, while critical, hampers teachers' ability to support students' many learning needs; this burden of care is best shared.
Leaders should work now to build out existing resources and strengthen referral systems so teachers can easily place families in contact with specialized services, particularly in the event that school buildings remain shuttered. Districts and school buildings can develop a high-quality resource map of any services that students and families may need, and ensure it is made available in all students' home languages.
2. Offer social-emotional and mental-health support to teachers, not just students and families. Like many in caregiving professions in this crisis, teachers are cycling through grief and worry with no clear end in sight. They worry about families who have completely fallen out of communication and those who are food insecure. They mourn not being able to offer a supportive presence to students navigating the pain and upheaval arising from the death of George Floyd. Their spouses and colleagues have lost jobs, and they have juggled caring for their own children at home while teaching.
And while they're proud of all they accomplished this past year, they're also aware that all the recent trauma will impact their students' and their own well-being for the foreseeable future. One teacher we interviewed looked ahead and wondered: "How much emotional cleanup are we going to have when this is all over?"
It is important that teachers return to school with compassionate leadership offering clear, supportive, and affirming messaging around the valuable work teachers are doing to navigate the crisis. Our research suggests teachers value leadership that demonstrates trust, empathy, and respect for their professional commitment. Teachers have appreciated when leadership acknowledges their work to meet students' many needs in difficult circumstances. Conversely, school leaders damaged morale and efficacy when they minimized challenges, focused solely on "business" without first attending to the humanity of teachers, or suggested teachers were taking advantage of the work-from-home set-up.
Leaders can also support teacher mental health and well-being by normalizing self-care. They can ensure teachers are not expected to be in constant contact with students and families, underscoring the importance of finding balance, which teachers report is particularly challenging when working from home. Leaders can normalize conversations around mental health to counteract stigma. They should ensure teachers have easy access to a range of professional mental -health services.
3. Give teachers robust professional support systems and time to plan. Teachers made massive pedagogical and technological shifts this spring. For the teachers in our study, team collaboration was often a lifeline in the rushed move to remote learning. We heard stories of how teams worked together to find new ways to connect with students, provide social-emotional support for each other, create new assessment practices, support each other in anti-racism efforts, and continue to meet students' shifting academic needs. But this work was conducted in crisis mode, and teachers have had little time to process what occurred, let alone plan for the fall.
Looking ahead, teachers will need dedicated time to assess what did or didn't work well, collaborate, learn from each other, and create more sustainable, effective, and flexible instructional practices and models. They will need collaborative spaces to develop and expand anti-racist educational practices, and support from their administrators and experts in doing so. They will require ongoing technological support that is easily accessible not just for them, but for students and families. High-quality professional development can further assist them as they implement new pedagogical approaches for multiple platforms, modalities, and learners.
4. Put clear supports in place for teachers who fall ill with coronavirus. Teachers need to know that they can care for themselves without risking their livelihoods.
Teachers spent the spring overcoming technological and logistical barriers to shore up the social, emotional, mental, nutritional, and academic well-being of their students and families in crisis. They stepped up with professionalism, creativity, and a deep commitment to caring for students and families in extraordinary circumstances. Yet teachers have entered summer careworn and depleted. In the weeks ahead, as educational leaders plan for the fall, prioritizing caring for teachers is a worthy investment in all of our future.
Laura Wangsness Willemsen and Elisheva Cohen are former teachers and current educational researchers at Concordia University in St Paul, Minn., and Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind., respectively.