To Address Educator Well-Being, We Need a Historical and Holistic Approach - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

January 28, 2021

To Address Educator Well-Being, We Need a Historical and Holistic Approach

Talk about mental health in schools can't be divorced from conversations about systematic changes for better teaching conditions.

Social-emotional learning
School Culture

As we enter a new year, conversations about teacher mental health abound, creating a sense of urgency as the pandemic amplifies longstanding wellness issues in education. The past year has taught us in so many ways how our histories shape our present. It is worth pausing to understand how the historical context of education in our country has led to our current situation, as it is difficult to heal in the same environment that made one sick in the first place.

The very foundation of the U.S. education profession was built to gain cheap labor from a marginalized workforce and to control teachers' personal as well as professional experiences. The feminization of the teaching force began with the advent of common schools in the 1830s. Policymakers decided it would be "very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price" (PBS). Young, single, white women—many 14–15 years old—were hired to teach white children simply because it was cheaper.

By the turn of the 20th century, 75percent of the nation's educators were women. Not only were teacher pay and conditions abysmal (significantly more so for Black educators in segregated schools), educators' personal lives and experiences were dictated by strict policies, often set by school boards with very little understanding of the job. A teaching contract from Story County, Iowa, in 1905 placed strict demands on its employees' personal lives, such as requiring church attendance every Sunday and forbidding drinking, marriage, and short hair. Teacher contracts across the country required similar restrictions, including barring Black educators from joining professional organizations.

Though we no longer mandate how teachers dress or live their lives outside school buildings in quite the same way, our country's lingering history of teacher treatment was on display during the pandemic. Some educators fought against policies that required them to return to unsafe working conditions and empty classrooms. Many chose between their personal lives and safety or their work. In this light, blurring the boundaries between an educator's role and personhood does not seem so much a relic from the past, but a very real present.

We need to normalize conversations about educator well-being and mental health in the context of conversations about reinventing systems that encourage better conditions for educators as well as students. In this spirit of holistic healing, consider the following suggestions as a starting line.

Combat Loneliness

Operating as a single teacher in a one-room schoolhouse would have been incredibly lonely. In our modern context, though many of us may not actually be alone, loneliness is still pervasive. Some studies have found chronic loneliness negatively affects health and is comparable with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Even before COVID-19 increased loneliness for teachers, 61 percent of American adults admitted to feelings of loneliness in the workplace.

The solution to loneliness is not simply talking to more people, especially for educators who spend their day interacting with others. Instead, it's about creating a culture of belonging. It is not unheard of for teachers to be highly involved in school and still feel disconnected from their colleagues.

Research indicates that employees are less lonely when they feel they can be their authentic selves at work, when they have meaningful relationships with colleagues, and when employers encourage a strong work-life balance.  Ideally, a culture of belonging starts with the administrative team, which builds a collective community experience free from "us vs. them" mentalities, territory politics, or playing favorites.

While working remotely and in hybrid scenarios, we check in on our closest work friends regularly through group text threads and periodically hold Zoom meetings just to catch up and to encourage each other when teaching becomes too much. We also share our personal ups and downs with one another. To catalyze the conversation around loneliness in school communities, begin with these guiding questions.

Guiding Questions for Leaders and Policymakers

  • Do educators feel that they have space to learn and grow alongside colleagues (instead of feeling like they will be punished for not always being perfect)? Do they feel authentically seen and heard by colleagues and leaders?

  • Do we promote consistent implicit and explicit messages for educators to care for themselves as human beings, and do our actions and policies align with these messages?

  • Can we see authentic evidence that our staff cares for one another as human beings?

Guiding Questions for Educators

  • Do I police myself while interacting with colleagues or leaders in ways that make me feel lonely or isolated?

  • Do I have boundaries between work and home? Do I feel pressure from my work environment to relinquish these boundaries,implicitly or explicitly?

  • Can I rely on people I work with to check in on me or care for me as a person? Do I check in or care for others at work?

Prioritize Well-Being

Well-being is a holistic approach that extends beyond mental or emotional health or wellness into an understanding of how individuals and communities thrive. It includes "good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress" (Psychology Today). Though implementing initiatives that address educators' mental, emotional, or physical health of educators is a worthy endeavor, embracing overall well-being needs to extend beyond crisis management.

For example, well-meaning leaders in a local school in our community created a well-being committee who developed a relaxation room with snacks, hot tea and periodic yoga sessions led by the PE teacher. These efforts worked for some teachers, while others felt like it was contradictory because teachers' voices and expertise were not being included in the district's bigger decisions.

Imbalance in education is created in part by the various hats that educators are asked to wear that take time outside of the work day, squander creative energy, and require excessive emotional availability and financial contributions not covered by schools. Just as our historicalcounterparts were required to play various community roles beyond their classroom duties, educators can easily find themselves giving at exponential rates but receiving little that replenishes them in any substantial way.

Ultimately, well-being is rooted in feeling valued and experiencing a strong sense of purpose at work, including respecting teachers as active participants in schools' and districts' decision-making processes. In fact, Gallup measured well-being in education along five main elements: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. Gallup also noted that staff are 15 percent more likely to thrive when their managers have strong well-being, further indicating that adult well-being for everyone within a school is critical. The following guiding questions can serve as a starting point for deeper conversations about how to increase overall well-being within school communities.

Guiding Questions for Leaders and Policymakers

  • Do we take the stress experienced by educators seriously, and do we respond intentionally and effectively to their stress?

  • Do we have systems or policies in place that directly or indirectly prevent educators from thriving?

  • Do we approach well-being collectively and holistically?

  • Do we have a culture or systems built around educator strengths?

  • Do our leaders thrive? Do we see evidence of the ways in which thewell-being of our leaders positively affects the well-being of our educators?

Guiding Questions for Educators

  • Do I feel a strong sense of purpose in my work?

  • Are my strengths valued and validated at work?

  • Are there ways in which I sacrifice my personal well-being for the sake of workplace systems or policies?

  • When I am stressed or feeling burned out, do Ih ave resources at work to guide me back to a state of well-being?

Encourage Healing Support

The pandemic has exacerbated mental and emotional health concerns, including for educators. Yet, we also know that access to mental health care and benefits are often limited. Providing time and space for healing resources requires intention and action, especially because our education system was not developed with teacher experience in mind. The efforts of nearly 200 years of organizing for better working conditions and a sense of humanity for the profession are ongoing.

In our own experiences, we have worked in schools where overt and implicit messages against taking time off prevented us or our colleagues from necessary rest. Substitute teachers who can provide some relief from responsibilities have long been a prized, but rare, commodity in schools, now more so than ever. Finding time to access mental health services is difficult because many school schedules prohibit leaving during the workday without taking the full day off. In remote or hybrid settings, finding the time to commit to mental health support while juggling schedules that blur boundaries between work and home life is difficult.

Educators and schools can begin the ongoing process of improving healing services and encouraging collective mental and emotional well-being by asking themselves the following questions, then developing actions from the insights.

Guiding Questions for Leaders and Policymakers

  • Do health and wellness policies support both the physical and mental health of educators?

  • Are educators encouraged to use sick days for mental health visits?

  • Are we honest and open about our own mental health?

  • Do we utilize person-centered language when referring to mental wellness?

Guiding Questions for Educators

  • Do I have access to and encouragement for supporting my personal well-being at work and at home?

  • What do I do at school and at home to take care of both my personal well-being?

  • Am I honest with myself and others about how I feel and what I need to be well?

  • Am I respectful and thoughtful in my use of language related to well-being?

Many educators are trained to teach from a whole-child lens, treating students as human beings with needs and desires beyond the classroom. Yet, this holistic mindset has not often extended to conversations about educators, who are susceptible to the same stressors and addictions and histories as everyone else. The expectation for them to be impervious to these issues creates unhealthy work and learning environments. We must do the work of creating rich, sustainable environments for human development for everyone. Our history does not have to define our future.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?