Misdiagnosis — teachers are engaged during COVID-19

Misdiagnosis — teachers are engaged during COVID-19
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With the realities of COVID-19 forcing administrators to close schools in 45 states, many school leaders are scrambling to keep students safe, while transitioning to remote learning. 

Despite their best intentions, a large number of districts do not have the infrastructure for online learning, making the scramble pronounced. The crisis is pressing educators to quickly pivot. Google Classroom and other platforms may prove helpful.

This is of course stressful for students, parents, teachers and administrators, but what fewer are addressing is that COVID-19 is adding onto the stress that was already crippling the majority of teachers. 

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A new study from the University of Missouri found that 94 percent of middle school teachers are experiencing high levels of stress, which is affecting student outcomes both academically and behaviorally. 

The American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey reports that 61 percent of teachers indicated their jobs were always or often stressful; this is more than double what workers in the general population report. The survey shows 58 percent of respondents cited poor mental health as a result of that stress, a rise of 24 percentage points between 2015 and 2017. 

In the near-term, and on the other side of this pandemic, teacher stress won’t lift unless their wellbeing is a priority. 

In 2015, a GALLUP study showed 70 percent  of teachers are disengaged, meaning they view work as a way to get a paycheck and put in the bare minimum.  Perhaps the problem of teacher disengagement is a misdiagnosis; many are overly engaged and deeply stressed. What looks like disengagement is better explained by trauma and battle fatigue.

If schools don’t prioritize caring for the wellbeing and mental health of teachers in the face of this rising stress, improved educational outcomes for children are unlikely. Teachers who are compromised by stress cannot be expected to create environments where children will thrive. 

Stress appears to be contagious no matter how hard a teacher might try to hide it. 

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In 2016, researchers at the University of British Columbia, showed a link between teacher burnout and student stress. Teachers who reported they were more burned out had students in their classes with higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. 

The implications of under-attending to teacher wellbeing are far-reaching, with key concerns for retention and recruitment. According to the Learning Policy Institute, 90 percent of the nationwide demand is created when teachers leave the profession and two-thirds of teacher attrition can be attributed to factors other than retirement.

For teachers, secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma are realities as educators deal with unprecedented complexity, as do students. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by age 16. Teachers who care the most are often the most at risk for vicarious trauma. 

The American Counseling Association reports  that vicarious trauma can show up for teachers as difficulty talking about feelings, anger, sleep problems, extreme worry and guilt over a child’s situation. Other symptoms include diminished joy, feelings of hopelessness and blaming others. These symptoms mirror post-traumatic stress disorder and can masquerade as disengagement.

Still, some feed the narrative that teaching is an easy job with summers off and few demands.

The reality is many teachers work far more hours and days than their contracts indicate. And teachers are spending their own money to bring even basic ideas to life. Donorschoose.org offers a 3D experience of what teachers deal with regularly to get even the most basic supplies for their classroom.

Particularly in this high anxiety historic moment of a global pandemic directly affecting teachers and students, teachers are rapid-cycling through the many roles they fill in the lives of the children in their care — educator, counselor, parent, nurse, mentor or coach.

Across the country, there are few programs and policies that center on the wellbeing of teachers. One notable exception, Dr. Patricia Jennings and the University of Virginia have been offering a life-line to stressed teachers since 2007 with the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education program that has far-reaching implications, including around equitable treatment of children. 

Jennings’ research found that teachers who were able to better manage their stress “improved their ability to recognize a student’s perspective and how their own judgements or biases are impacting their reaction to a student.” 

These programs are key, especially since many social emotional health efforts don’t take teachers into account. 

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Texas legislature recognized the importance of training all staff on trauma-informed care by passing SB 11 and HB 18 in 2019. It will be critical for districts implementing these programs to carefully include and address secondary trauma and teacher wellbeing.

Indeed, COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis in recent history. Teachers need advocacy, appreciation and support. Children thrive in spaces created and sustained by thriving adults.

Michelle Kinder is co-author of WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Children Thrive,  a Licensed Professional Counselor, former Executive Director of Momentous Institute and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project