Reopening schools safely requires addressing the stress of educators of color
Stress, more so than insufficient pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. I remember stepping into my kindergarten classroom for the first time. I had 22 students and 15 of them spoke Spanish. I felt horrible that I couldn’t meet their needs — no one prepared me for the linguistic and cultural diversity of my first class. I did what I could to help them and my students ended up just fine, but the truth is, I was not. I was overwhelmed, stressed out and scared. Given what I went through then, I can’t imagine what educators today must be feeling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic and emotional crises as efforts to safely reopen schools continue.
Even though the Biden administration is increasing access to vaccines, along with resources to help address local budget shortfalls and hire more teachers, school counselors and nurses, mental health and anxiety are real — especially for educators and students of color who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in many ways. Families of color may be unable to get access to vaccines with new coronavirus variants appearing; the associated economic crisis has put intensive strain on communities of color; and fights for racial justice continue.
Students and educators of color are dealing with not only the impacts of the pandemic, but also difficult current events such as the Derek Chauvin trial — experiencing the details of George Floyd’s murder all over again. What happens outside the classroom dramatically impacts Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) inside the classroom, in addition to concerns regarding school climate and unfair school discipline.
The Biden administration is right to put forth funds to help schools and districts reopen safely. But the success of reopening and the recovery will depend somewhat on teachers’ mental health and psychological well-being. Teacher burnout from increased stress is real; we could lose teachers, particularly BIPOC teachers, in large numbers if it’s not addressed.
According to a recent study by RAND Corporation, 55 percent of a sampling of former public school teachers quit in the two years leading up to the pandemic, and the others left after March 2020. For some teachers in the study, the pandemic exacerbated already high stress levels by forcing teachers to, among other things, work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment. For Black teachers in the RAND study, a higher proportion left the teaching profession during the pandemic than before — 11 percent compared to 7 percent.
In general, BIPOC teachers experience high levels of stress on the job. For example, a recent George Mason University study found that Black teachers’ experiences of racism create high levels of stress and take a toll on their psychological well-being. Similarly, in a study by The Education Trust, Black and Latino teachers reported that they believe their race positively influenced their work with students but created additional stress in the workplace (e.g., lack of authority, microaggressions), thus impeding their professional growth.
Many organizations, such as Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools program, have developed teacher wellness programs that address stress through self-care practices. There are numerous wellness programs that can serve as a resource for BIPOC teachers in school districts. For example, in Los Angeles, the BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health) Collective provides mental health and wellness resources for Black communities. Local nonprofit organizations, such as BEAM, in partnership with school districts can provide the necessary mental health and wellness support for BIPOC teachers, hence decreasing their stress and increasing their retention.
President Biden’s plan for reopening schools must include funds for building a culture of educator self-care — especially for those working in high-need communities and those who are directly impacted by systemic racism and oppression while helping students navigate those same challenges. Spaces where teachers can share experiences, emotions and coping strategies for challenging situations can reduce burnout — and there are lessons we can draw from doctors. For example, in a 2015 study involving physicians, protected time (one hour of paid time every other week) for participants was provided for mindfulness, reflection and shared-experience sessions. At the end of the study, the physicians’ emotional exhaustion and overall burnout decreased substantially.
Studies indicate that teachers’ stress decreases with increased confidence and job preparation. Funding for teachers to attend self-care sessions, including mindfulness training, counseling and coaching sessions, is warranted. Above all, teachers need ongoing, embedded professional development to address the multitude of challenges during in-person schooling.
The bottom line is that teachers’ stress — especially for those most underserved — must be addressed to ensure successful school reopenings. As advocates, we can help by asking the Biden administration to make that a reality.
Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Education at American University. She has 30 years of experience as a former kindergarten teacher, elementary school counselor, family therapist, and most recently university professor and administrator. She is the author of “School Counseling to Close the Achievement Gap: A Social Justice Framework for Success” and the upcoming book, “Antiracist Counseling in Schools and Communities.” Follow her on Twitter @chm91364.
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