School districts move to reduce teacher stress, burnout

CONCORD, NH (AP) — With Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” blaring in the background, about 20 New Hampshire educators grabbed wooden sticks and began banging their desks to the beat.

Emily Daniels, who led a two-day workshop on burnout, encouraged the group of teachers, school counselors, occupational therapists and social workers to stand inside a hotel conference room. Before long, the team was hitting walls and anything else they could find. Laughter filled the air. A few started dancing.

“Creating a rhythm gives the body a different kind of predictability that you can do every day,” said Daniels, a former school counselor who created The Regulated Classroom, which teaches teachers how to manage their own nervous systems and, in turn, , to reduce stress. in the class.

The training session is part of a growing and, some would say overdue, effort to address the burden on teachers’ mental health.

Addressing student mental health challenges emerging from the pandemic has emerged as a priority for schools nationwide. Many districts, facing recruitment challenges, are looking to teacher care as a way to help them help students and retain them amid stressors ranging from behavior problems to shooting fears.

School districts have provided increased mental health training for staff, classroom support, and resources and systems aimed at identifying burned-out teachers and connecting educators for help.

Karen Bowden-Gurley, a fifth-grade teacher, said she attended the New Hampshire training because of teacher burnout, but she also feels student burnout.

“The demands on all of us were really high and we were trying to make up for lost time for the two years that fell behind their curriculum. But we forgot that they were out of school for a few years, so they missed that social-emotional part. We deal with it in class.”

In a Rand Corporation survey, twice as many principals and teachers reported frequent work-related stress as other working adults. A study by a New Orleans coalition of mental health organizations found that teachers working during the pandemic reported rates of emotional distress similar to health care workers — 36% tested positive for anxiety, 35% for depression and 19% for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“It’s all pretty bad,” said Leigh McLean, the principal investigator at the Teacher Emotions, Characteristics, and Health Lab at the University of Delaware School of Education, which found levels of depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion among elementary school teachers. 100% to 400% higher than before the pandemic.

She saw these issues rise more among early career teachers and teachers of color.

“So it seems that the patterns among teachers are mirroring the disparities we see in the general population with underrepresented groups being hit hardest, which is really unfortunate,” he said.

Some districts have or plan to invest federal COVID-19 aid money in teacher mental health, seeing it as a way to also improve the classroom environment, boost retention and ultimately benefit the students themselves. Among the states that single out teacher mental health as priorities are Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

The Atlanta school district has started a service with Emory University using federal funds to provide mental health services. Called Urgent Behavioral Health Response, it funds 11 Emory clinicians who provide emotional and behavioral help during school hours to struggling school employees.

A Delaware district, meanwhile, has hired two social and emotional learning instructors who work to address problems teachers face in the classroom.

“If you can imagine that a teacher has a classroom where students are engaged, helping each other, and there’s a positive supportive culture, their job satisfaction is likely to be higher,” said Jon Cooper, Colonial’s director of health School District and Wellness Department. “They are less likely to leave the profession and in turn, this supports their well-being.”

Houston, which started building calm rooms where students can go to decompress, hopes to do the same for teachers, according to Sean Ricks, senior director of intervention at the Houston Independent School District, noting that he has seen “ significant increase in teachers who were distressed.”

The rooms would be different from traditional teacher break rooms and a place where teachers could go during free time to “chill out and relax,” Ricks said, adding that they “could have some aromatherapy, maybe some soft music.’

“We want them to be able to understand that sometimes we need to take attention and self-care breaks during the academic day,” Ricks said.

An Indiana elementary school kicks off the week with Mindful Mondays, where teachers guide their classes in deep breathing techniques. There are also Thinking Thursdays, where a student is asked to write a letter to a staff member to show appreciation, and Friday Focus, when students and teachers talk about self-care.

“My teachers know when they need to take breaks throughout the day, I want them to take those breaks,” said Alison Allen-Lenzo, the principal at O’Bannon Elementary School.

A growing number of groups offer training that includes breathing exercises, yoga, gentle movement and meditation.

One of these is cultivating awareness and resilience in education or care. In studies of its use in 224 New York City teachers, researchers found statistically significant improvements, including reductions in emotional distress, time stress, and improvements in quality classroom interactions. The researchers also found that it extended to students who showed increased engagement.

“Your stress level can increase without you even realizing it because your attention is so outwardly focused on everything else going on around you,” said Tish Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who led the team that developed CARE and was the principal investigator. studying the program. “So what these practices do is build the ability to be more aware of how you’re feeling in any given moment so you can be proactive.”

Back in New Hampshire, teachers pushed aside tables and mastered a series of stretching movements known as qigong. They then gathered in a circle for an exercise designed to synchronize their nervous systems. Known as a collective rhythm maker, they began clapping their hands and snapping their fingers at the same time.

Educators in The Regulated Classroom training believe that these new tools—though a bit unorthodox at first glance—have revitalized them. Bowden-Gurley felt they allowed her to “train her brain to think differently,” and she planned to use them in the classroom to build a better sense of community and more trust with her students.

Kelly Hurd, a kindergarten teacher, said the training gave her a sense of what’s possible going into the new school year.

“I love teaching and I love the kids, but it’s also hard,” said Hurd, who experienced burnout before the pandemic and participated in the training in New Hampshire. “The pandemic has been so hard and so impactful and so stressful. I feel a sense of renewal and excitement and feel like I’ve been given permission to have more fun and focus on having fun at school.”


Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.


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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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