Encouraging Self-Care for Teachers May be More Condescending than it is Helpful
I quite literally grew up in schools. My dad was an educator and the sole breadwinner for our family. My earliest memories of his work include riding in his driver’s education vehicle, visiting him at his baseball practices, and meeting some of his students in the portable where he taught Mississippi history.
Later when he was an administrator, many of my summer days and after-school hours were spent roaming halls of empty buildings with teachers’ kids, helping file papers in the front office, and organizing textbooks in smelly, dark rooms tucked behind the gym locker rooms.
You could say that it is unsurprising that my family was a huge proponent of public-school education. We were people who viewed education as not only a career that serves and enriches ones’ community, but allows a person to balance family-rearing and work in a healthy, functional way.
And yet, I myself lasted less than three years as an educator in the public school system.
While my reasons for leaving the teaching profession were varied and personal, I am certainly not the only individual with a similar story.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the teaching profession in the United States was facing a potential mass exodus. In 2019, the 51st annual PDK poll (Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools), identified that “half of public-school teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession in recent years” (PDK poll).
Current Texas statistics are not any more encouraging. A survey conducted this February by the Texas American Federation of Teachers estimates that 66% of Texas educators have recently considered resigning .
It does not take a researcher to identify the obvious host of reasons for such sentiments to exist. Teachers who have resigned identify reasons such as burnout, “unfair” pay and long hours, lack of material and professional support, feeling undervalued, and experiencing high stress .
The feelings of being undervalued tend to be the presiding concern for educational researcher Doris Santoro, who studies what she calls “demoralization” of teachers.
Santoro distinguishes “demoralization” from “burnout” as such:
“Burnout suggests that a teacher has nothing more to give. However, teachers whom I would characterize as demoralized were most frustrated because they could not teach the way they believed was right” .
Teachers who are demoralized have a desire to teach in a way that they believe to be good, ethical work. Yet, their priorities become split when they are overworked with tasks not pertinent to what they believe enriches their classroom experience. These barriers to teaching can often lead to feeling stuck and undervalued.
What do our teachers need?
I was recently contemplating the difficult experiences that educators face, and wondered to myself how we as mental health professionals can encourage them. Could we maybe teach some self-care practices, I wondered? Maybe I’ll do a little back-to-school blog on it.
Then it occurred to me. More like, it hit me like a ton of bricks as I hovered over my keyboard:
For someone feeling demoralized, overworked, and stuck, being preached to about self-care might actually feel incredibly condescending.
I wanted to know if my hunch was correct.
Since I am not a trained research professional, I did the next best thing and asked my educator friends to respond to the following scenario:
“Administration encourages you to participate in self-care to offset school stress”
The responses were even more consistent than I expected.
“I roll my eyes.”
“When? I spend all my time at home doing work, too.”
“When they continue to pile work, assignments, and expectations that cannot be accomplished during our prescribed work hours, what else can we do except stay late to work on it, take it home to complete it, or not do it at all and worry and stress about the repercussions?”
“Give us the time to do [self-care].”
“Definitely contradictory! Usually, the stress comes from an overload of responsibilities.”
“I roll my eyes until I see action on their behalf suggesting they actually care.”
One of these individuals further shared that, in only the second week of the school year, they currently have extra school meetings during every planning period and after school every day of the week except Fridays. Maybe I am naïve, but a schedule like that does not seem to lend toward self-care, or even student care. When does this teacher find time to tackle the regular, daily tasks of teaching?
In my readings about the nationwide concern of teacher frustrations, I ran across a few other expressive ways to describe what it feels like to be told to practice self-care in the midst of feeling demoralized.
One teacher described the advice with the age-old metaphor of a “Band-Aid” on a gaping wound .
“I feel like I’m drowning, and they throw you a rubber ducky. Rubber duckies are cute and all, but I’m not in a position to take it [because] I’m literally drowning” .
So essentially my hunch was correct. Teachers who feel demoralized will laugh in the face of recommendations to simply “take better care of themselves” as means to managing work stress.
It is incredibly patronizing and hurtful to suggest that teachers’ personal emotional management can fix their overload of external stressors. It is like saying, “This isn’t too much to accomplish; you just aren’t doing it right.” When in reality, the workload is out of control.
I am fearful that we are on the brink of losing the heart and soul of public education
Y’all, I know a lot of educators. A whole lot.
And let me tell you, the educators I know are exceptional people who entered the field for reasons that align closely with their morals and passion to do good work for children. The responses from these upstanding individuals were very congruent with Santoro’s assertion that those seeking to do ethically well are the exact people in the education field who are feeling demoralized. They are the ones who no longer feel as if their work is good in the way that they want it to be. They feel that the way they know they can teach is stifled by policy and non-pertinent tasks to their central job of teaching.
The National Educator’s Association was blunt about this problem in a recent article:
To avoid a “Great Resignation,” districts need to make substantive changes to reduce stress and improve morale in schools. “Educators don’t need any more chair massages or Casual Fridays,” says one expert. “This is about support and autonomy” .
Teachers don’t need superficial, obligatory remarks about how they should take care of themselves. Goodness knows they especially do not need to be spending precious daylight hours sitting through mandatory workshops about self-care and stress management.
Teachers are telling us what they need: Time and space to hone their crafts in a way that benefits students.
Consider this: If the teachers craving to participate in good, ethical work leave the profession due to demoralization, what kind of educators do we have left?
Teachers need change. They need support from the community, policymakers, and institutions.
So what do we do?
Of course, I had to consult with my Dad on this one, who has witnessed education policy trends firsthand for over 40 years and currently works in a capacity mentoring administrators.
In short, Dad suggested that the bulk of frustrating, non-didactic tasks for teachers “coming down the pipeline” were decided much further up the ladder than the school administrator. However, these policies place admins in a position to deliver news that may make themselves feel demoralized.
His suggestions to administrators are to provide practical ways to lessen teachers’ loads. Many new tasks and expectations are unavoidable. But it is easy to say things like “here is a new item for your agenda. But I will never add something to your plate without taking something else off.” But of course, admins must FOLLOW THROUGH with that statement. Next time the district requires a fancy new task for teachers to complete, he recommends that an admin allow those teachers to turn in less-specific lesson plans moving forward, or allow them to use a professional development day to actually complete classroom work instead of attending full days of irrelevant trainings.
Administrators can use empathy and intentionality to actually, tangibly lessen the loads for teachers to the best of their ability.
Other experts suggest offering ways to let teachers get involved with brainstorming solutions to problems. Admins can be the advocates for these ideas to the district superintendents and school boards.
Public school education is not a lost cause if there is community support for the passionate men and women who desperately want to use their creativity and God-given talents to teach effectively and passionately.
Does this have you heartbroken? Find a way to serve.
I usually end such writings with a series of ways to solve some highlighted concerns. But to be honest, this particular topic has me feeling fairly discouraged myself.
I don’t have any sweeping, generalized answers for how to solve the Texas teacher shortage, demoralization, or mass exit of seasoned educators.
But what I do know is that all of us know a teacher who is feeling demoralized, whether they have spoken about it or not. And it is August. So here are a few tiny ways to support the teachers in your life during a hectic and exhausting time of year.
- Have a coffee delivered to them at school if their campus allows deliveries (Because goodness knows they aren’t able to leave their campus to pick it up themselves).
- Choose one of their Amazon Wishlists to purchase items from. Many teachers spend hundreds of dollars a year buying supplies for their classrooms and students
- Make double of your dinner one night and drop it off for a family of educators. Better yet, make a couple of meals for them that they can freeze and have on hand.
- Give them a gift certificate to have their house or car cleaned
- Offer to help with menial classroom tasks before school starts or on the weekends (like completing bulletin boards, stapling worksheet packets, cleaning out a classroom closet, etc)
- Pray with them and for them.
- Whatever you do, do NOT offhandedly and vaguely suggest they increase their self-care unless you are willing to take something off of their plate so that they are able to have a moment to themselves.
1. 51st Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. (2019, September). Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://pdkpoll.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/pdkpoll51-2019.pdf
2. Klein, A. (2022, March 1). Superficial self-care? stressed-out teachers say no thanks. Education Week. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/superficial-self-care-stressed-out-teachers-say-no-thanks/2022/03
3. Lopez, B. (2022, July 19). Rural Texas districts struggling to attract teachers are switching to four-day school weeks. The Texas Tribune. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/19/texas-schools-four-day-weeks/
4. Lopez, B. (2022, July 25). It’s not just covid-19: Why Texas faces a teacher shortage. The Texas Tribune. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/25/texas-teacher-shortage/
5. Ozamiz-Etxebarria, N., Idoiaga Mondragon, N., Bueno-Notivol, J., Pérez-Moreno, M., & Santabárbara, J. (2021). Prevalence of anxiety, depression, and stress among teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic: A rapid systematic review with meta-analysis. Brain Sciences, 11(9), 1172. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11091172
6. Potash, B. (2021, December 29). What we can do about teacher demoralization. Spark Creativity. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://nowsparkcreativity.com/2021/12/143-what-we-can-do-about-teacher-demoralization-with-doris-santoro.html
7. Santoro, D. A. (2018). Demoralized: Why teachers leave the profession they love and How they can stay. Harvard Education Press.
8. Santoro, D. A. (2019, November 25). The problem with stories about teacher ‘Burnout’. kappanonline.org. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://kappanonline.org/teacher-burnout-stories-moral-objections-santoro/
9. Stieber, D. (2022, February 14). America’s teachers aren’t burned out. we are demoralized. – edsurge news. EdSurge. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2022-02-14-america-s-teachers-aren-t-burned-out-we-are-demoralized
10. Walker, T. (2021, November 12). Getting serious about teacher Burnout. NEA. Retrieved August 7, 2022, from https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/getting-serious-about-teacher-burnout