A New Twist on Social-Emotional Learning: Prioritizing Educator Well-Being in the Age of COVID-19

In October of 2021, in the midst of yet another pandemic school year, I was flying from Minneapolis to Hartford, Connecticut, and was reminded again why we must prioritize educator well-being and social-emotional health. I was traveling back from a 48-hour trip to Minnesota where I attended the funeral of my grandfather who passed away from COVID-19, and as a teacher at a boarding school, I had relied on the kindness of my colleagues and friends to cover my four classes, evening dorm duty, field hockey practice, and advisory meeting.
I was seated on the plane with a latte and a large stack of midterm papers in my lap, zoning in and out of the flight attendant’s usual run-through of what to do in the event of an emergency. As the flight attendant, in his red and navy uniform and N-95 mask, was explaining how passengers must first put the oxygen mask on themselves before they attempt to help anyone else, the message I’ve heard so many times before landed differently.
Of course, the flight attendant was not speaking metaphorically; he was instructing passengers how to safely access oxygen. But as an English teacher, and one who was feeling particularly emotional, I couldn’t help but hear the deeper message: Educators must put on our oxygen masks first if we want to help students learn and grow. More specifically, we must develop our own social and emotional competencies before attempting to help students build their own.
As educators, we recognize the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) for our students, but do we extend that same thinking to each other––our colleagues and fellow faculty members? While it’s important that teachers grow their capacity to incorporate SEL into their classrooms, so too is it critical that teachers develop their own SEL competencies––and that administrators support and prioritize teachers’ emotional well-being.

Faculty Fatigue

In the Summer 2021 issue of Independent School magazine, NAIS president Donna Orem captured the exigence of centering well-being in education: “Addressing these challenges and rebuilding school communities centered around well-being may be the most important future work of independent schools, and the time to get started is now.”
Indeed, the time is now. With every passing day and marking period, teachers are becoming more and more fatigued, susceptible to mental health issues, and likely to change professions. The data describing faculty fatigue is abundant. In an August/September 2020 survey of more than 3,000 teachers, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) found that 75% of teachers surveyed are working more hours than before the pandemic. Yet only 28% of those teachers reported that their school or district provides access to counselors or other mental health resources during the pandemic.
This lack of access to mental health resources is particularly startling given just how many adults are experiencing a decline in their mental health. In “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” a February 2021 report, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020, up from 1 in 10 adults in 2019.
In addition to being more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, teachers are also facing higher levels of burnout. A November 2020 NAIS research report, “Student and Teacher Wellness During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” found that nearly all teachers (96%) often (56%) or sometimes (40%) feel worn out by their work as a teacher, with more than two-thirds (69%) feeling trapped by their job as a teacher often (23%) or sometimes (46%).
The NBPTS survey also polled teachers on burnout and found that 1 in 7 are now considering leaving the teaching profession. However, 96% of those individuals surveyed said they could be convinced to stay with stronger commitments to health and safety, resources and support, flexibility, or greater compensation. This last statistic gives me hope, but it also emphasizes that the stakes are high for prioritizing faculty social-emotional health.
Most recently, a study published in December 2021 in Psychology in the Schools explored the trajectory of teacher burnout over the course of the school year and whether a teacher’s emotional intelligence at the beginning of the school year could predict that trajectory. Not surprisingly, the study found that teachers with higher emotional intelligence scores were less likely to report burnout over the course of the school year.

Supporting Adult SEL

In her 2018 book, Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris A. Santoro articulates that almost all teachers have moral reasons for becoming teachers. Certainly, teaching is not a profession one enters for the money or fame. But compensation is a critical component of faculty emotional health and well-being.
School leaders must work to more fairly compensate faculty for the amount of work that they do. At a very basic level, faculty need to be able to afford to, for instance, pay student loans, save for their future, and/or see a therapist. On a deeper level, compensation is one way that institutions can show teachers that they value them and the work they do. And ultimately, fair compensation will help retain resilient and effective teacher leaders.
In addition to compensation, which is part of the larger school systems that support well-being and social-emotional health, there are things we can do every day to support our colleagues, faculty, and staff. In her book Dare to Lead, researcher and professor Brené Brown describes how trust, particularly in the workplace, is earned through the accumulation of small moments. In schools, small moments that build trust and demonstrate commitment to the well-being of adults, might look like this:
  • Communicate early and effectively. Send clear meeting agendas and calendar invitations at least three days in advance whenever possible.
  • Model and encourage work-life boundaries. Use the “Schedule Send” button in email to avoid sending messages after 5 p.m.
  • Celebrate successes. When a colleague does something worth celebrating, send them a quick email, write them a note, or give them a shout-out at the start of a meeting.
  • Say “no” and respect when others say it. The next time you’re asked to volunteer on a new committee or bake cookies for a fundraiser, and this commitment feels like too much for you, just say no. Normalize setting these boundaries, and respect your colleagues when they do the same.
  • Check in with and get to know your colleagues. Put your phone away and have a 10-minute uninterrupted conversation with someone. After spending months on Zoom, now is the time to take advantage of tech-free moments whenever possible.
For first-year teachers or longtime administrators, these small moments can go a long way in creating and supporting an SEL-rich environment in which adults feel seen and heard.

The Importance of Hope

When I started teaching, I didn’t know if it was going to be the path for me. Now, in my fourth year of teaching, I can say with my whole heart that teaching is my life’s work. I am hopeful that after 22 months of living in a pandemic, we will soon return to some kind of normalcy and that watching death counts rise on the evening news will become a thing of the past. In the meantime, I will continue to wear a mask, I will continue to teach, and I will continue to advocate fiercely and passionately for the social and emotional health of faculty.
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Kori Lynn Rimany

Kori Lynn Rimany is an English teacher at The Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut.