As an adolescent psychologist, I spend a lot of time with teenagers. In spring 2020, however, I started to receive requests from school leaders who wanted to provide psychological support, focus groups, and other programming for—and about—adults in the school community. School leaders told me that anxiety, discontent, and anger were spreading faster than COVID-19 at a high school party. There were tensions, power struggles, hurt feelings, in-groups, and out-groups. Zoom meeting chats became so contentious they had to be disabled. Some folks were bursting into tears.
Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve come to understand even more how caring for students with increasingly complex, urgent mental health needs affects faculty and staff well-being and often presents in these unusual ways. Those who support traumatized children experience secondary trauma or what’s called compassion fatigue. Prominent researchers including Suniya S. Luthar and Mary Shelley Thomas, Shantel D. Crosby, and Judi Vanderhaar as well as author Karen Gross have written about how teachers’ empathic responses take a toll, stemming from “vicarious traumatization” as well as the energy expenditure required to respond thoughtfully to students’ distress.
So many educators continue to push past burnout despite the visible and devastating effects, and the number of teachers leaving the profession continues to raise concerns. A big part of my job has involved facilitating dialogue between faculty and staff and school leaders about how best to support adults on campus. And even though winter break may have offered adults who work with students a chance to catch their breath and reset for the new year, as schools reopen, school leaders must remain vigilant to the health and well-being of faculty and staff.
So, knowing what we know now, how can schools convert the good intentions of supporting adult health and well-being with a few good initiatives to truly supporting faculty and staff so they stay in their roles and feel healthy for our students? I recommend a few first steps that schools can take now.
Provide professional support. Teachers are often the first to notice when a student is struggling emotionally, and trusted teachers or coaches are the first people students seek for help. They are also the ones who are experiencing more anxiety and depression, as well as a range of trauma, which limits their capacity to effectively support students. To help sustain themselves so they can help students, at a minimum, it’s important to ensure that school employee policies include coverage for mental health care.
Model a support system. Like our students, adults regress when pressure is high. Their work with students may leave them with little energy to hold it together among their peers. But there’s something school leaders can do when they themselves are feeling spent: ask for help and consider collective input. By modeling this among faculty and staff, adults will have the opportunity to share their thoughts, and it will send a strong signal that the leader is listening.
Schools can also make it clear that when leadership team members send non-emergent messages in the evenings or on weekends, a timely response isn’t required. Let parents know that they should not expect a response during evenings or weekends. Protect employees’ personal time and give them permission to give themselves some breathing room.
Give the initiatives a boost. One teacher told her dean of faculty in 2021, “If I see one more piece of advice about self-care, I’m gonna scream!” Offering free yoga classes is great, but it’s not enough for many teachers. The folks I’ve heard from have been clear that time is a hot commodity and money talks. Consider offering an additional day off (or even a half-day) so teachers can catch up—on grading or sleep. If a raise isn’t in the offing, gift certificates for takeout food or a stipend for backup child care (or elder care) services are extremely useful. Other material resources that go a long way are tuition discounts for faculty and staff children and workable rates for health insurance premiums, including for dependents.
Make room for all voices. A faculty meeting can be like a classroom with its mix of personalities and varying levels of participation. Some people need encouragement to speak up, while others need encouragement to give someone else a chance to share. You may suspect someone has much to offer, so ask them privately if there are things they want to add and ask how best to make room for them. If all else fails, you can lightly imply the classroom parallel by proposing, “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken.”
Be transparent. School leaders should be honest, direct, and comprehensive unless there’s a clear reason not to be, such as student/family/faculty member confidentiality. Share as much information so colleagues feel included and have an opportunity to understand decisions. Share dilemmas, uncertainties, and misgivings. While it’s important to lead with confidence and reassurance, being open about the process humanizes the school leader and inspires a feeling of inclusion. This might look like: “The leadership team decided on X. We did weigh Y, and even Z. Both had their appeal and benefit, but here is why we’ve landed on X.”
Manage parent expectations. The majority of independent school parents are respectful and appreciative of faculty and staff, but the minority who are not can wield a lot of power. Another reality is that faculty and staff needs and student and family needs have been diametrically opposed at many times since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. As one teacher told me in 2021, “Some of the parents seem to have forgotten there’s a pandemic.”
Educate parents about what goes into making their children’s education what it is. Cultivate families’ appreciation for faculty and staff. Have a student journalist or a staff member interview a teacher about how they spend their days (and nights), and profile “A Day in the Life” in your next parent communication. Many parents are surprised to learn how many different things teachers do, what responsibilities they juggle, and how much time they spend in service of students.
Let listening be your superpower. Many kids don’t have a trusted adult who can truly hear them out, without judgment, without imposing their own anxiety. The same is true for adults. Not every predicament has a ready solution, but we all want to know that someone important is willing to listen. Reflect back what you hear, show that you understand, and empathize. A leader who listens fosters connection and enhances people’s resilience.
Offer flexibility and choice. In one of his viral articles, University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist Adam Grant dusted off an old yet timeless, empirically based model of job strain. Drawing on Robert Karasek’s Demand-Support-Control model, Grant reminds us that emotional exhaustion and workplace burnout can be prevented by decreasing demands, increasing support, and increasing control.
Even if demands are high, when employees feel supported and have some measure of choice and flexibility, they are much less likely to burn out. The biggest request I’ve heard from educators since 2020 is the need for time. School leaders can make it clear that teachers can manage their own schedules. For example, if a teacher needs to close their office door for a scheduled telehealth appointment during a time when they’re not teaching or supervising students, they are free to do so.
Speak up. If a colleague’s behavior is unfavorable or is too close to crossing the line—with students or colleagues—do something about it. Talk to an attorney, a consultant, a trusted colleague who will maintain your confidentiality. Figure out what you need to do.
If you are or once were a classroom teacher, my advice may sound familiar. The good news? It’s squarely in your wheelhouse. Like our students, faculty and staff thrive on trust, reality-acknowledgment, inclusion, transparency, protection, advocacy, listening, empathy, flexibility … and an occasional homework-free weekend.