Research Insights: Improving Teacher Well-Being
Marc A. Brackett
and Wendy Baron
In spring 2017, educators across the United States answered these questions as part of the Emotion Revolution for Educators survey, a joint initiative between the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and New Teacher Center, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
In the study, we wanted to unpack teachers’ current emotional reality and explore links between educators’ emotional lives and school-related experiences. Using social media and outreach to like-minded organizations such as Edutopia and NAIS, as well as connecting directly with schools, nearly 7,000 educators from across the nation completed the survey. The full survey results will be released in a series of scholarly papers throughout 2018. Here, we compare some initial results from the national sample to approximately 500 teachers recruited from NAIS.
How Teachers Feel
First, teachers were asked to describe in their own words the three most frequent emotions they felt each day at school. The top three feelings from the national sample were frustrated, overwhelmed, and stressed, whereas the top three from teachers in the NAIS sample were: frustrated, joyful/happy, and excited. “Frustrated” was by far the most mentioned emotion for all teachers. It appears private school teachers report greater happiness and excitement than teachers who work in public or charter schools. It’s also noteworthy that the private school teachers who participated in this research reported less anxiety-related emotions like stress.
We then asked teachers how they want to feel at school. The top three emotions that teachers in the national sample wanted to feel were: happy, appreciated/valued, and supported, whereas the top hoped-for emotions for teachers in the NAIS sample were: joy/joyful, happy, and excited. It appears that teachers in public schools have a greater need for appreciation and support than teachers who work in private schools.
Why Teachers’ Emotions Matter
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we study how emotions drive effective teaching and learning, the decisions students and educators make, the quality of teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships, and both student and educator well-being and school climate. We assert that emotions matter a great deal in school for four primary reasons.
Attention, memory, and learning. Joy and excitement harness attention and promote greater engagement. Boredom and stress disrupt concentration and interfere with learning. Chronic stress can result in the persistent activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Prolonged release of cortisol impacts brain structures associated with executive functioning and memory.
Decision-making. Strong, negative emotions can hijack the brain in ways that make wise decision-making impossible. In contrast, people in pleasant moods tend to evaluate individuals, places, and events more favorably compared with people in unpleasant moods. Pleasant moods also tend to enhance mental flexibility and creativity.
Relationships. Emotions are signals about changes in relationships. For example, the emotions that teachers feel each day in class influence teacher-student bond. Teachers who display frustration and anger often alienate students, and that can influence students’ sense of safety and belongingness in the classroom and their ability to learn.
Health and well-being. How we feel influences our physical and mental health. Stress, for example, is associated with increased levels of cortisol, which has been shown to lead to weight gain. Positive moods are associated with higher levels of serotonin, which has been shown to curb one’s appetite. Pleasant emotions, in general, provide health benefits, including greater resilience.
The good news is that many of the independent school teachers in this study reported experiencing more positive than negative emotions in school. The bad news across private and public school teachers: Everyone is reporting feeling frustration, which when prolonged can lead to stress, poor health, depression, anxiety, disruptive sleep patterns, and decreased focus. These consequences eventually can lead to low performance, increased absenteeism, high turnover, and low student achievement.
Closing the Emotion Gap
One important finding across all types of schools in this study is that a healthy school climate—where teachers and parents support one another, teachers and administrators get along well, and teachers care about one another and are committed to their students—correlates positively with teachers’ reports of more positive and fewer negative emotions. Moreover, positive emotions appear to be a protective factor against burnout, including emotional exhaustion, lower turnover intent, mental health problems, sleep problems, and absenteeism.
The question now becomes: How can schools create healthy, prosocial climates that will best support teachers to help them become more resilient and thrive? Current research shows that most effective approaches include a focus on building a positive school climate and infusing evidence-based practices to develop teachers’ emotion skills.
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we developed RULER (ruler.yale.edu), an evidence-based approach to social-emotional learning (SEL). In validating the effectiveness of RULER, we found that it enhances classroom emotional climate, reduces burnout, and enhances academic achievement. RULER is grounded in emotional intelligence and systems theories and is built upon decades of research showing that the skills associated with recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion are essential to effective teaching, learning, and leading. Importantly, RULER starts with training adults so they can develop key emotion skills and be role models before infusing practices into the classroom.
Coaching is another approach that prevents stress and helps teachers develop strategies for managing it. New Teacher Center’s mentoring and induction model has been found to strengthen relationships and collegiality, resulting in a supportive environment for beginning teachers. Mentors and new teachers discuss challenges such as those related to student behavior and communication with families, often sources of stress for new teachers. Mentors help new teachers establish a prosocial culture, climate, and community in the classroom, which is the very foundation for social and emotional learning.
For teachers to perform at their best and thrive in all aspects of their lives, we need to close the “feelings gap.” Emotions are a power source waiting to be constructively tapped. Fortunately, more and more schools are seeing the benefits of SEL training on educator and student outcomes; more schools of education are starting to integrate preparation in the area; and more policies around SEL are being considered. If we want our teachers and youth to succeed, schools must be places where SEL is integrated into how leaders lead, teachers teach, and students learn.