By Virginia Meyers
Putting the Focus on Well-Being
As more and more of us return to school, many educators are focused on students’ mental health, helping them transition back to in-person classes and learning. But equally important is the mental health of the people who work with them—the educators themselves.
That’s why the AFT has launched an educator health and well-being campaign, a multiyear, multipartner endeavor. Committed to offering resources and opportunities to help teachers improve their mental wellness as well as creating programs to support their emotional and physical well-being, the campaign launched on Sept. 20 with an interactive session full of practical tools and strategies for managing stress.
Kicking off the session, AFT President Randi Weingarten talked about the burden placed on educators and the conflicting emotions we all experience. “[Educators] have their teacher, their bus driver, their para face on,” she said. “They’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got our kids back! We’re so glad!’” But they’re also experiencing anxiety. As Weingarten put it, they’ve had to “turn on a dime,” distracted by worries about hybrid learning, remote learning, vaccines and COVID-19 safety protocols. “All of this is going on while they have their happy face on.”
Seventy-three percent of educators surveyed report feeling stress and strain over the pandemic, twice the number of other adult workers. “We need to help them,” said Weingarten. “We need to find ways we can lift them up … so that people feel the same kind of joy and fulfillment and sense of calmness that we’re trying to [ensure] for our kids.”
Relationships are key
What are the keys to relieving that stress? Panelist Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior scientific adviser at Turnaround for Children, said, “Relationships are my No. 1 strategy for stress.”
Explaining that stress is a natural reaction to experiences of uncertainty—and pointing out that the pandemic has brought fear regarding safety, instructional loss, economic instability, social isolation and more—Cantor reassured participants that “humans have some powerful tools to combat the stress of uncertainty and fear.” Cultivating the natural hormone oxytocin is one of them, and relationships stoke that supply.
In addition to nurturing strong relationships, Cantor recommends adopting routines, even if they are simple. “Routines put life back into our control, no matter how small,” she said. A walk in the morning or an hour away from email every day can make a big difference.
Boston Teachers Union member Thomas Boyd-Foster agreed. He described the network of teachers he connects with by Zoom every Friday to vent about stress or share funny stories. It’s easy to get caught up in long hours and weekends full of work, he added. For him, family, healthy eating, even exercising, which helps ground him, took a “back burner.” But once he paused long enough for a session with Educators Thriving, a program to help educators balance their lives, he was able to realign and realize, as he put it, “It’s OK if I stop now and do a 10-minute walk. It’s OK to spend time for me.”
Student “changemaker” Victoria Ren suggested that these sorts of conscious decisions can create new realities. “Instead of accepting what is happening to us, we can question it,” she said. “That can bring a lot of the hope and joy in community that we’ve been looking for.”
Outside support and internal reflection
Of course, the system has to support these sorts of changes. Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, recognized the responsibility of school leaders to establish supportive environments for educator health and wellness. Again, relationships are key: Understanding people’s needs, he said, “comes from these intentional efforts to build strong and positive relationships and building trust.” He advocates for creating multiple venues for people to engage—in small or large groups, formal or informal interactions.
Advocating for all school districts to include supports like this—time and space for relationships and self-care—is the work of the union, said Weingarten. “How do we align schools and school settings so that this becomes the norm and not the exception?”
Workshop participants dived deeper in breakout Zoom rooms. A session on the five most common pitfalls leading to teacher burnout—and how to avoid them—came from Educators Thriving. There was a session on managing overwhelm and uncertainty led by Fuel Education, a nonprofit organization working to cultivate emotionally intelligent educators and relationship-driven schools. Another workshop with the AFT’s Leven Chuck Wilson used self-reflection and positive thinking exercises to remind participants they are in control of their own narratives.
A panel of teachers offered a practice that uses slowing down, discernment, empathy and self-permission to handle real-life challenges. And Girls on the Run leader Molly Barker applied lessons learned from addiction to inform self-care practices that lead to balance and peace of mind.
More workshops like this one will be forthcoming; and an online health and wellness community group on Share My Lesson extends the support. To know when future sessions are available and access free resources, join the community. To provide feedback on what educators need most, join this discussion. To see more AFT resources on dealing with stress, go to this collection on Share My Lesson.