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School districts take action to alleviate teacher stress and burnout

With Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” in the background, about 20 New Hampshire educators grabbed wooden sticks and began pounding their tables to the beat.

Emily Daniels, who was leading a two-day burnout workshop, encouraged the group of teachers, school counsellors, occupational therapists and social workers to stand in a hotel conference room. Before long, the group was hitting the walls and everything they could find. Laughter filled the air. A few started dancing.

“Creating rhythm gives the body a different kind of predictability that you can do every day,” said Daniels, a former school counselor who created The Regulated Classroom which trains teachers to manage their own nervous system and, in turn , reduce stress. in the classroom.

The training session is part of a growing and, some would say, long-standing effort to tackle pressures on the mental health of educators.

Responding to student mental health issues emerging from the pandemic has become a priority for schools across the country. Many districts, facing hiring challenges, see caring for educators as a way to help them help and retain students, amid stressors ranging from behavioral issues to fears. of shootings.

School districts have provided increased mental health training to staff, classroom support, and resources and systems to identify burnt-out teachers and connect instructors to help.

Karen Bowden-Gurley, a 5th grade teacher, said she took the New Hampshire training because of teacher burnout, but she also felt student burnout.

“The demands on all of us were very high and we were trying to make up for the lost time during the few years when they fell back on their program. But we forgot that they hadn’t been to school for a few years, so they missed that socio-emotional part. We deal with this in class. »

In an investigation by the Rand Corporation, twice as many principals and teachers reported frequent work-related stress as other working adults. A study of a coalition mental health organizations in New Orleans found that educators working during the pandemic reported similar rates of emotional distress as healthcare workers – 36% tested positive for anxiety, 35% for depression and 19% for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Everything is very bad,” said Leigh McLean, senior researcher at the Teacher Emotions, Features, and Health Lab at the University of Delaware School of Education, who found levels of depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion in primary school teachers. 100 to 400% more than before the pandemic.

She saw these issues increase the most among early career teachers and teachers of color.

“So it seems that the trends among teachers reflect the inequalities we see in the general population, with underrepresented groups being hit the hardest, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

Some districts have or plan to invest federal COVID-19 relief funds in teacher mental health, seeing it as a way to also improve the classroom environment, boost retention, and ultimately benefit the students themselves. Among the states that designate teacher mental health as priorities are Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

The Atlanta School District launched a service with Emory University using federal funds to provide mental health services. Called Urgent Behavioral Health Response, it funds 11 Emory clinicians who provide emotional and behavioral assistance during school hours to struggling school employees.

A district in Delaware, meanwhile, has hired two social and emotional learning coaches who work to address issues faced by teachers in the classroom.

“If you can imagine a teacher having a classroom where students are engaged, they help each other, and there’s a positive supportive culture, their job satisfaction is likely to be higher,” Jon said. Cooper, director of health and health of the Colonial School District. wellness center. “They are less likely to leave the profession, which promotes their well-being.”

Houston, which has started building soothing rooms where students can go to decompress, hopes to do the same for teachers, according to Houston Independent School District senior crisis response manager Sean Ricks, noting he’s seen a “significant increase in the number of teachers”. who were in distress.

The rooms would be different from traditional teacher break rooms and a place for teachers to go in their free time to “calm down and relax,” Ricks said, adding that they could have “had aromatherapy, can -be soft music”.

“We want them to be able to understand that sometimes we need to take mindfulness breaks and self-care breaks during the college day,” Ricks said.

An elementary school in Indiana starts the week with Mindful Mondays, where teachers guide their classes in deep breathing techniques. There are also Reflective Thursdays, where a student is invited to write a letter to a staff member to show their appreciation, and Focus Fridays, when students and teachers talk about self-care.

“My teachers know that when they have to take breaks throughout the day, I want them to take those breaks,” said Allison Allen-Lenzo, principal of O’Bannon Elementary School.

A growing number of groups are offering training that incorporates breathing exercises, yoga, gentle movement and meditation.

One of them is Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education or CARE. In studies of its use with 224 New York City teachers, researchers found statistically significant improvements, including reductions in emotional psychological distress, time stress, and improvements in the quality of teaching. classroom interactions. The researchers also found that this extended to students who showed increased engagement.

“Your stress levels can rise without you even realizing it because your attention is so outwardly focused on everything that’s going on around you,” said Tish Jennings, a professor of education at the University. of Virginia who led the team that developed CARE and was the principal investigator. study the program. “So what these practices do is build the ability to be more aware of how you’re feeling at any given moment, so you can be proactive.”

Back in New Hampshire, educators pushed the tables apart and mastered a series of stretching movements known as qigong. Then they gathered in a circle for an exercise to synchronize their nervous system. Known as the Collective Rhythm, they began clapping and snapping their fingers in unison.

The Regulated Classroom educators I think these new tools – although at first sight a little unorthodox – have reinvigorated them. Bowden-Gurley felt they allowed her to “train her brain to think differently” and planned to use them in the classroom to build a better sense of community and more trust with her students.

Kelly Hurd, a kindergarten teacher, said the training gave her an idea of ​​what’s possible for the new school year.

“I love teaching and I love kids, but it’s also tough,” said Hurd, who experienced burnout before the pandemic and was part of the New Hampshire roster. “The pandemic has been so harsh, so impactful and so stressful. I feel a sense of renewal and excitement and feel like I’ve been given permission to have more fun and focus on joy in school.

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