To promote success in schools, focus on teacher well-being

Kyle Schwartz (R), a 3rd grade teacher, works with student Chris Flores in her classroom at Doull Elementary School in Denver April 17, 2015. Schwartz, who posted notes from her third grade class online and started a social media whirlwind under the hashtag #WishMyTeacherKnew said on Friday the assignment had been a revelation for her.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking - GF10000063461

Without question, teachers are central to student success. Anyone who has taught knows how rewarding it is to witness student learning. Teaching can also be one of the most stressful, demanding, and undersupported professions, leading to national teacher strikes, shortages, and high rates of turnover. In fact, research shows that 46% of teachers report high levels of daily stress, which affects their health, quality of life, and teaching performance, and costs U.S. schools billions of dollars each year. Although almost everyone understands the importance of student well-being and how teachers impact students, there is much less consideration for the well-being of teachers themselves. Even when teacher well-being is considered, it is often narrowly defined and something teachers are expected to “fix” on their own. In honor of National Teacher Day in the United States, we explore why a more holistic approach to teacher well-being is needed to optimize success in schools.

Teacher well-being is often narrowly characterized by what it is not. As one teacher shares in an all-too-common scenario, “The hours are long, the pay is poor, and the paperwork piles up quickly; it’s easy to lose sight of why I became a teacher in the first place.” Research consistently shows that teachers who are more stressed are less likely to form close relationships with students, which can negatively impact student achievement.

However, well-being is much more than the absence of illness or stress, or even feeling content; it is about teachers flourishing more holistically. In contrast to the previous teacher’s statement, well-being could manifest in the following ways, “I feel balanced and supported; I have freedom to use my creativity to help my students succeed; I have opportunities to learn and advance in my career; I am fairly compensated; I have a network of support to help me overcome challenges.” Narrowly defining well-being as the absence of stress or the presence of a positive mood leads to equally narrow and short-sighted approaches to supporting well-being. We end up treating the symptom (e.g., teacher stress) instead of identifying and fixing root causes, such as the social, cultural, and historical influences (e.g., lack of support or growth opportunities, inadequate pay, policies that inhibit teacher autonomy, etc.). In other words, it is about more than just the individual teacher. A broader focus is needed when it comes to teacher well-being.

In fact, blog author, Amy Roberts, in collaboration with researchers at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, developed an ecological framework of teacher well-being (Figure 1), which identifies not only individual factors (shown in green) that are linked to teacher well-being, but also contextual factors (shown in blue). Although the framework was created with early childhood educators in mind, it is applicable to teachers working with students of various ages. By focusing only on the more “easily treatable” individual factors (sending teachers to trainings to build competencies, for instance), only a small sliver of well-being is addressed. If real change is to happen, the onus cannot be solely on the educators themselves; Workplaces, policies, and education systems must also work together to provide specific supports for teachers and change the culture around teaching to help reduce teacher stress, minimize the negative effects of that stress, and improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.

Figure 1: A conceptual framework for early childhood teacher well-being

Early childhood teacher well-being

Source: Gallagher, K., Roberts, A. M., & Rousseau, M. (2018, June). Teacher well-being: A conceptual framework for early childhood. Paper presented at the National Research Conference on Early Childhood, Arlington, VA. Framework adapted from Brigham et al., 2018.

Understanding that there are multiple factors that contribute to teacher well-being is an important first step in creating more comprehensive approaches for supporting teacher well-being. But it is, indeed, just the first step.

The following research, practice, and policy recommendations can inform next steps:

  • Research—Use broader approaches to study teacher well-being. To do so, create and refine measures of teacher well-being that more accurately capture the complexity of well-being. Design and test more holistic interventions for supporting teacher well-being. Incorporate teachers’ perspectives into studies.
  • Practice—Include teachers in the conversation. For example, gather information from teachers directly to understand what personal and contextual factors affect their well-being at work. Use this information to create more holistic approaches to support teacher well-being.
  • Policy—Multiple systems and organizations must work together to support teacher well-being. When policies are created or changed, consider how the policies will or do impact teachers. As much as possible, create policies that explicitly and holistically support teacher well-being. Teachers are the best reporters of their well-being, and as such, include teacher perspectives in policymaking decisions.

If the ultimate goal of education is to promote student success, teacher well-being must be a central consideration. Teachers cannot be expected to try harder, breathe deeper, and “fix” their well-being. Organizations, systems, and policies play a crucial role in supporting teacher well-being and our teachers deserve better.