Is anyone considering the social and emotional needs of teachers?

This is a good piece on something that seldom gets any real consideration – the rise in teacher stress.

Yes, we all talk about how teaching has become harder and how so much more is being asked of schools, from policing children’s social media to keeping them safe from an active shooter.

Yet, we continue to pile responsibilities on teachers, including the social and emotional well-being of their students. We are now asking teachers to go beyond teaching multiplication tables to delivering the critical life skills that kids must have to thrive in the world. 

In a guest column, University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky and Stacia L. Long, a UGA doctoral student in language and literacy education, assert we should be offering social and emotional support to teachers to help them cope with an increasingly demanding job. We also should learn what the job entails to understand why teachers are so stressed.

By Stacia L. Long & Peter Smagorinsky

The social and emotional needs of students have gotten a lot of attention in the press and among researchers in recent years. 

The Social and Emotional Learning or SEL movement addresses the ability of students to manage their emotional lives so that their social behavior allows them to function well, and perhaps thrive, as learners and eventually in the workplace.

We support that ambition. We know from having taught, however, that teachers’ emotional lives also merit attention. Teachers’ emotional lives get no attention in a policy world in which they are regarded as technicians. In this conception, how they feel about their work is irrelevant.

Teachers’ emotional lives also get little attention in the public conversation about education. Teachers are under stress from many quarters. In school, teachers feel the stress of testing mandates that could affect their job security. Increasingly, they are threatened by their own students. Teachers fear mass violence, leading a Michigan high school to redesign its hallways to reduce the sight lines for active shooters armed with high-powered weapons.

Teachers also experience secondary traumatic stress from working with students who themselves are affected by stress. They experience continual tension in managing classrooms where students test boundaries. Teachers are stressed by a lack of financial support for schools and the need to spend their own money for classroom resources.

Even though many in the public believe teachers work short hours with long vacations, these assumptions are contradicted by studies showing teachers to be overworked and unappreciated.

And that’s just in school. At home, teachers have the same stressors everyone else must manage as they experience the vicissitudes of life. They struggle with their finances, work to maintain relationships, deal with devastating personal losses, care for people who struggle with life’s challenges, experience health problems, get married and divorced, and much more.

In the eyes of many, teachers are supposed to be able to deal with any form of conflict or stress and act gracefully and with propriety. They must be level-headed, fair, caring, and generous -- no matter what comes their way.

This ideal, however, is often thwarted by the ebb and flow of teachers’ lives in and out of school. We are not excusing extreme cases of teachers and other school personnel acting out their emotional lives inappropriately at school. We are concerned with the ways in which stress from both inside and outside the school affects teachers’ private and professional lives.

The L in SEL includes attention to Learning. Teachers should be learners if they are to grow as educators. If we were to revise SEL for teachers, the Learning would concern what others need to learn about teachers’ social and emotional lives and the stressors they experience. Recognizing and learning about teachers’ social and emotional humanity might alter the public perception of what is involved in a career in schools.

This knowledge would help others understand how teachers’ social and emotional lives affect not only instruction, but many other aspects of a teacher’s day. Teachers help students manage their emotional ups-and-downs outside the classroom, deal with their parents, collaborate with colleagues, mediate the ground between kids and counselors, navigate the administrative terrain, and have duties in hallways and cafeterias. These relationships can be affected by the emotional contexts that shape their conduct.

University of Missouri researchers found that 93% of elementary teachers surveyed experienced high levels of stress. The researchers conclude, “To help students succeed, don’t ignore the well-being of teachers…We as a society need to consider methods that create nurturing school environments not just for students, but for the adults who work there.”

Beyond the day-to-day consequences of stress, teachers experience burnout that may be implicated in anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “It is critical that schools proactively address mental health issues in the workplace because, in some cases, not doing so can result in unintended consequences (i.e.: ineffective teaching, teacher self-harm and/or suicide, etc.).”

When schools are permeated by stressful environmental factors, everyone’s health is at risk. There are consequences affecting everything from students’ learning to teachers’ persistence in the profession.

No one can eliminate drama and trauma from people’s lives. Understanding that teachers experience them in ways that affect both their teaching and personal well-being, however, is possible -- even amid policies that treat teachers as cogs in the accountability machinery or performers of a teaching script written by someone outside their classrooms.

Indeed, the feelings of frustration that teachers experience when denied agency in determining how to teach is among the factors that contribute to their emotional angst.

The University of Missouri researchers concluded school cultures can be changed when administrators provide support services such as stress management workshops or relaxation training; provide proactive screening to identify early signs of burnout; and foster a positive school culture to help insulate teachers from external stressors and decrease feelings of isolation.

We agree, but also see the need for people outside the school system to seek to understand the workday lives of teachers and how stress affects their work and relationships with kids. A school culture is nested within a community, which often helps to create the climate in which education takes place. 

Community members who care for their schools’ teachers can help them feel valued and respected. Such care might appear in a variety of everyday gestures, from replies to emails to cards during times of illness or trauma. It might come in more substantive ways such as volunteering, providing supplies, voting in favor of school financing, and advocating for better conditions.

In contrast, teachers tend to be assigned the responsibility for fixing everything that society gets wrong, and the blame when they can’t. Earlier we made the claim that the Learning in teachers’ SEL would concern what others need to learn about teachers’ social and emotional lives, so that this understanding becomes a societal responsibility. 

School life will not become any easier until people make themselves accountable for the weight that teachers carry as they try to do what they entered the profession for: to help kids learn and grow into responsible citizens.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.