The COVID-19 pandemic has placed school teachers and administrators in the unenviable position of making extraordinarily complex decisions with incomplete and changing scientific data, clashing public health and political leadership and threats, extremely caring but concerned parents, anxious children, and potentially competing personal priorities—protecting their livelihood and preserving their own health and wellness while caring for our children.
Preparation and Thanksgiving for Essential Personnel
Based on a reading of the guidelines recently sent to parents and grandparents from my church’s Lutheran preschool and elementary program (CCLS), I must do nothing but offer the very highest praise and thanksgiving to God for giving us teachers and administrators who have such depth of preparatory thought and such passion for our families and children. Thank You, Lord, for these Your servants.
For good reason, our teachers and school leaders are anxious nonetheless. Their worry goes well beyond the classroom setting into chapel, worship, and after-school activities, including arts and sporting events.
We might correctly call our teachers our front-line workers, our essential personnel. Without them, learning, whether in the classroom or from a distance, does not happen effectively. If our teachers don’t have adequate resources, administrative backing and support, or reprieve from having to deal continuously with the sustained demands of their profession, they will develop chronic stress and anxiety and will eventually experience professional and personal burnout. Even before the pandemic, they were being pulled by all these deleterious forces. COVID-19 has magnified and intensified all these stressors. The end result is predictable: burned-out teachers are less effective and cannot fully engage their students in learning, which in turn produces students with poorer social and scholastic results. Our great society suffers, our families deteriorate, and our best and brightest human resources for our culture are ill-prepared for the challenges of the future.
Help Teachers Remain Resilient and Avoid Burnout
I want to share a national survey done in Canada this past May of how best to support teachers in coping with the pandemic and upcoming school year.[i] The core finding was that teachers are essentially resilient but that they lose resiliency in progressive phases as they move toward burnout. However, the most encouraging aspect of this survey is that if teachers achieve a balance between their job demands and receive adequate resources, this burnout trend can be reversed. Yes!
Here are the key messages:
- Teachers are highly concerned for the most vulnerable of their students; they strongly care about their students’ home lives, especially in the pandemic. Teachers are using their established relationships to ensure their students have adequate safety, support, and food. When teachers don’t see their students daily, they worry that students are not okay, especially those children whose parents are not communicating consistently with the school.
- Teachers are seeing the normal socioeconomic inequities among their students magnified during the pandemic. Not only are their most vulnerable students not being fed adequately but they also do not share equal access to the internet and learning tools. Special needs children are suffering substantially. Previously reliable transportation through school buses may well be limited by social distancing and funding as school reopens.
- When administrators provide their teachers with their initial teaching resources, it will work best to provide only a few familiar teaching mechanisms at first; more complex options can follow. The survey found that teachers bombarded with all sorts of teaching websites and platforms often regarded them as demands for them to master rather than as helpful resources; this created more teacher anxiety. The new distance learning requires substantial adjustments and adaptability for students and parents, and it requires the same for teachers. During the initial stages of workers’ exhaustion, it is more effective to reduce demands on them rather than to overwhelm them with resources.
- Teachers who perceive higher levels of administrative and parental support cope better. Teachers who experience collaborative and collegial support, who set limits to their vocational time, and who practice self-understanding recover from stresses more effectively.
- Teachers are truly concerned about how effective they can be at distance learning. Without the ability to directly observe and monitor students, it is difficult for them to determine if their students are truly engaged and successful at learning. Test scores are not always the complete answer. One approach that significantly helps teachers in this task is collaboration with other teaching colleagues.
As parents, students, and educational leaders, we must listen to the voices of our front-line workers.
Paying Attention to Symptoms
As with students and parents, our teachers and administrators need to pay attention to their own physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health, utilizing all the strategies I have outlined in previous blogs: exercise, nutrition, rest, etc. Obviously, school systems need to be sure to provide high-quality health coverage and counseling to their teachers, just as they do for students and families. Attention needs to be paid to assure that alcohol, tobacco, and other substances are not being used as self-medication for treatment of anxiety and stress.
Furthermore, administrators and school systems need to be nimble in their efficient response to index cases of influenza, COVID-19, or any infectious illness identified within individual classrooms. Teachers need to be reassured that the school system has readily available health professionals before they initiate any self-treatment. Teachers need to know when and where to connect with appropriate support services and resources for their students and for themselves. Teacher-to-teacher communication should be encouraged through regular in-person or virtual meetings. The full cadre of spiritual resources offered by your congregation should be available for teachers, administrators, students, and families.
Teachers and administrators, your vocations are greatly honored by the Lord. We need you to be healthy and whole so that our children, families, and communities are healthy and whole.
And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ. Ephesians 4:11–15
With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to find security in wellness.
[i] Laura Sokal, Jeff Bab, and Lesley Eblie Trudel, “How to Prevent Teacher Burnout during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Conversation US, June 16, 2020, https://theconversation.com/how-to-prevent-teacher-burnout-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-139353.