Five Strategies School Leaders Can Use to Create Supportive Environments for Teachers
Written by Andrea Browning, Robin Chait, and Heather Wendling
It’s no secret that the last couple of years have been tough for educators at all levels. Several surveys find that teachers are feeling more burned out than employees in other professions and data show that they plan to leave their teaching roles sooner than they previously thought. So how can school leaders support educator well-being and retain effective teachers in their schools?
NY-RISE, a three-year series of professional development and technical assistance workshops to strengthen the individual and collective capacities of charter school stakeholders, funded through a Charter School Programs grant from the New York State Education Department, convened a panel of educators and experts in July 2022 to share some promising strategies for supporting educator well-being.
The event featured three panelists. Andrea Browning, a senior policy advisor at WestEd who provides professional learning to educators to help create healthy and responsive school environments, shared some research-based strategies to try in schools. Wanda Perez-Brundage, the executive director and founding principal of the Academy of Health Sciences, a charter middle school in Rochester in its fourth year of operation, and Pagee Cheung, the co-founder and co-executive director of MESA Charter High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in its tenth year of operation, also shared some promising ideas that had been successful in their schools.
These five strategies are a great place for school leaders to begin building supportive environments for teachers.
1. Make community care a visible part of a school’s vision and culture.
With this strategy, a school’s commitment to taking care of the physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being of students also includes a commitment to educator well-being. Leaders can empower educators to be open about their well-being needs when a school culture explicitly and transparently makes wellness an ongoing priority.
At the Academy of Health Sciences, Ms. Perez-Brundage and her team had engaged in a series of discussions based on the book Building Resilience in Students, focused on how to help students impacted by adverse childhood experiences. In addition to discussing how to support students, the staff had engaged in empowering conversations about their own well-being, including what signs of burnout they might experience physically or mentally.
2. Think about structural components that can support teachers and build those supports into the master calendar.
This strategy involves asking teachers what they need and asking about how to incorporate ways to address those needs into the structure of the school day. For example, how can you incorporate time for teachers to take care of themselves into the school calendar? You might have an early dismissal twice a month on Wednesdays for “Wellness Wednesdays” to allow teachers to go to doctor appointments, exercise classes, or take care of themselves in other ways. Another important structural component is teachers’ planning time. When teachers can plan during the school day, they have less work to take home, supporting a better work/life balance. How can you protect teachers’ planning time, so it is not used for additional responsibilities?
3. Remove non-core responsibilities where possible.
Teachers frequently have additional duties, and during the pandemic that burden was increased for many. How can you lighten teachers’ loads? Or, if you are unable to lighten their loads, can you compensate them for their additional responsibilities?
Ms. Cheung shared that because of the difficulty of finding substitute teachers, they were forced to rely on their own staff to cover classes. However, they compensated them for their time.
Another aftereffect of the pandemic is an increase in students’ mental health and behavioral needs. Are you able to add an additional counselor or dedicated aid to provide whole class supports or to support individual students? Can you partner with outside organizations or agencies to provide mental health supports to students? Another idea is to expand tutoring programs to address learning loss. Federal relief funds can support both types of services.
4. Provide dedicated mentorships and peer-to-peer growth opportunities for teachers.
Creating formal mentoring roles and compensating these mentors can be a way to provide meaningful leadership opportunities and support for new teachers at the same time. Providing mentoring can relieve job-related stress—for new teachers in particular. Mentorships and other peer-to-peer relationships could focus on teachers’ professional growth rather than being evaluative in nature.
One commitment that Ms. Perez-Brundage described is to enable instructional coaching for her teachers, which may focus on teachers’ mindsets and feelings about their pedagogical ability, as well as on practices to increase the sustainability of working as a teacher.
5. Support teacher agency.
Teacher autonomy and agency are supportive of teacher well-being. Teachers have higher morale when they are involved in decision-making and can exercise their professional judgement. For example, Ms. Cheung shared that MESA Charter High School holds design thinking sessions with staff so they can help to address challenges together. One design thinking session focused on work/life balance and resulted in revamping professional development.
Teachers at MESA Charter High School also shared that they needed more mental health support, so the school was able to modify its health plans to incorporate reimbursement for therapy.
While school leaders may not be able to implement all these strategies at once, even starting with one or two can make a real difference for educators’ well-being and hopefully retention—which are ultimately critical to maintaining a healthy school community and optimizing student outcomes. According to Ms. Cheung, a great place to start is by asking your staff what they need, as “…every school is different. But being responsive to what your staff tells you is key.”
Andrea Browning is a Senior Policy Advisor with WestEd’s Talent Development and Diversity team. She provides support and technical assistance in creating student-centered, culturally and socially responsive learning environments that prioritize student and educator well-being.
Robin Chait is a Project Director in WestEd’s School Choice team. Throughout her career, she has worked in policy, research, and practice to expand educational opportunities for all students.
Heather Wendling leads a three-year project to establish and operate New York State’s first technical assistance resource center (NY-RISE) and provide professional development to its 351 charter schools.
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