A lot has changed in education this year since the pandemic sent millions of students and teachers home to continue teaching and learning in a remote or hybrid environment. These changes have led to much angst and frustration and, for many, a sense of being “thrown to the wind.” For educators, these changes can be even more drastic, and with the new education landscape, can include what teachers want in a principal.
While not specifically related to teacher stress levels, a recent study from Spring Health, a behavioral health benefits provider, indicates that 76% of US employees are currently experiencing worker burnout. The source of their stress has been impacted primarily by COVID-19 (57%) and worry over political issues (33%). Women, who make up a majority of K-12 teachers, are more prone to burnout than their male counterparts—80 compared to 72%. Younger women are even more likely to be impacted—88% among those ages 18-44 compared to 74% among those ages 45-54.
Teachers are one of the groups that are likely even more highly impacted.
Pandemic-Related Stressors for Teachers
Ashea Goldson, a teacher at Lovejoy High School in Hampton, Georgia, is one example. “Since the pandemic hit anxiety and uncertainty have enveloped my workspace, stripping me of so much that I once took for granted,” says Goldson. She’s thankful to be teaching at home via Zoom but says, “that does not mean that the work is any easier.” In fact, she says, “what most people outside of the educational system do not realize, is that virtual teaching is much more complex and challenging.”
She shares some poignant examples. “My day-to-day go-to resources are no longer available—an interactive mimeo board, a bookshelf full of brand new textbooks and novels.” But, she adds, these pale in comparison to the interpersonal interactions she misses. “I can no longer depend on seeing my students face-to-face. There is something special about pulling a troubled student outside the classroom door to chat or giving specific instructions about an assignment at my desk.”
Goldson says that she has taken advantage of technology tools available to her—from Google Classroom, to Flipgrid, Nearpod, Padlet and Zoom. Still, she says, “I am overwhelmed.”
She’s not alone. In October, the Washington Post shared a series of videos portraying teachers’ experiences during the pandemic “in their own words.” Their narratives are compelling—and sobering.
How Can Administrators Support Teachers During Distance Learning
Long before the pandemic, stress and anxiety were common among teachers. In fact, as EducationWeek reports, in 2015, “78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.” Imagine what that number is likely to be today.
Their struggles are not unnoticed.
Principals and administrators are well aware that teachers need more support now than ever, and they’re taking steps to provide that support. Those who wonder “how can a principal help a struggling teacher?” or “how can administrators support teachers during distance learning?” may be heartened to know that the gift of time can go a long way.
“I can tell you that one thing that I have done to support my teachers is make sure I am respecting their time,” says Michelle Person, principal of Mills Lawn Elementary in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “Creating an engaging 40-minute remote lesson requires almost double the amount of preparation of a traditional in-person lesson,” Person says. Add to the mix unnecessary staff meetings and long to-do lists and, she says, it’s likely to “impede teacher performance which negatively impacts student engagement and achievement.” To help, Person says that she is limiting the amount of additional work she’s asking for from her teachers and providing “unstructured work time whenever I can to foster collaboration and creativity.”
The steps administrators and principals take to support teachers during distance learning and uncertainty can go a long way toward building relationships, which is what teachers want in a principal. In fact, fewer meetings and training sessions and more free time are on Goldson’s list of what administrators could be doing to help ease the burden and stress their teachers are feeling.
How Administrators Can Empower Teachers
Goldson says that she is fortunate to work in a school district and a school “that has very supportive administrators overall.” They are, she says, constantly surveying teachers, parents and students about their well-being and preferences. That’s important, she says. In addition, she says she sees her administrators being very hands-on with every current initiative. As a result, she says, “I do feel like I am part of a village, that I am part of something greater and that I do have a voice.”
She recommends that administrators show strength and resilience—not cowardice “They should not be afraid to speak up for us all. Administrators should be confidently working hard in the trenches along with us—not tucked safely away somewhere in a plush office.”
Unfortunately, too many people are being pulled in multiple, and conflicting, directions these days—and that includes administrators and principals.
Goldson says that in the face of the pandemic she would like to see stronger state and national mandates. “I would love to see a greater concern for the health, care, and economics of our teachers and students. Whether we are teaching at home, in person, or some hybrid model, together we are on the front lines of this battle for education and wholeness.”
What do teachers want in a principal or administrator right now? They want emotional support, resources, technology support and, most importantly, compassion.
In a world that waffles between in-person and virtual teaching and learning environments, it’s fair to say that while we’re all in this together, we’re not all in this the same. Creating a culture of compassion and paying heed to individual teachers’ needs for time can go a long way toward easing the pain of the pandemic.