Now Is the Time to Focus on Educator Health and Well-Being

March 2022
illustration of a teacher flying among hands

Educator burnout and stress came to the forefront during the pandemic, but the pandemic didn’t create these problems. Before 2020, researchers had documented tens of thousands of vacant teaching positions, decreased enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and high rates of turnover. These issues have been particularly acute among educators of color.

Education is a human-centered profession, and educators are our greatest asset. We know that students thrive in school when they receive high-quality instruction and support, including strong relationships with adults in the school community. To provide effective teaching and support, all educators—teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, counselors, and classified staff members such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers—need working environments that allow them to be healthy, remain present, and manage stress. With new federal resources available, now is the time to make a cultural shift to prioritize the health and well-being of our educators: an essential element of caring learning communities.

What Is Educator Health and Well-Being?

Educator health and well-being has multiple dimensions: physical, emotional, mental, financial, and social. These elements are interconnected and influence each other. Ensuring well-being in each dimension helps educators carry out day-to-day tasks while feeling valued, cared for, and supported in their work. When we talk about educator health and well-being, we also need to think holistically about educators and their environments. Experts agree that an individual’s well-being is influenced by their relationships and the setting in which they live and work. Leaders play an important role in establishing health and well-being as a collective priority and responsibility rather than placing the burden on individuals.

Improving educator health and well-being is a collective effort that can transform learning environments.

Another factor in educator health and well-being is resiliency. According to OEA Choice Trust, “resilience is the human capacity to deal with stress, adversities and threats—and somehow emerge stronger.” Fostering resiliency at the community level is essential for individuals and the staff as a whole. Building a school culture of collective care and resiliency can ease the stress on individual educators while supporting the health of the entire community.

Educator Health and Well-Being as a Collective Benefit and Effort

Improving educator health and well-being is a collective effort that can transform learning environments. Educators experience better health, greater resilience, and stronger networks of support that make it easier to manage stress. Improved educator health and well-being can also boost job satisfaction, morale, connectedness, and engagement—all of which play a role in retaining qualified educators, which in turn supports the success of all students.

To experience the benefits of educator health and well-being, schools need to build ecosystems that facilitate collective care. This means setting system conditions to reduce isolation and give educators explicit permission to care for themselves and the people in their network (for example, encouraging use of sick days or creating spaces and opportunities for educators to ask for and receive support). When collective well-being becomes ingrained in the school culture, educators—and everyone in the school community—can feel safe, stable, and connected to the people around them.

How to Start Building a Healthy, Resilient School Culture

Building healthy, resilient schools won’t happen overnight; it requires a cultural shift that can only be achieved when many people work together over time. However, educators can begin to lay the foundation with these steps:

Expand the focus on student well-being to include the entire school community

With federal ESSER funds available, many schools and districts have drafted plans to support the health and well-being of their students. Consider how these and other existing funds could be used to address the health and well-being of all educators, including not just teachers but every adult working in the school community.

Promote a culture of resiliency

Fostering a schoolwide culture of resiliency will give educators a network of support where they can ask for help and feel supported by their colleagues. Providing educators with caring and supportive work environments can help reduce isolation and build networks—two cornerstones of collective resilience.

Pay special attention to educators of color

Educators who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color experience additional stress compared to their white peers as they navigate institutional barriers; implicit and explicit bias; and lack of connection to coworkers with similar racial, cultural, or linguistic backgrounds. Equitable plans for educator health and well-being should consider what additional strategies or supports are necessary to reduce stress and improve support for educators of color.

This is an opportune moment to make systemic changes that support the health and well-being of all educators. With intentional action, compassionate leadership, and a collectivist approach, schools and districts can leverage this opportunity for transformative change.