Photo: Beatrix Hauptmann

As school districts and county offices of education make plans for safely reopening schools in the fall and helping students cope with their trauma, it is urgent that they also recognize and make space for teachers to process and heal from their own feelings of loss and grief.

Nearly every teacher we have ever worked with puts their emotional needs aside in order to address the emotional needs of their students when tragedy inevitably occurs in our schools. We experienced this firsthand in our own classrooms when we were high school teachers. That capacity to harness deep empathy for others is one of the most admirable characteristics of teachers — but is also deeply damaging for their mental health in the long run without support.

But now, in the face of racial violence and the immense loss of life due to the global pandemic, teachers are coping with tremendous loss, anxiety and sorrow even as they work harder than ever at their rapidly evolving jobs.

Saddled by this emotional weight as well as anxiety for the precarious financial situations families are facing, many are approaching a breaking point. According to a recent USA Today poll, nearly two-thirds of teachers don’t feel they are able to properly complete their jobs under current conditions and 1 in 5 may not return for the fall.

Teachers will be the first to tell you that students are the highest priority. The need of students to heal in the time of this pandemic is substantial and long-lasting. We know the widespread illness, death and economic insecurity will have a lasting effect on this generation of young people.

But teachers are also calling out for help and ignoring them will only hurt students further. Concern for student wellbeing and trauma is frequently brought up right now, but we fail to provide the same empathy for teachers, treating them as unfeeling automatons within our fragile and bruised education system.

Yet, real recognition of the trauma teachers face is almost entirely absent from district and state-level discussions around how to reopen schools. While we do not know how every district is responding to teacher needs, we know that — as a whole — it is not enough. In weekly digital gatherings with hundreds of English teachers from across the country, we consistently hear that teachers are hurting and need support to process complicated emotions.

Unfortunately, there are no quick-fix solutions for teacher healing. Mandating teachers to attend training courses on how to handle trauma and loss likely would only increase the burdens on time and capacity that they already face. Likewise, it is not enough to assume that the upcoming summer break will heal all wounds. Simply ignoring teacher loss does not make trauma disappear — regardless of the weeks or months of time. Further, with current infection rates around the country rising sharply right now, we can assume that this summer will not serve as respite from the losses and uncertainty our nation continues to face.

Yet many plans for supporting teachers largely amount to providing additional professional development and resources that teachers may elect to access. On top of that, already overworked administrators are asked to monitor teacher wellness. In short, the proposed plan further taxes the energies of not just teachers but also administrators while they are attempting to operate schools under unimagined circumstances.

Acknowledgement from state and national officials of teachers’ need for time to process and heal from these traumas would be a start. Such acknowledgement would let parents, students and community members know the difficulties teachers now face every day on top of a host of new work demands. It also would help teachers accept that it’s OK to grieve.

Online sessions for teachers to share their feelings candidly are one way to help teachers process their emotions. Ensuring that teachers have and can use official bereavement leave to take compensated time for healing would be another.

Districts are moving quickly with plans for the next school year. But measurements for how far apart desks can be, staggered reopening schedules and class-size reduction plans and mask protocols will not salve the pain teachers are feeling right now. A reconfigured school cannot function effectively without the energy, ingenuity and love imparted by teachers.

How students learn and process their grief and feelings in schools will depend on how well their teachers are mentally and emotionally prepared to return to the classroom.

We owe our teachers space, time and resources for healing.

••• 

Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Nicole Mirra is an assistant professor of urban teacher education at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, the State University of New Jersey.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries that reflect the diversity of California. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Malcolm Rice 3 months ago3 months ago

    My sympathy to all teachers and administrators as they prepare to deal with this difficult situation.

  2. Linda Smith 3 months ago3 months ago

    The Mindful Teacher Initiative will be hosting an online three-hour seminar for all educational professionals. The cost is $30 and include the cost of the workshop as well as a downloadable, ready-to-use workbook. The entire seminar pertains to self-care and wellness centered around the educational professionals. For more information, you can find us on Facebook at The Mindful Teacher Initiative or email themindfulteacherinitiative@gmail.com. We’d love to have you join us! Read More

    The Mindful Teacher Initiative will be hosting an online three-hour seminar for all educational professionals. The cost is $30 and include the cost of the workshop as well as a downloadable, ready-to-use workbook. The entire seminar pertains to self-care and wellness centered around the educational professionals. For more information, you can find us on Facebook at The Mindful Teacher Initiative or email themindfulteacherinitiative@gmail.com. We’d love to have you join us!

  3. Bob 3 months ago3 months ago

    “we consistently hear that teachers are hurting and need support to process complicated emotions” — this comment thread itself is evidence that this is true! I would love to know what online spaces you host for teachers to process their feelings. As a mental health worker embedded in a public school, I have many teaching colleagues who would love a referral to such an online space.

  4. Teri Williams 3 months ago3 months ago

    I couldn’t truly articulate what I was experiencing, but you so eloquently captured it all in this article! Thank you this was an answered prayer!

  5. Veronica Garcia 3 months ago3 months ago

    I know that my comment would not be popular. If teachers truly care for students, they must know that coming back to school is the best way to get back to normal for students. Studying virtually is not helpful in any way for any student under the age of 18. You are adults and have better skills to cope than children do.

  6. Leslie Beeman 3 months ago3 months ago

    I'm overwhelmed with the emotional upheaval from daily news broadcasts regarding COVID, the violence escalating and tensions soaring against one another. I'm afraid, I'm hurting for others and I'm angry, depressed or both. I can't tell any more. I'm a frequently on the brink of tears or at my wits end with my husband...I'm fearful for the future, fearful because of the unknown....it's the unknown that seems to be the biggest portion … Read More

    I’m overwhelmed with the emotional upheaval from daily news broadcasts regarding COVID, the violence escalating and tensions soaring against one another. I’m afraid, I’m hurting for others and I’m angry, depressed or both. I can’t tell any more. I’m a frequently on the brink of tears or at my wits end with my husband…I’m fearful for the future, fearful because of the unknown….it’s the unknown that seems to be the biggest portion of my emotional crisis especially the constant changes to the unknown.

    However, realizing that I’m not alone and acknowledging teachers may need emotional support helps. Reading this article today helped to squash the demons….at least for a short time, or until we have more accurate information to move forward on!!! Together we are stronger!!

  7. Michael Cox 3 months ago3 months ago

    The article is on point. I would also include substitute teachers. The qualified subs help and in some school districts they work on an as needed basis so when school closed they did not get a chance to say goodbye or be given a sendoff of thanks. Subs could also help in school reopening or should get online training which could help teacher workload. I understand some districts will do budget cuts but subs … Read More

    The article is on point. I would also include substitute teachers. The qualified subs help and in some school districts they work on an as needed basis so when school closed they did not get a chance to say goodbye or be given a sendoff of thanks. Subs could also help in school reopening or should get online training which could help teacher workload.

    I understand some districts will do budget cuts but subs should be considered essential staff. There were some subs who made more money with unemployment compensation than working with the district. School funding has to do better than this and should include the substitute even as co-teacher to help with workload and tutoring students.

  8. Barbara 3 months ago3 months ago

    I cried as I read this as I never thought about myself. I wondered if I bought enough plastic tubs to put away my classroom library as it is not COVID safe to read books. Instead of 5 year olds coming in and sitting on the carpet and at big tables, they will have desks 6 feet away from each other. No sharing allowed. I am buying a clear plastic shield for my face so … Read More

    I cried as I read this as I never thought about myself. I wondered if I bought enough plastic tubs to put away my classroom library as it is not COVID safe to read books. Instead of 5 year olds coming in and sitting on the carpet and at big tables, they will have desks 6 feet away from each other. No sharing allowed. I am buying a clear plastic shield for my face so kids can see me.

    Teaching online was teaching, but I did not experience the joy of teaching like I do in the classroom. Even with all the Google Meets with my students.

    I talk with other teachers on the phone, but we never talk about the emotional toll. The stress, we talked about. The fact that some of us can’t get to bed before 2.

    Summer school is here. I’m not teaching it because the teachers and students are on Google Meet 2 hours a day, 5 days a week for 23 days. They don’t have time to process anything but stress.

  9. Educational Options 3 months ago3 months ago

    The absolute most ridiculous notion I’ve heard of! I taught 30 years and had more downtime than I knew what to do with! Don’t buy into being a victim.

    Replies

    • Carolyn Elaine Childs 3 months ago3 months ago

      You do understand that everyone is not having the same experience you did, right?

    • Shannon 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      You say you taught for 30 years. That means you have no idea what it is like anymore. More changes in the past ten years than I can process. My senior lost her graduation. My 2-year-old is experiencing separation anxiety from being home with me. I’ve been on the computer all day every day over the past 2 months learning how to teach virtually and completing all the required trainings. Now I have to figure … Read More

      You say you taught for 30 years. That means you have no idea what it is like anymore. More changes in the past ten years than I can process. My senior lost her graduation. My 2-year-old is experiencing separation anxiety from being home with me. I’ve been on the computer all day every day over the past 2 months learning how to teach virtually and completing all the required trainings. Now I have to figure out how to upload all this curriculum online in fun, interactive lessons.

      I do have a 12 year old too but don’t get to see her much between all the due dates. Parents have COVID so they can’t help and we just got hit by Hurricane Laura so we’re displaced at the moment and had to stay somewhere with WiFi so I could keep working. I’m expected any day at school and I better have it together. Some of us need help so keep your comment to yourself.

  10. Danielle 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for publishing this. I said the very same thing - we need support but I don’t know what that might look like - at our end-of-the-year staff meeting and my principal (herself overwhelmed) didn’t even write it on the board with all our other ideas! What can be done? Impotency and anxiety have been our COVID companions and we have little to no hope of being back in the classroom with all … Read More

    Thank you for publishing this. I said the very same thing – we need support but I don’t know what that might look like – at our end-of-the-year staff meeting and my principal (herself overwhelmed) didn’t even write it on the board with all our other ideas!

    What can be done? Impotency and anxiety have been our COVID companions and we have little to no hope of being back in the classroom with all out kids and all colleagues next year.

  11. Nestor Gonzalez 3 months ago3 months ago

    Teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, custodians, assistant teachers, security personnel, all of us, reaching the children, all of us, rise up, step up, serve to the best of your ability and beyond. Find your own personal moments to heal. We are called to serve in a crisis, rise up, step up and serve. In giving your service you inspire and motivate and in that same moment you receive inspiration and motivation. Continue, carry on, … Read More

    Teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, custodians, assistant teachers, security personnel, all of us, reaching the children, all of us, rise up, step up, serve to the best of your ability and beyond. Find your own personal moments to heal. We are called to serve in a crisis, rise up, step up and serve. In giving your service you inspire and motivate and in that same moment you receive inspiration and motivation.

    Continue, carry on, make it so. You are the heartbeat. You are the breath. The momentum of your positive actions are the healing matrix. Carry on. I am a thirty year veteran educator. God bless you.

  12. Aaron 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thanks for this. This is what education is trapped in – a disconnect trap. They want to be treated as "professionals" and then a time to heal? They have summers, xmas and so forth. They got substantial raises (which btw has collapsed many pre-COVID district budgets). Heal? What about first responders? They perhaps need a " time to heal" more than others. A perspective like this assumes that our education programs are intense - they are not. … Read More

    Thanks for this.

    This is what education is trapped in – a disconnect trap. They want to be treated as “professionals” and then a time to heal? They have summers, xmas and so forth. They got substantial raises (which btw has collapsed many pre-COVID district budgets). Heal? What about first responders? They perhaps need a ” time to heal” more than others.

    A perspective like this assumes that our education programs are intense – they are not. Our public education system has been thrown to the union lion den where it is ravaged at the expenses of “teachers needing time to heel.” Inner city kids are on the streets as teachers heal. Such demagoguery!

    Replies

    • Rachel L. Stafford 3 months ago3 months ago

      Not sure how to respond. I don't think anyone is demanding that we have time off to heal. I don't think I personally will ever get over what this pandemic has done to everyone. But I know it has been a very challenging time for teachers. This is the only perspective I have because I am a teacher. I am not a paramedic, etc. We aren't demanding special treatment. But we are not only worried … Read More

      Not sure how to respond. I don’t think anyone is demanding that we have time off to heal. I don’t think I personally will ever get over what this pandemic has done to everyone. But I know it has been a very challenging time for teachers. This is the only perspective I have because I am a teacher. I am not a paramedic, etc.

      We aren’t demanding special treatment. But we are not only worried about our own families, but our students as well. For some students, we are the only safe place for them. We are their support. And we must be there for students, their families, and for our own. Not seeing my students every day has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. I want to go back to work in person, but not until it is safe for all of us. Teachers, almost overnight, have set up classrooms in their homes, and struggled to create virtual lessons, videos, etc. And as for unions, North Carolina does not have a union. Other states do, but I cannot speak for them.

      North Carolina has organizations that offer support/representation like NCAE or PENC, and yes, some teachers have marched on Raleigh. Raises? I am a veteran teacher who has not had a raise in years. Holidays for most of us include planning for after the holidays. Most teachers that I know and work with are usually thinking about their teaching/students.

      Summers? Professional development, committee work, etc.

      Intensity? It is evident that you must not be an educator, otherwise you would recognize just how intense every day is for us. We are not only teachers, but we do the work of reporting child abuse, supporting families dealing with death/illness, relationship issues, poverty/hunger issues, and more. Your comments are hurtful, so I felt compelled to respond.

    • Maria McCoy 3 months ago3 months ago

      Thank you for your response, Aaron. Unfortunately you must not know any teachers who work in the public school system. I can only assume this from your comments which are insulting and inaccurate. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job with low pay and very high demands. The stress level of teachers in normal situations is much higher than in other working positions. This is why teachers are leaving the field at higher rates than districts … Read More

      Thank you for your response, Aaron. Unfortunately you must not know any teachers who work in the public school system. I can only assume this from your comments which are insulting and inaccurate. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job with low pay and very high demands. The stress level of teachers in normal situations is much higher than in other working positions. This is why teachers are leaving the field at higher rates than districts can replace them. Please consider learning more about the daily life of teachers, the pay of teachers, and the “vacation time” of teachers before assuming that teaching is an easy position.

  13. Steve 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thanks for this incisive piece. This perspective is, shamefully, almost entirely nonexistent in policy and in the ample articles discussing how to handle school in the fall, student health and trauma, and needs of parents. It’s unbelievably callous that teachers continue to be taken for granted and undervalued. Teachers should unite and demand much, much higher wages for the critical and thankless job they do.

  14. Thomas Courtney 3 months ago3 months ago

    As a teacher for 20 years in the same school, I'd like to thank you both for giving the idea of teacher trauma the recognition it deserves. For me, the daily struggle to "teach" and all that it entails has become much broader than two scores on standardized tests. I know my colleagues feel the same way. We hurt for our students when the struggle to help them in more than just passing tests doesn't … Read More

    As a teacher for 20 years in the same school, I’d like to thank you both for giving the idea of teacher trauma the recognition it deserves. For me, the daily struggle to “teach” and all that it entails has become much broader than two scores on standardized tests. I know my colleagues feel the same way. We hurt for our students when the struggle to help them in more than just passing tests doesn’t rise to our hopes and ambitions. I hope the talk around how teachers cope becomes integral to our discussions this year around social and emotional learning, not just for effects the pandemic has had but also for us changing the fabric of how schools function. Seeing what is happening around our nation, I have come to see the way schools create strong relationships with the community as a cornerstone of making things better. Considering how teachers are an important part of that dynamic, I think your commentary is a strong argument that we need to address the issues that lead to teacher burn out and help create environments that keep teachers, instead of chasing them away.

  15. Bernice Cacheo 3 months ago3 months ago

    Wow! It was so nice to read about people actually caring and noticing that teachers are not getting emotional support for all the changes, added training, and social emotional support we provide our students. Teachers need support too!

  16. Kim 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is true. Please look out for administrators, school counselors and others who serve all students in any given school.

    While district personnel and State Department of Education are considering reopening parameters, what about those who serve all students? As a school counselor, I have only seen and heard what everyone else needs. I haven’t seen any parameters for school counselors who are required to have individual, small and large group sessions.

    Replies

    • Rachel L. Stafford 3 months ago3 months ago

      Same for Art, Music, PE, etc. We see all of the kiddos, too. I am really scared about returning to the classroom. I just don’t think it will be safe for any of us or the students.