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.
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