Growing up, I witnessed the dedication of teachers daily as I saw my mom work to be the best teacher she could be. She taught first grade for three decades, and every night she toiled over her lesson plans so each plan would be better than the last. She stayed late for school site council meetings and activities she arranged for students and families, like Cinco de Mayo celebrations and Olympic tournaments.
Her labor of love inspired me and my two sisters to become educators. And we all remember the steep learning curve as we first jumped into the profession. Not only do teachers deliver rigorous and relevant instruction, but they also nurture classroom communities, build relationships with families and serve as connectors between families and community resources. A teacher’s work has always been multilayered and complex.
These past two years, the work has become even more challenging.
The pandemic required teachers to switch to virtual instruction, then pivot back to hybrid and in-person school. Teachers did this sometimes with limited support and guidance. Teachers wore a multitude of hats — mentor, family point of contact, connector — and played a heavier role in supporting student mental health and wellness amid a pandemic.
There has been much conversation about student wellness and the stress, anxiety and trauma that students are experiencing due to the pandemic; we must expand the conversation to include the toll on teachers.
Our education system and schools must include spaces and structures for teachers to engage in wellness practices. Otherwise, teachers will burn out, and we will see an exodus of talent from our schools on top of California’s chronic teacher shortage.
At Teach For America Bay Area — a nonprofit preparing talented, diverse individuals for a career in education — we’ve found some ways to prioritize educator wellness:
Be specific when defining wellness. To avoid ambiguity, we use a shared definition. We talk about the nine dimensions of wellness: physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual, social, environmental, financial, occupational and cultural. When coaches and teachers meet, they have a shared framework to discuss their well-being. Shared language opens doors to meaningful conversations.
Integrate a wellness focus into teacher training. Building teacher skills around wellness must be a core component of setting new teachers up for success. But it’s essential that you don’t just offer resources. You have to show teachers how to leverage them. Our training provides opportunities for teachers to reflect on and plan for their well-being, supporting their resilience. When teachers join our corps they take part in courses focused on developing their own social-emotional skills as well as those of their students. During our summer training program for teachers, we host Wellness Wednesdays, facilitated by alumni educators and coaches, tackling sleeping habits, financial wellness, physical health and more. And we provide — and show teachers how to use – our online wellness platform.
Recognize and address broader challenges in the environment. Our state has been experiencing a teacher shortage for nearly a decade now. As the demands on teachers expanded due to the pandemic, the shortage became more acute. Not only are great teachers leaving, but attracting new teachers to the profession is becoming more difficult. That challenge is more pronounced among low-income communities and communities of color. To address this, we must provide resources that ensure teachers feel supported and make the path to teaching more viable.
Alleviating financial barriers is key—particularly for teachers in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area where the cost of living is high. We help our teachers by providing financial assistance, particularly for low-income teachers and teachers of color, to ensure they can focus on their preparation and reduce financial strain. In addition to working with groups like ours, school districts can partner with their local county office of education. Santa Clara County Office of Education, for example, offers grant opportunities to prospective teachers interested in earning their credential.
One of our members, Claudia Morris, a first-year teacher at Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy in Oakland, noted that the opportunity to connect with other teachers through wellness initiatives is “immensely helpful” because it helps her “feel so much less alone and intimidated.”
We are committed to meeting the moment and providing our teachers with the resources they need to thrive. Our students will be supported to thrive when our teachers can bring their best selves to work each and every day. The greatest investment we can make to ensure that this and future generations of educators are equipped for success is to not just talk about wellness but to also bring wellness initiatives to life. Boost the well-being of our teachers and watch the positive ripples across our schools.
Beatrice Viramontes is the executive director of Teach For America Bay Area.
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