“I’m so exhausted.”
This has become the communal refrain of 2022. Unlike at any other point during this generation, it has taken on a much larger, collective meaning – especially among educators and all of those who work within schools. After two years of constant cycles of health and safety worries; shifting models for learning teaching and connecting with students; and seemingly constant changes in protocols and practices - the mental and physical load of educators has continuously grown at an exponential rate. Rather than allowing room for recovery from these nearly impossible circumstances, communities, school boards, public health officials, and state departments of education have placed even more expectations and roles on administrators, counselors, and teachers without any relief..
Teachers and school counselors are dealing with the constant pressure to fill in learning gaps that, of course, emerged from unprecedented disruptions in learning. They are simultaneously juggling students struggling with managing their own emotions in response to these challenges, conflicts that arise between students who spent weeks or months away from peers, and behavioral issues that result from these dynamics – all without the typical support of colleagues and parents, who themselves are overwhelmed and depleted. Educators are managing this while balancing constant disruptions to their own personal families and circumstances. Even those educators on a team or staff who normally infuse energy and elevate overall morale are themselves overwhelmed and burned out, unable to lift up those around them.
The Compounding Stress of This Time of Year
The normal cadence of the school calendar means that this time of year is one of even further added stress for educators. This is when students returning from the holiday break take mid-year academic assessments and diagnostics, the results of which fuel pressure to address students who have not shown sufficient growth. Teacher and counselor evaluations begin, bringing with it an extra commitment of time and energy to ensure they put their best work in front of their administrators. And, end-of-year standardized tests, benchmarks, and deadlines to ensure smooth transitions beyond this school year loom over them, bringing a heightened intensity for the need to use every available instructional minute to support student success.
In short, it makes sense that educators are exhausted and overwhelmed.
Counselors and Educators Need Intentional Rest
We are at a critical moment. Schools, districts, and communities need to protect the mental and emotional health of educators who are holding up local communities and economies, working to prevent this collective burnout from becoming a mass exodus of our teaching force and school support staff. School administrators, district administrators, and community members can take action to acknowledge the weight of what we have asked of educators and counselors. They must collectively encourage educators to rest and recharge and create space for them to do so.
Educators should not be working 24/7. Educators, by nature, use every open minute to work through their ever-expanding to do list. Whether during their lunch break or preparation period, educators constantly multitask. And many continue working at night and during weekends. Administrators must communicate to teachers and counselors that it is important to take a real and intentional break from their work during evenings and weekends in order to promote their own wellbeing. To preserve educators’ weekends, administrators should consider delaying non-urgent emails, extending deadlines whenever possible, and regularly reminding educators that their weekends are for rest.
This effort must be led by school, campus, and district leaders. Most educators feel pressure to immediately respond to students, parents, and administrators regardless of the hour or the day. School and district administrators must lead the effort to shift this expectation. Administrators can explicitly model that weekends and days off should be a break from work. And they can take steps to help protect educator time outside of work and to create open space and flexibility during the school day.
School leaders can regularly and publicly acknowledge the incredible work educators are doing each day, how challenging the current circumstances are, and proactively communicate that educators will be intentionally resting and recharging outside of school hours. Administrators can act as a buffer between teachers and demands from the broader district and families, asking teachers to focus their energy on only the most essential work. Whenever possible, administrators should consider how in - school hours can be shifted and adjusted to eliminate unnecessary meetings and give teachers more open time.
A Shift in Culture
As a society, we are so quick to call educators heroes, but provide very little tangible support for them to do the Herculean work we ask of them. This narrative must be changed. Educators are human and require rest and recharge. They should never have to defend or apologize for not working during the hours they do not actually get paid to work. And, when a teacher or counselor pauses on a weekend, we must never imply that it does not mean that they care any less about their students or their mission to foster student growth and development.
It is vital that school districts actively work to create a culture whereby educators feel comfortable establishing boundaries with parents and administrators. Boundaries to protect non-school hours should be a given and those boundaries should be respected. Educators must be applauded for and encouraged to truly take moments to recharge. This work needs to be led by school board members and district leaders and apply to the entire organization. And this effort must be ongoing and deliberate in order to create sustainable change.
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