America is suffering through two insidious and deadly pandemics, one brought forth by a novel virus and the other by a long-overdue reckoning of the intransigent racial and ethnic disparity at every level within all of our systems.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where nearly 50 percent of children come from communities of color, and with nearly one-third of Black children and one-quarter of Hispanic children living at or below the poverty level. It is precisely these students who are trapped in the crosshairs of both pandemics: the coronavirus having laid bare inequities in health risk, access to virtual education platforms and basic safety both in and outside of their homes—all factors compounded by the profoundly damaging effects of poverty and racism.
Educators, scientists, public health experts and policymakers have spent decades—rightly, though with varying degrees of success—on optimizing the educational environment for children, by focusing on safe, culturally responsive and engaging classroom environments that meet the needs of diverse learners and develop the whole child. As a behavioral geneticist focused on the mind-body effects of stress and the development of resilience, I believe it is clear that in order to do this well, we must also focus on optimizing the school environment for teachers.
To do this, we look to science, which tells an optimistic story about the powerful levers at our disposal to optimize brain health, physical health and well-being at any point in the life span.
The Science of Human Malleability and Stress
Context matters for all of us, as nature operates via nurture: our genes are merely chemical followers. It is epigenetic processes—the way in which experiences and lifestyle habits change how our DNA is read and expressed—that shape how we look and how we feel, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This means that human beings, at any age or stage, are malleable and designed to learn, grow and adapt in order to thrive in changing circumstances.
Over time, consistent repetition—whether it be a child learning to read or an adult starting a new exercise routine—rewires our brains. In other words, skills that once required intentional thinking eventually become second nature and automatic. Development and reinforcement of wellness-related skills, habits and mindsets for teachers—the leaders in establishing classroom conditions—have been overlooked in creating contexts to help our children thrive. This includes programs and resources that help our educators manage stress and promote emotional, mental and physical health, as the first necessary step toward that larger goal.
Reported stress in the lives of our educators was high before the pandemic and before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others led to weeks of protests and a national reckoning.
In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers’ Quality of Work Life survey revealed that 61 percent of educators feel stressed “often” or “always” at work, on par with that of physicians and nurses, according to a separate Gallup poll.
Now, in 2020, teachers are living in a veritable tinderbox of stressful conditions. Starting overnight in mid-March, the world was transformed, and reported morale has plummeted ever since. The global pandemic forced widespread school closures, requiring immediate mastery of new technology—described to me by one middle school educator as “four times the work for a hundred times less joy”—and, for many, requiring simultaneous instruction of students while managing toddlers and school-aged children at home. These issues layer atop pernicious fears surrounding the health of self (nearly one-third of all teachers are age 50 and older and at higher risk for COVID-19), family and friends—and economic survival.
Moreover, and of greatest consequence, teachers—and all human beings—are faced with the moral imperative of our age: how to begin to right the persistent wrongs of racial injustice and structural inequality around the globe and in our own country, neighborhoods, classrooms and homes.
These dynamics are all playing out under a looming shadow of uncertainty about practically every aspect of education as we know it today, creating a profound sense of anxiety and fear about the future, and what returning to school in person will mean. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ “strong recommendation” that students be “physically present in school” where possible, emphasizing the magnified health, social and educational risks of keeping children at home, underscores the dilemma teachers are caught in the middle of—how to support their students amid this crisis and also stay healthy themselves.)
Indeed, for most of our 3.2 million full-time educators in the United States, personal stress is at epidemic levels.
To buffer stress, and both create and sustain the necessary conditions for emotional and physical healing, education systems and individual schools must prioritize teacher wellness as the first step in student recovery. Why? The answer lies in our biology.
While stress is a necessary and important factor in human development, and positive stress (“eustress”) helps us rise to the top of our game, unbuffered chronic stress releases neurobiologically toxic levels of chemicals into our physiological systems that can alter brain structure and function, and impair immunity.
In the context of widespread violence and protests surrounding racial injustice, economic uncertainty, the new complexities of school life and home life, compounded by the invisible, unpredictable, unrelenting and life-threatening realities of the coronavirus—the latter terms ironically ones that accurately describe the effects of racism—it is obvious that educators, particularly our teachers of color, are weathering the “perfect storm” of conditions for stress-driven mental and physical illness.
Now, some good news.
It is possible to neutralize inflammatory stress biochemistry. When this happens, our sympathetic nervous systems (which direct us to fight, take flight or freeze) can get settled instead of getting triggered, allowing us to act, rather than react.
Feeling a sense of control broadens cognitive perspective by allowing us to key off of moments that fuel our emotions, like joy, contentment and authentic human connection, in a way that broadens our thought-action repertoire. In other words, it helps us see the proverbial forest for the trees and fosters development of adaptive and flexible strategies that increase the effectiveness of stress management and decision-making both inside and outside the classroom.
By focusing support on the emotional, mental and physical well-being of teachers, we amplify their capacity to place their own oxygen masks on first. They, in turn, will be able to direct their energy toward developing the kinds of high-quality, safe and trusting relationships with students that are the vital emotional scaffolding upon which all else is built.
With relationships as the vehicle, teachers can begin to develop and instill classroom practices and curricula that address COVID-related learning loss, foster academic re-engagement and bolster student health and well-being. Bottom line: Teachers cannot help to stabilize their students nor their classroom environments unless they are healthy themselves.
Three scientifically grounded approaches offer solutions and must be institutionalized into the school day.
Positive Lifestyle Practices
First, we must integrate scientifically grounded mental and physical health supporting lifestyle practices that serve as Mother Nature’s oxygen mask. These include prioritizing high-quality sleep, engaging in regular physical activity and making healthy nutritional choices, all which promote health and build immunity.
Other essential elements include meditation, breathwork, yoga, cultivating and maintaining high-quality relationships, and intentional reinforcement of mindsets that promote human connection, such as gratitude, altruism and collective efficacy. What’s real in the mind is real is real in the body, and it is our perceptions—not “objective” reality—that drive our biochemistry. Accordingly, finding a silver lining—even under the most dire of circumstances—instigates a biochemical “upward spiral” which fosters constructive thinking in a demanding moment and, over the long-term, protects health and psychological well-being.
Second, teachers need ongoing professional training to develop social-emotional competencies, strategies for self-regulation, healthy collaboration and stress management. Emotions are contagious—for better and for worse—and underlie both learning and retention at all ages and stages on the developmental spectrum. Hence the critical need to focus on improving the health of the entire relational dynamic system that exists within a school. This includes classrooms, teacher break rooms, hallways, the counselor’s office and playgrounds—all of the places where learning happens.
Equipping teachers with skills that build emotional intelligence empowers them to “pause, reflect and label,” fortifying thoughtful, intentional leadership and interaction with students and colleagues alike. Investing in the kinds of healthy emotional climates that enhance all higher-level cognitive processes (e.g. executive function, attention and self-regulation) is a non-negotiable requirement for the flourishing of relationships and outcomes—academic and otherwise—within a school.
Mental Health Support
Third, teachers must have access to mental health resources during and after the school day. These include regular organized support groups, opportunities to connect with tele-mental health providers, no-stigma mental wellness days and coaching to set reasonable expectations in balancing responsibilities both inside and outside of school.
Given the extraordinary convergence of stressors related to home life, work life, economic stability and public safety, teachers need access to trained mental health professionals to ground and re-center, particularly in light of mental health issues presenting as the “second wave” of COVID.
By creating routines that promote health and reduce stress, and by prioritizing high-quality supportive relationships, teachers can build resilience—arguably the most important skill we can both embody and also model for our children and students during this chapter in time. The new 3Rs (relationships, routines and resilience) can restore a sense of control amid uncertainty and equip young people with skills and mindsets that pay dividends—on myriad developmental levels—for life.
Do the above strategies represent a revolution in schools’ current practices and policies? In a word, yes. But we are at an inflection point in our country’s history, during which capitalizing on great opportunity means leaning into great challenge.
It is time to innovate, have courageous conversations about race, equity and social justice, and be both strategic and intentional to catalyze bold ideas into action. In doing so, we can reflect on this double pandemic as a time when we successfully leveraged two all-consuming crises to strengthen our educational system by narrowing the false divide between public education and public health, and implemented the 21st century science of learning and development to optimize conditions for both teaching and learning.
We can and must create a healthier, more productive, equitable and effective educational system—one that protects our teachers, lowers attrition, motivates new educators to enter the profession and gives all of our children the mindsets, support, tools and skills they need to flourish, reach their full human potential, have hope for the future and live the lives they choose and deserve.
Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University and a Visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.