If hindsight is 20/20, what do we hope for educators in 2021?
The rapidly evolving conditions for teaching and learning in response to COVID-19’s collision with other, simultaneous disasters—natural and man-made—disrupted and overturned everything we thought we knew about educating our students, maintaining a positive school climate and community, and supporting educators’ and students’ health and well-being.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence asked more than 5,000 educators how they were feeling. “Anxious” and “overwhelmed” rose to the top, with many educators sharing that they felt much was being asked of them during a time of great uncertainty. Now, nine months later, educators are still grappling with those same emotions, leading to stress and burnout.
It's true that short bouts of stress can boost immunity and even raise levels of cancer-fighting molecules. As humans, we have evolved to handle short-term stress—hormones are released, allowing us to respond successfully to the crisis and then turn off at the tap.
But that’s not what’s happening in our nation’s schools right now.
Many of the teachers we’ve spoken to report extreme and prolonged stress, which induces hyperactivity in the neurological system and lifelong susceptibility to stress. Biologically speaking, their brains are bathing in a constant flow of stress hormones, which evolution has definitely not prepared them—or any of us—to handle.
Educators are not just suffering emotionally in these instances; their physical health is affected, too. As Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford University, wrote in his book, Behave, “[Prolonged] stress leaves you in a fight-or-flight state in which your body turns off long-term building and repair.”
Nevertheless, educators have persisted.
The Toll on Educators
Educators have been anxious for months, yet have been fearless in forging ahead into uncharted and necessary territory to support their students and families. They have been catapulted out of their comfort zones and simultaneously put on display for their harshest critics to judge them—at a time when they were already vacillating between waves of grief, fear and anger. Despite their exhaustion, educators across our nation have worked tirelessly, transforming their kitchen tables into classrooms while simultaneously becoming the cafeteria, technology, custodial and counseling staff for their own children.
Educators have recounted to us that they feel forgotten and undervalued, overworked and under-resourced. They watched national sports teams get put in COVID-proof bubbles for safety, and sports networks stream virtual fans into the stands for morale. They watched as other groups—from film production studios to the federal government—received daily, precautionary COVID-19 tests to ensure their health and safety. All the while, many educators funded their own PPE, often working double time to serve students both in the classroom and through a screen, and rose to the challenge of distance teaching, with help from Bitmojis, YouTube and the “mute all” button. Because even during a pandemic, education is always in session.
Educators shared feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the constantly changing protocols and decisions around them. Yet, they simultaneously became more connected with colleagues and families than ever before, creating opportunities for new ways to communicate and check in with students and families. They listened to what their students and their families were saying and needed, but also attended to what wasn't being said, who wasn’t showing up and why.
Not surprisingly, when we take a close look, we see that teaching this year has strained the physical and emotional health and well-being of many educators across the country at staggering rates. There was no playbook for educating in 2020. But we all know that the best teaching doesn’t come solely from a book. It comes from the heart.
When Educators Lean into SEL
We never imagined the salience of our letter to educators in March 2020. The compounding traumas of this past year require immediate, intentional and preventative action to protect the health and well-being of our teachers, their students and families.
Through anonymous surveys, focus groups, longitudinal interventions, and interviews, we’ve learned with educators and school personnel across the nation (more than 20,000 and counting!) over the past nine months. Across our studies, the results are clear:
Saying SEL is a priority is not enough to support educator well-being. Teachers want support and guidance for how to do the work with their students, and for themselves. For example, in one of our studies this year, we found that the specific guidance districts provide to support SEL, rather than the expressed prioritization of SEL, was associated with increased use of SEL with students, lower levels of educator emotional exhaustion, and more educator use of SEL for themselves.
School leadership matters in supporting educator well-being. In one of our studies (currently under peer-review), district support for educator well-being was associated with lower levels of educator burnout and self-judgment during distance learning. Another study found positive correlations between educators’ feelings of emotional safety and school principals’ effective handling of their own emotions in these times of high stress. And yet another study found that leader support of educator well-being was associated with educators feeling appreciated, connected and valued.
All school personnel want support navigating their emotions. From district leaders to education support professionals, educators spanning early childhood through high school, those working with general and special education students, and across all levels of their career, in nearly all studies we conducted this past year, results point to a need among educators for more training and guidance on how to manage their emotions during this time—including what regulation strategies are, how to practice them for themselves, and how to support their students, colleagues and families to co-regulate.
How We Can Support
So much has been outside of our control in 2020. But what we can control, always, is how we respond. With support from Dalio Education, a foundation dedicated to supporting Connecticut educators, and in collaboration with Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, the state’s education commissioner Miguel Cardona and both teachers’ unions (AFT and CEA), among other education organizations, our Center created a 10-hour online course to support educators and school staff in navigating the intense emotional experiences that are evoked during crises like the one we are all grappling with right now. The course explains the effects of prolonged stress on our bodies and brains, ways adults in schools can best manage their own feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, and practical, culturally responsive strategies to help educators support their students in handling difficult emotions.
As of today, over 24,000 educators in Connecticut are starting to benefit from the course. In the words of one, “I found the coping strategies to be most useful, especially because there were examples specific to how we as teachers can apply them to our lives and teach them to our students. I was also intrigued by the concept of expanding my emotional vocabulary. Not only can this help me better understand my own emotions and how to cope with them, but it can also help students do this as well. Furthermore, it can help us all clearly communicate how we're feeling.”
Today, we are excited to announce that Managing Emotions During Stressful and Uncertain Times has been released on Coursera, at no cost, for all educators and school staff across the U.S. While not a substitute for adopting a systemic approach to SEL, we hope this course can support our nation’s educators in learning evidence-based strategies to manage their emotions effectively and maintain greater well-being, while also helping them explore the intersection of race, bias, identity and emotional intelligence to support their students in achieving greater well-being.
So, what do we hope for educators in 2021? At a time in our nation’s history marked by continuously evolving threats to our health and humanity, we want our nation's teachers to feel valued, appreciated and supported. We want their students to remember that through it all, their teachers did everything to support them and make them feel safe. And they did it by demonstrating that emotions matter.
As we close this tumultuous year, filled with unimaginable grief and near-constant uncertainty, we are thankful for the educators who have been steadfast in their commitments to students and families through it all—the tireless, fearless superheroes across the country who have graciously let us into their classrooms, their homes and their lives. We hope that what we continue to learn from them—with you—will, in some ways large or small, help ease the challenges that may follow us into the new year.
To access the course from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, available for free to all educators, please go here.