Administrators need to give teachers real mental health support now


It’s become pretty clear during the pandemic that mental health support for educators is a critical need for schools across the country. Compassion fatigue, stress, absenteeism and even resignations add up.

A recent report from Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative found that more than a third of educators met the threshold for a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, with 1 in 5 showing significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. By comparison, one-third of healthcare workers qualify for an anxiety diagnosis, 17% for depression, and 14% for PTSD.

It should come as no surprise that as students fall behind academically, the mental health of educators also deteriorates. We all want to feel that we are good at what we do, that we are making a positive difference in the world. This sense is inevitably eroded in teachers when their students struggle, and teachers face the added stress of not meeting the goals set for them by their district, state, or federal guidelines.

With teacher stress soaring, resignations are accelerating, exacerbating a historic shortage of teachers. These factors impair student learning, which causes greater stress on teachers, which further impacts student learning, which then burns out teachers more quickly…and so on. It’s a terrible cycle.

Unfortunately, since March 2020, only a third of district leaders in the United States have increased mental health support for their staff, according to a recent EdWeek research report. It makes sense that leaders’ time and energy have been consumed by unpredictable learning routines and public health demands. But as the months pass and educators’ sense of well-being continues to decline, now is the time to seek solutions to the problem.

ESSER funding

Administrators have help supporting teachers with money provided by the Federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund to use for student and staff mental health.

But in districts across the country, much of that funding has yet to be allocated to anything, let alone mental health. There’s no comprehensive data on how much money has been spent on mental health nationally, overall. But anecdotally, we can extract data from the Edunomics Lab ESSER Expenditure Tool and look at each state individually. Wisconsin, for example, received $1.38 billion in ESSER funding, but only spent 0.7% of those funds, with just 1.8% of that spending on mental health support.. California, by comparison, seems to be doing better, but that state has still only spent 3.7% of the $13.5 billion in ESSER funding it has been awarded, and only 4.6% of its expenditures have been devoted to mental health support.

Local supports

Many state and regional organizations are looking for ways to provide large-scale support. For example, my own organization, the Minnesota Rural Education Associationoffers a membership benefit for up to three educators from each of our 230 districts to complete EmpowerU’s Social-Emotional Learning for Educators course, supported by 1:1 online coaching by licensed social workers for educators. help improve their general well-being.

We were obliged by the overwhelming feedback we received from our members. They also ask for help. They are dedicated to their work and want to find solutions. Their first need is more support to address staff mental health challenges – and second is student mental health support. Schools cannot do it alone. To address these two main challenges, principals indicated that they would need tools or frameworks, increased knowledge or skills, and/or more staff.

Not all PDs are created equal

Of course, not just any professional development will do; effective professional development” is content driven; incorporates active learning; supports collaboration; provides feedback and reflection; and has a sustained duration.

According Pacific Regional Education Laboratory. “Professional development, which ‘happens’ to teachers, is often combined with one-off workshops, seminars or conferences, and is usually a one-size-fits-all approach. In contrast, professional learning, when well designed, is generally interactive, supported and responsive to teachers’ needs.

Protecting teachers’ time

More time is the thing teachers need the most, but it’s also the one thing we can’t do more for them. Laser-focused on student growth, even a short lunch break or a quick trip to the bathroom can feel like a luxury.

We may not be able to create more time for teachers, but we can protect their time and reserve some of it to learn evidence-based wellness strategies. Does your school already have calendar structures, such as scheduled professional development time, that could be set aside in whole or in part to support educator mental health?

It can be helpful to ask teacher leaders where they see this protected time fitting in, or even how they would like this time to be protected. Getting their feedback will help ensure your plan works for your team.

Flexible Participation

Sometimes there just isn’t any wiggle room in the schedule, especially when the school year is coming to an end. In this case, it may be necessary to find a mental health support plan designed to fit the needs and routines of educators. Look for an online tool that offers short, self-paced lessons that allow educators to learn what they find most relevant to themselves, at whatever pace suits them. To be effective, flexible tools must include personalized coaching and features that encourage educators to keep going if their engagement slows.

Building a shared language

One of the real benefits of evidence-based resilience classes to support mental health for educators is that they go beyond individual improvement to change an entire school. As educators complete the program, they gain a new, richer – and most important – shared vocabulary for describing their challenges and successes.

This shared vocabulary makes individual teachers more confident and skilled in providing emotional support to students, but it also contributes to a stronger sense of community across the school or district. A recent report from Mind Share Partners found that the most important mental health resource respondents seek is a more open culture. Shared vocabulary is a simple way to create this kind of openness and mutual understanding.

Healthy stress management, emotional regulation, and goal setting are tools our educators desperately need for their own emotional well-being. If we can meet this demand, they will be more effective now. They will also be able to better support the wide range of students in their classrooms today and in the years to come.

Bob Indihar is the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, which currently provides grants for teachers to access EmpowerU’s Social-Emotional Learning Course for Educators. You can reach Bob via email.


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