Teacher retention is becoming a critical challenge for schools across the country, as a growing number of teachers are overburdened and burned out. Teachers are quitting not only their current jobs but their profession. This “great resignation” puts the education of an entire generation of students at risk. Not to mention the careers of an entire generation of teachers.
A recent survey by the National Education Association revealed that 90 percent of teachers feel burnout is a serious problem, and 55 percent are planning to leave the profession sooner than they planned. Becky Pringle, the NEA President, called the situation “a five alarm fire.”
If schools can’t stop losing teachers, staff shortages will make it impossible to help students overcome learning loss from the pandemic and get back on track for academic success.
The question is, what can schools do about teachers resigning? Many school administrators (who may be struggling with burnout themselves) are feeling like the damage is done and at a loss for how to fix the problem.
Yet there is a way to improve teacher retention by helping teachers recover from the past two years. It’s not a quick fix, but a step-by-step plan to build a healthy school community where everyone is supported and can do their best work. And, it aligns with the U.S. DOE recommendations for schools in their recent report on SEL and mental health.
Before we can build healthy school communities, we need to examine where we are and how we got here.
Why are teachers quitting and leaving the profession altogether?
The pandemic caused students to lose ground academically, socially and emotionally. Schools are struggling mightily (and putting a lot of pressure on teachers) to accelerate learning and get students back on track academically. And that’s the part teachers are trained and equipped to handle!
However, it’s the social-emotional aspect that’s preventing students from catching up. Many students are suffering from trauma and mental health issues that are preventing them from learning at a normal pace, never mind at an accelerated one. And very few teachers have any training in how to deal with the mental health and behavioral issues that are surfacing in classrooms over the past year.
We have been putting teachers in an impossible position, and after a year of the “new normal” teachers are reaching the breaking point.
Once we understand that academic progress can’t and won’t happen until mental health is addressed, making mental wellness a school-wide priority becomes the obvious choice. Supporting mental health helps students learn, helps to relieve the pressure on teachers, and gives them the tools they need to succeed in challenging times.
3 ways schools can support teachers to increase teacher retention
1. Train teachers to recognize mental health issues and intervene appropriately
Students, teachers, and administrators alike have experienced trauma over the past two years. Trauma changes the way people behave and react. It’s why there’s been an explosion of behavioral issues in the classroom.
Teachers didn’t sign up to be in charge of their students’ social-emotional well being. But that’s the situation we’re in now. Teachers need to know how to recognize when a student needs help, and the appropriate steps to take in each situation. They need tools and strategies for dealing with the increased behavioral and mental health problems they face daily.
This is not a situation we can fix with a half-day workshop or webinar. Teachers need ongoing training delivered in small increments, that’s self-paced and flexible. And it must be scheduled as part of their yearly professional development so we’re not adding to their burden.
2. Provide counseling and coaching for teachers
Many schools are providing counseling services for struggling students, and that can be a tremendous help in managing critical cases. (In fact, 94 percent of surveyed NEA members support this solution.) But don’t overlook the fact that teachers need support as much as students do.
Schools can help teachers prevent and overcome burnout by providing counselors and coaches for teachers. What exactly can counselors and coaches do to increase teacher retention?
Provide emotional support. Listen and reassure teachers that they are not alone in what they are experiencing. Many returned to school this year expecting a reset back to 2019 and are discouraged because it’s looking like things will never be like they were before. Knowing their emotions are normal and widely shared really does give them comfort. It can be helpful to describe what’s happening as a recovery phase from the pandemic. This creates a sense of optimism while being realistic about the ongoing problems we face.
Provide advice and tools to help teachers do better in the classroom. Counselors and coaches can talk through specific situations teachers are facing, and share ideas for how to respond. Coaches can help teachers understand the psychological principles behind the behavior they are seeing and learn intervention techniques for everything from disruptive behavior to school refusal to self-harming behaviors. Having this knowledge can greatly reduce teacher stress, because they are no longer “flying blind” and are better prepared. Counselors and coaches can also help teachers to recognize what they are doing well, which can help them maintain a positive attitude.
Provide a reality check. When counseling is offered as a support that’s confidential and not tied to their job performance or evaluation, teachers can feel free to open up about what they are feeling and thinking. If someone confesses to being ready to quit, a counselor can help them realize that quitting might not be the answer. In fact, people often carry their issues into another job or profession. So they end up with no relief while losing their career and sometimes quality of life issues. Some teachers considering resigning might benefit from a break with the option to return.
If your school doesn’t have the budget to hire a full time counselor for teachers, consider training someone on staff to become a Certified School Mental Wellness SpecialistTM through Thrive’s Coaching, Training and Certification Program. Chances are, your school has someone who has some background or an interest in mental health who can learn how to work with staff members and students, with ongoing assistance from Thrive’s expert mental health clinicians.
3. Build a school climate and culture that supports mental wellness
Improving teacher retention is going to require building a healthier school climate and culture. It’s not only students who need to feel safe, supported, and valued. Schools need to make changes that improve attitudes and morale, and also shift the expectations (both written and unwritten) for staff members.
Communication is an important place to start. Schools need to examine and document the values they stand for when it comes to supporting mental wellness, and communicate them clearly to the entire school community. Then you’re going to need to practice what you preach.
Not sure how to do that? Thrive’s School Mental Wellness Accreditation program can support and guide you on the journey to building a healthy school climate and culture that leads to improved teacher retention AND improved student academic performance.
Ready to learn more about how Thrive’s mental wellness programs can strengthen your school and change the lives of your staff and students? Give us a call or schedule some time today.