We’ve been talking about social-emotional learning in the US since the late 1970s, and the conversation ballooned with the focus on bullying in the 1990s. In recent years, student wellbeing has come to the forefront of the conversation in the UK, prompting new funds and programs to support and nurture pupils. The COVID pandemic has only highlighted this need for student social emotional support or student wellbeing. Though much remains to be done in supporting students’ emotional needs, there is a consensus: student wellbeing is essential.
But, what about teachers?
According to a 2013 Gallup poll, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the US, tied only with nurses. According to a recent article in NPR, Jennifer Greif Green, an education professor at Boston University, explains that “the mental health and well-being of teachers can have a really important impact on the mental health and well-being of the children who they’re spending most of their days with,” Green explains. “Having teachers feel safe and supported in their school environments is essential to students learning and being successful.”
Not only do we need to address students’ wellbeing, we additionally need to:
- Train teachers in supporting the social and emotional needs of their students through dedicated training and professional development.
- Focus on supporting teachers’ social and emotional wellbeing.
Teachers have always been central support figures for their students. Since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, teachers have significantly more responsibilities coupled with the fewer tools to cope. Even in a virtual classroom — perhaps because of the virtual classroom — teachers are on the front line of their students’ social and emotional health. The reality is that most education courses and professional development programs focus on pedagogy and content while leaving social emotional learning in its own stand-alone category. The pandemic has proven this to be problematic. We need to infuse all education courses and professional development with a focus on student wellbeing. Teachers need to be explicitly taught these skills at the same time that they are learning how to identify an essential question, create an accessible rubric, and plan a unit.
In addition to the need to support educators in supporting students’ emotional health, this past year has proven that we need to support educators in their own mental health. In order for teachers to carry the weight of supporting their students, they need to have a strong foundation themselves. Building that base can be part of professional development and mentoring programs as well.
I write this from a birds-eye view of Jewish educators in North America and the UK. I work for an organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting Jewish educators. Last year we matched and placed 38 educators in North America and the UK, and we are on our way to doubling that number this year.
As a part of ensuring a successful matching process between educators and educational institutions, we direct and fund professional development and mentoring for our fellows that is specifically tailored to them and the educational institution they are teaching in.
We also provide facilitated monthly meetings for educators who are working in similar roles in the field. These monthly meetings were originally intended to be geographical – those who lived in a specific area would get together for dinner and join a community of like-minded people. When COVID changed that plan and we grouped our educators by role, we felt that the facilitators needed to be those who could drive the conversation through content and pedagogy.
We were mostly wrong. What we experienced over this past year in all six groups was a shift in the conversation from content or pedagogy to social emotional learning. While these groups were still professional learning communities, those COVID communities were much more about how to support their own emotional health and the emotional health of their students.
In our middle school and high school Judaic Studies teacher cohort, our fellows identified the major stressors as (1) “the near constant ‘unknowns,’” (2) “balancing student needs with the curriculum,” and (3) “being a social distance, mask wearer enforcer more so than educator, mentor, and friend to them.” This led our outstanding facilitator to create sessions on attuned listening in order to support our fellows’ ability to create a sense of community and belonging for their students, and perhaps for themselves as well.
In our six cohorts this year, we have seen this same dual phenomenon that we are arguing for: educators searching for tools to support their students’ wellbeing as well as their own.
As we look toward our budgets for the upcoming school year, I’d advocate that rather than cutting back on professional development (a natural tendency during these financially turbulent times), we should add to it. It’s time to double down on our teachers and to give them mental health support as well as the training to be mental health support to their students. If we invest in our teachers now, there will be long term gains not only in students’ mental health but in teacher retention. If teachers are essential workers, we need to give them the tools they need to continue to succeed on the front lines.