Building resilience in educators

Teacher burnout is real. A recent Rand Corp. study cited stress as the most common cause right now for teacher attrition, far surpassing inadequate pay.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Workplaces already under stress saw those levels skyrocket. Perhaps the industry hit hardest with sudden change, and the need for rapid resilience, was education.

Enter corporate wellness performance coaches Lauren Hodges and Phil Burton, whose Performance on Purpose business launched in late 2019 with a mission to help clients address the global burnout epidemic. Little did they know how much of a service their business would end up offering in the months ahead.

To help educators who were In the midst of the most stressful period of teaching in modern history, Hodges and Burton kicked off a six-month initiative in the fall of 2020 alongside 11 educational leaders and superintendents in California’s Central Valley. Burton and Hodges facilitated virtual training, performance coaching and digital on-demand content for teachers, administrators and superintendents on the frontline of the pandemic.

By the end of the program, the participating educators reported a 31% improvement in self-perceived quality of life. They cited better sleep, more motivation to exercise and a healthier perspective on managing high-stress environments as the benefits of the program. The initiative was so successful that a white paper published in School Administrator magazine in June 2021 detailed the efforts and explained how other districts and government entities across the country can take similar steps.

I asked Hodges to sit down with me to talk about burnout and resilience, sharing some insights gleaned from the educator-specific initiative that she believes can benefit teachers and administrators across the country. Here are the highlights, edited gently for space and clarity:

Katie Parsons: You’ve had the opportunity to work directly with educators on the specifics of their stressors and causes of burnout. What have you learned that opened your eyes?

Lauren Hodges: It’s been a humbling experience to learn firsthand what educators on the frontlines are facing right now. It’s more than burnout — it’s a crisis.

From a bigger-picture approach, burnout has long been perceived as the price you pay for success; it’s only in the past decade or so that leaders of organizations are realizing the return on investing in their people’s health, well-being and happiness. So we were certainly not the first company of our kind. In fact, we both worked with global leaders in this space for quite some time, helping them to develop and deliver their content and stay on top of the latest industry trends, data on employee well-being and so on. Phil and I came together because we realized that we could leverage our collective expertise to create content and a delivery and sustainability structure that, to us, filled large gaps that were missing in the marketplace. We were so lucky to fall into the education field through this first initiative as a byproduct of our work in the corporate world.

Parsons: How is teacher burnout different from other industries? What are you specifically seeing in educators when it comes to pandemic-related challenges and work burnout?

Hodges: What we are specifically seeing overall is an impossible expectation put on teachers, their administrators and even district leadership to sustain a pace of change and high workload. This is expected despite extreme mental health challenges for both staff and students, fear and danger from the coronavirus. It’s truly unsustainable, and it’s no wonder teachers are leaving the industry en masse. Last I checked, it was estimated that we’ll lose about a third of our teachers early to retirement or other jobs, according to a recent survey by the NEA.

Parsons: How important is resilience in our schools, either during remote or in-person instruction?

Hodges: Resilience isn’t a nice thing to have — it’s a NEED. Resilience is everything — not just for our students, but also for our educators and their leadership and for us parents with school-aged children. The degree to which we are able to manage change, uncertainty, high or impossible expectations, fear and so on is really highly dependent upon this skill of resilience. I call it a skill, not a trait, because it is a learned behavior.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this, though: All the resilience in the world won’t help the unsustainability of this crisis for education. 

We have to use this opportunity to think long and hard about how we compensate teachers, how we manage funding and resources, and what solutions can help mitigate some of the stress the entire industry is facing. I want to be careful not to weaponize self-care and resilience here against teachers. It’s a “yes, and” type of situation: Yes, teachers can and should work to build this skill of resilience. And we need to help them, because this level of change and stress is simply not sustainable.

Parsons: What tangible things can educators do to reduce their stress and improve resiliency on the job?

Hodges: There are some evergreen practices that will help in any situation that we all know about already: Get enough sleep — 7 to 9 hours is what we all need. Exercise. Eat well.

But outside of that, there is incredible power in pause. Set a timer to simply pause once or twice during the day and take notice of your breath, your emotions, maybe your hunger or thirst — anything. Creating and protecting time for even a minute of pause can go a long way in getting us out of that fight-or-flight, or “worry,” state.

I would also suggest breathing as a powerful tool — one deep, long breath can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the balancing arm to our fight-or-flight state. It can bring down the heart rate and get us back to a conscious and aware place. We can also take notice of, and name, our emotions in the moment. Normally we are unaware of our emotions as they are happening — particularly with stress.

Emotions give great clues and information about what you need. So pausing can really help with that awareness. I work with one teacher who spends five minutes of her lunch break taking a brisk walk and doing some open-monitoring meditation. She spends the time simply noticing the world around her and leaves her phone behind. Another teacher that I work with takes just two minutes of her prep time doing some box breathing – she inhales for four counts, holds her breath for four counts, exhales for four, and holds for four more, then repeats the cycle for two minutes. It’s just a blink in her busy day, but it’s enough for her to recenter, even if for a moment.

I also recommend using reframing techniques. Take a moment to pause and think about what’s bringing you stress, then work to reframe it with a more positive perspective.

This is a tough one to build in a high-stress environment, but it does help give you back a sense of perceived control over something. Because at the end of the day, we are in control of our own thoughts, emotions and behaviors. And that is worth its weight in gold in a time like this.

And the great part is, these are all strategies you can do with your students, no matter the age.

We’re often asked what we do with the overwhelming amount of expectation and asks. The truth is, there’s nothing you can do about that. This is simply a bigger problem than anything at the school, or even district, level.

What educators can do, and what we recommend, is threefold: one, connect with other teachers. Talk it out; share your frustrations and worries. Connection is king when it comes to mental health.

Two, fiercely protect your boundaries at home. Whatever boundaries you decide are critical to your mental health and your family —  whether it is saying no to emails on weekends, refusing to take parent calls on your cell phone, and so on. Decide what is non-negotiable and design methods to protect those boundaries.

And three, focus on what you can control. There is simply so much out of the control of teachers right now – so much that it becomes cumulative and burnout quickly creeps in. Focusing on the things that are within our control – even the smallest things like which route you take home, or the direction of your next thought – can really help mitigate some of the overwhelming feelings.