Teacher Health and Wellness

Fostering Student Achievement by Supporting Teachers’ Mental and Physical Well-Being

teacher health congressional briefing

On June 14, 2017, Committee for Children and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) held a congressional briefing on “Teacher Health and Wellness: Fostering Student Achievement by Supporting Teachers’ Mental and Physical Well-Being.” It was attended by over 30 people from congressional offices, national nonprofits, and academia.

The presenters included: Dr. Patricia Jennings, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, Dr. Joshua Brown, associate professor at Fordham University and Kori Sanchez Smith, SEL coordinator at Atlanta Public Schools. The panel was moderated by Gene Wilhoit, CEO, Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky.

“The primary way children learn social-emotional skills is through being exposed to adult behavior,” said Dr. Patricia Jennings. When teachers are stressed, the students in their class are stressed. This statement is at the core of the new bill, HR 2544, the Teacher Health and Wellness Act, which focuses on connections between teacher stress and overall health and student outcomes. This bill, co-sponsored by Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH), Susan Davis (D-CA), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), aims to provide support for teachers by establishing a pilot study to research the most effective ways to reduce teacher stress levels, increase mindfulness, attain positive job satisfaction, and in the process, improve student classroom behavior and academic outcomes.

Many occupations include high daily stress, but one survey done in 2014 by Gallup, found that 46 percent of teachers experience high daily stress during the school year; this percentage is tied for the highest among all occupations. This chronic stress leads to elevated turnover rates among teachers, costing an estimated $7 billion per year. High turnover results in unstable school staffing, new teachers who lack experience, and costly training supported by schools that could be using their resources elsewhere. Teachers also rated the lowest of any profession in feeling that their opinions counted at work, one reason why 8 percent of teachers leave the classroom each year, with retirees making up only a small portion. Lack of job control is strongly linked to increased stress among employees, and educators are finding their physical health decline in response.

The briefing opened with Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children and moderator Gene Wilhoit offering introductory remarks.

Dr. Jennings focused on the importance of teachers who are mindful and prepared to teach as fundamental to the success of students. Teachers who experience high stress and depression are found to have students with worse achievement levels, including significantly worse academic performance and behavioral problems.

Dr. Jennings also spoke about the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) study she conducted along with Dr. Joshua Brown, associate professor of psychology at Fordham University. The CARE study examined 224 elementary teachers across 36 New York City public schools. The CARE program focused on supporting teacher self-care, empathy and compassion for self, mindfulness, and emotional awareness through five sessions and regular phone coaching. The research found that when teacher mindfulness is supported, student academic engagement, student academic motivation, and student social skills all reap the benefits.

Dr. Brown spoke about the connections between increased teacher depressive symptoms and lower math scores, partly due to poorer classroom interactions, and increased emotional exhaustion resulting in lowers level of reading achievement. He also discussed the trend of teacher burnout early in the year stemming from student behavioral problems due to poorer social and academic adjustment.

In addition to the CARE study, Dr. Brown worked on the 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) program, which consisted of two core components, a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum for students within a larger literacy program and specific training and coaching sessions for teachers. By the end of the second year, teachers and students reported feelings of improved classroom interactions, decreased aggressive behavior, and improved interpersonal negotiation strategies as well as other improvements.

Kori Sanchez Smith reflected on many of her experiences as an educator and later as a SEL coordinator to emphasize the need for mindfulness training to allow teachers to lead by example. She cited the success of community gathering programs in the classroom to improve the relationship between students and teachers. When attempting to implement SEL curriculum into a school, the focus is greater than just a single teacher. SEL curriculum has an impact on every aspect of the school, and this requires all systems to work collaboratively to create a SEL-supportive school.

You can view the full briefing here.