Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher shortages and leadership turnover have plagued school districts across the U.S. In order to attract and retain quality educators and improve education across the nation, we must start by creating a positive mental health environment for teachers. To address this challenge, Kevin Dougherty, Chief Strategy Officer for 806 Technologies and a former Principal of Title I / Bilingual Schools, shares his top 5 “E”s for improving mental health and sparking education transformation.
Mental health is a key reason why educators are leaving the field—and it’s also the key to turning this trend around.
In schools across the nation, we are losing teachers in record numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are more than 280,000 fewer public-school teachers now than at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, why have so many educators left the field? If you ask teachers, it’s largely about mental health. It’s clear that the industry needs more educators—and it is equally clear that, if we want to hire new teachers and keep our existing staff members, we must enhance our focus on mental health. So, what can educators do to create a more positive mental health environment? A good place to start is with the five “Es”: Effective Planning, Engagement, Equipment, Empowerment, and Equity.
1. Effective Planning
To achieve success, we first need to plan for it. For school districts and campuses, this process starts with conducting a Comprehensive Needs Assessment, or CNA, and incorporating mental health into the plan. Currently, not all schools are conducting a Comprehensive Needs Assessment, as improvement planning has often been seen as a compliance task rather than a meaningful tool to improve learning. To move the needle, schools and districts should focus on improvement planning as a process that leads to transformation rather than one that focuses solely on compliance.
Your CNA should go beyond academic needs. To set mental health goals, ask, “What are the social and emotional needs of the learners we serve? What are the social and emotional needs of our educators? How are those needs being incorporated into the plans that we create?” It is understandable that improvement planning has not been at the forefront of educators’ minds over the past few years. Between learning how to use new technology, juggling online and in-person classes, and struggling to keep up with state standards, most educators have been in survival mode since the start of the pandemic, with no time to focus on assessing needs or building relationships. However, if we don’t take the time to build relationships and rapport with students, how much learning is going to take place? By the same token, if we don’t take the time to address educators’ needs, how can we expect to attract new teachers and keep those we have?
It is easy to get wrapped up in everything we must do as educators, but it is critical to pause and reflect from time to time and ask, “Is what we have been doing working? Are we where we would like to be? Do our teachers feel satisfied with the work they do on our campus? Are our students’ needs being fully met on our campus?” If not, why are we persisting in the same patterns? Creating a meaningful CNA gives us the opportunity to try something different and aim for improvement.
Whether it is a teacher in a classroom connecting with students, a principal in a school communicating with staff, or central office employees working with campus educators, relationships must come first. Why? Because the brain only responds to information that is emotional or meaningful. If you hear something that is meaningful to you and it triggers an emotional response, you will pay more attention to it and learn at greater levels. Relationships bring meaning to the learning environment and make information and experiences more relevant to students. It’s why students learn more from teachers who care about them—and it is also why teachers choose to work in environments where they feel cared for and appreciated.
Engaging with Students
To encourage educators to build relationships with students, school leaders can ask, “What are you doing to get to know your students? How are you taking the information you learn about them, and using it to create lessons and experiences that are engaging for the students you serve?” Educators may reply, “I don’t have time to do that. We are so focused on covering required subject matter and improving test scores, we can’t afford to take time to build relationships.” However, if we truly want to achieve these goals, we can’t afford not to spend time on relationships.
Here’s a simple way to bring engagement into class time, while reinforcing learning, based on David Hyerle’s Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge: Place a frame of reference around any activity students are doing, to create a more personal connection. Educators can do this by asking students, “What is something in your personal life that you can connect to the concept we are learning about?” For example, an educator who is teaching a lesson on percentages could ask students to estimate the percentage of their time they spend on different hobbies they enjoy, or tasks they do throughout the day. Next, the teacher can give students an opportunity to write down their answers, exploring the concept visually. As the teacher is circulating through the room, they can glance at each student’s work and take a few moments to connect with them. A simple comment like, “I didn’t know you were a swimmer,” or “I see you spend a lot of time practicing basketball. What skills are you working on this week?” It only takes a few minutes to incorporate this technique into a teaching plan, but it can make a big difference in student interest and engagement.
Engaging with Educators
Focusing on relationships is critical to attracting and retaining great teachers, too. After all, if a teacher doesn’t feel valued, they may not choose to continue teaching. School leaders can ask, “How are we engaging our teachers in improvement planning? How are we making sure teachers see our school as a great place to work? Are we taking time to ask about their thoughts and feelings, and to respond to their mental health concerns? Are we responding in ways that show their voices matter to us?”
If schools are facing staff shortages that are creating excessive workloads, administrators should look for ways to reduce the burden on their existing teachers so they don’t become frustrated and leave, creating an even greater gap. Are there ways to reduce paperwork? Non-essential tasks that can be eliminated? Could the workload be better balanced? These are all questions to consider when creating your CNA.
When learners are deeply engaged, teachers can move beyond the basics to help students achieve more rigorous levels of learning. This allows them to equip students with new concepts and complex ideas that will advance their educational pursuits throughout grades K-12 and on to college, career or military service. Students should be equipped with as many opportunities as possible to achieve success. Then, they may choose the opportunities that interest them most. A student who is well-equipped for the future may enjoy an increase in confidence and self-esteem, important components of mental health. Feeling prepared for success can also reduce stress and anxiety about future prospects.
In the world of education, we often focus on equipping students—but what about educators? Our teachers also need ongoing education, training and introduction to new concepts in order to be successful. Investing in professional learning is an excellent way to equip teachers for the classroom. School leaders can ask, “What types of ongoing training are we providing for our educators? When we hire new teachers, how are we equipping them with training, resources, and support?” The same questions apply to school leadership. In order to retain the best educational leaders and reduce turnover, we must also provide leaders with meaningful, ongoing professional learning opportunities.
Once students are engaged in learning and equipped with advanced skills and understanding, they become empowered. The ultimate goal of empowerment is to achieve a level of learning that is independent. This creates a sense of agency for the learner. Educators need to be empowered, too. Equipping teachers with skills is one way to empower them. Listening to their needs and acknowledging their successes is another. Ask, “How are we empowering our educators? Do they have the tools they need to be successful? Are we giving them the power to make decisions in the classroom, and encouraging them to take ownership?”
Most schools do a good job of recognizing their educators and acknowledging their achievements—but it’s always good to reflect on your campus or district’s recognition policies and practices. Showing gratitude and appreciation for a job well done, and being consistent in this recognition, is an excellent way to improve the mental health environment of any workplace.
To create a more equitable environment, we must approach education with the mindset that every learner and every educator possesses a unique perspective, point of view and experiential background. Then, we must give students and educators ample opportunities to reflect on their unique experiences and seek to develop an understanding of the experiences of others. In doing so, we will be better able to provide an educational experience that addresses unique needs and is equitable.
In order to meet educators’ emotional needs, they must feel that their workplace provides equitable opportunities for all. Educators should also feel that their experiences are valued by peers and leadership. Professional learning and growth topics should incorporate a focus on equity and diversity, and participants should be given the opportunity to share their unique perspective, point of view and experiential background. This will help them feel valued, honored and respected for what they bring to the table. From there, they can grow and thrive in a safe environment that allows them to learn from others who come from different perspectives and hold different points of view. We all become more enriched as a result of equitable environments, so equity must be made a priority.
The five “Es” of effective planning, engagement, empowerment, equipment and equity provide a useful framework for improving mental health in education. Beyond these strategies, it’s also important to remember your “Why.” Why did you become a teacher or administrator? Why is this work important to you? For most educators, it’s all about making a difference in the lives of young people. If educational leaders can affect change in their schools and districts, it will positively impact teaching and learning across the nation. Let’s set a positive example by prioritizing a focus on mental health.
About the Author
Kevin Dougherty is the Chief Strategy Officer for 806 Technologies. He has spent the past 39 years as an educator and serving educators. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, Kevin earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Multicultural Education. He later earned a Master of Education Degree in Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts/Lowell. Kevin was a classroom teacher for ten years in the Dallas, Boston, and Houston areas. He then served as an assistant principal/principal of Title I/Bilingual campuses in large urban areas. For the past 22 years, Kevin has been serving educators throughout the nation in various roles supporting sales/marketing, professional learning, and overall company strategy. He has been married to his wife, Michelle, for 33 years. They have two grown children, one of whom is a classroom teacher.
 Hyerle, David N. “Visual Tools for Transforming Information Into Knowledge.” Corwin; 2nd edition (January 15, 2008).