Teacher Well-Being – We Need Systems Change (Part 3)

District and school systemic reforms
to support teachers social and emotional lives

By Mark Greenberg
Emeritus Bennett Chair of Prevention Science, Penn State University, Chair of CREATE (www.createforeducation.org)

Without well teachers, we will not have healthy schools and successful students

Teacher turnover is estimated to cost about 7 billion dollars per year in US. In addition, there are “hidden costs” including reductions in student achievement.  In part 3 in this series of blogs on teacher/educator well-being, I explore the need for systemic reform at the level of the school and district school to support teachers and students.  In part 1 and part 2, I explored the importance of nurturing teachers own resilience and social and emotional competencies to support them in the challenging role of teaching at both inservice and preservice levels. As Lee Shulman noted almost two decades ago, “Classroom teaching . . . is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.”

However, there is a prevailing and widespread belief that teacher stress and burnout is the individual responsibility of each teacher, e.g., if teachers were only more resilient then the problem would disappear.  This thesis places the burden on the teacher and has the risk of “blaming the victim (i.e., the educator)” rather than looking at the systemic organizational issues that are often responsible for teacher burnout and attrition. In part 1, I discussed the importance of supporting the individual skills and resilience of teachers (just as we all can profit from increased social, emotional, and cultural awareness), here we turn to organization and socio-cultural changes that schools and districts can make to increase educator well-being. To read the research on the role of organizational factors that support teacher well-being go here.

What Organizational Factors Impact Teacher Well-being?

School Organization: Leadership, School Climate and School Culture.  Higher teacher job satisfaction and well-being are linked to supportive school culture, strong principal leadership and a collaborative environment. High teacher trust in both colleagues and leadership is related to lower stress and burnout. Teacher turnover is also related to principal turnover. Frequent principal turnover results in lower teacher retention; leadership changes are particularly harmful for high poverty and low-achieving schools, and schools with inexperienced teachers.

Job Demands. High demands on the job are associated with teacher stress both before covid and presently. High-stakes testing at the state and district levels have exacerbated this problem by limiting teachers’ control over the content and pace of their work, and increasing threats of school closure.  Managing students with behavior problems also produces chronic stress. 

Work Resources: Autonomy in Decision-Making. When leaders create opportunities for decision making and teacher collaboration, they feel empowered and have higher satisfaction. The % of teachers who report low job autonomy has increased over the past decade. Retaining high quality teachers is heightened when they have a voice in school-level decisions.

Much, but not all of the above factors are related to the quality of relationships that are promoted between teachers, and between teachers and administrators, parents, and students. Principals and administrators set the tone by the quality of relationships they promote, the trust that develops from strong communication skills.  By listening with full attention, and approaching decisions with an open and accepting attitude, and creating an “ethic of care”, principals can create caring school climates, and help teachers develop the skills necessary to exhibit these same qualities with their students. Principals who promote an ethic of care and intentionally develop authentic relationships and support teachers’ emotional needs create a nurturing school environment. To read the research on the role of principals in supporting teacher and school climate go here.

What Does Research Tell Us About Healthy Organizational Change?

Organizational Interventions. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research on organizational-level interventions to change school’s culture and work practices; programs that promote a participatory environment, open communication, supervisor/peer support, job redesign (e.g. reducing workload), training, worker health policies, etc. Although initiatives have created labor-management health and safety committees, there is no research demonstrating their effectiveness in improving teacher well-being or performance.

Individual-Organizational Interface Interventions 

This approach focuses on building co-worker support and skills training for teachers. There are four types of programs that have been shown to help teachers reduce stress, improve well-being and student outcomes, and even save schools money. You can find more details here.

  • Mentoring and induction programs for beginning teachers can improve teacher satisfaction and retention, as well as student achievement. Research shows teachers who had a subject-area mentor, common subject- area planning time, and regular communications with their principal had higher retention rates. More comprehensive, and longer, induction supports are more advantageous, and particularly effective in retaining teachers in high-need districts.
  • Workplace wellness programs address teacher’s health and well-being by targeting lifestyle changes to reduce health-risk behaviors and costs.  Workplace wellness programs have resulted in reduced health risk, health care costs, and absenteeism among teachers. Although few programs have been studied, most are likely to be cost-effective.
  • Social emotional learning (SEL) programs that improve behavior and promote SEL among students may reduce teacher stress.  Teachers trained and supported in implementing SEL programs have lower job-related anxiety and depression, higher quality interactions with students, greater teacher engagement, and greater perceived job control. Teachers in schools implementing multi-tiered approaches such as school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) also reported lower levels of job-related burnout and higher efficacy.
  • Mindfulness and SEL training for educators.  There are numerous careful randomized trials that have shown that nurturing teachers own awareness, communication, relationship skills and mindfulness can improve teacher’s well-being (see part 1 of this blog series)
  • Supporting Principals to Support Teachers. What is most surprising in making systems change is the dearth of research on how principal training can improve teacher well-being. While much has been written regarding how principals’ supportive behaviors are associated with higher levels of teacher emotion regulation ability and job satisfaction, and well-being, there is very little research to demonstrate how, what and when models of principal training and coaching improves the well-being and retention of teachers.
  • In part 4 of this series I will discuss the potential role of teacher’s unions in supporting well-being.

            If we are going to create and nurture the kind of schools that provide a balance of caring and compassion balanced with high expectations, we need to consider all three components of change: organizational change, educator resilience, and pre-service learning. This requires leadership on the part of district leaders, school boards, unions, and teacher education programs. The time is now.


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