Meaningful change

Teacher wellness: Relaxation and recovery

In Short

The 2020-21 school year meant prolonged exposure to stress and the negative impacts it has on the body and brain for teachers

Never has the “final bell” on the last day of school meant as much as it did in 2021. Throughout the year, teachers in Jewish day schools worked with fewer (if any) breaks during the day; monitored social distancing measures inside and outside of the learning environment; and faced the repeated anxiety of teaching in-person. In addition, the dedication to providing as much in-person school as possible meant teaching in radically different ways through concurrent and hybrid models. 

With each season, new challenges emerged that further impacted how teachers taught and interacted with their students. In addition to normal curriculum, fall was about learning and teaching the COVID restrictions and adapting. Winter brought increased instances of student emotional dysregulation and higher levels of anxiety and depression among community members. In the spring, teachers described the feeling of approaching the finish-line of a marathon, “I knew I didn’t have any more to give and I was elated to be finished” said one 3rd grade Judaic studies teacher. She continued, “The only things getting me through it, the stresses of prep and teaching in totally different ways, were the images of relaxing in the summer and the promise of a totally different school year in 2021-22.” As summer approached, there was genuine happiness that the worst was behind us as we looked forward to a new “post-COVID normal”. The 2020-21 school year meant prolonged exposure to stress and the negative impacts it has on the body and brain for teachers.

As we approach the end of summer—and a school year that won’t be as “normal” as we all hoped– some discussions among educational leaders have centered on the need for specific mental health supports for teachers this year. From these discussions, two overlapping questions emerge: 

  • How are teachers learning to use strategies and tools to promote better mental health?
  • What did last year and this summer teach us about teacher recovery and relaxation?

What is the difference between recovery and relaxation? And why does this matter?

Relaxation helps us feel refreshed; it also helps us believe that we are ready to tackle new challenges. But it doesn’t help us deal with, or understand, stress and trauma we experienced. In contrast, recovery that includes research-based practices to focus in meaningful ways on stress and trauma helps us process what happened.  We begin to understand our experience, which then allows for healing. Importantly, recovery can draw out wellness strategies that we can rely on as we face new and familiar stress in the future.

With the rise of the Delta variant, the giddiness of the post-vaccination summer is now replaced by the dread of illness and return of stricter COVID restrictions. Elementary school teachers may have to return to concurrent, hybrid and Zoom teaching. No one can predict how students or teachers will respond to the reality that 2021-22 may look like last year and feel even worse because of the anticipation of “being done with COVID.”

Yet, regardless of the circumstances and challenges, parents and students continue to rely on day school teachers and administrators to provide quality educational experiences, strong community relationships and a safe place to grow. Teachers may feel refreshed right now, but without the tools to process the stress of the previous year and a half, that feeling may dissipate. If September 2021 classrooms look like January 2021, some teachers may quickly return to a more stressed and anxious mindset. Whereas recovery is a time-consuming process, anxiety returns much more quickly. As Dr. Betsy Stone notes, “It is important to note that our goal is not resilience. Resilience is a return to what was. Our goal is growth, which demands time, intentionality and patience. People make meaningful change at a slow pace. Because change can be painful and is challenging.” 

What can educational leaders do to support this long-term growth and change?

Some strategies include: 

1.       Be prepared for different teachers to respond differently to the challenges of the new school year. Whether it looks more like September 2019 or September 2020, some teachers may struggle and others may not. Some may choose to share and some not.

2.       Make mental health and wellness a priority by creating professional development that is specifically designed for teachers and staff during teacher orientation/in-service and throughout the year. 

a.       Frameworks: Learn more about trauma informed schools, mindfulness, and post-traumatic growth.

b.      Tangible, predictable and sustainable supports: Use school Title funding or community programs to access mental health professionals to support teachers and students who are ready to engage. Make sure that they happen with regularity and teachers are prepared for it.

c.       Relationships: Use meeting times for teachers to connect in their own way and limit meetings so that they are necessary and generative. 

If you need help doing this, utilize offerings provided by The Jewish Education Project

3.       Take stock of which strategies work and which do not. If day school teachers are happy to participate in thriving and self-care work, then keep it coming. If they are not able, explore why not and listen carefully for openings to other strategies. 

a.       Listen: Create more opportunities for communication in small groups or surveys. Commit to acting on teacher wellness preferences.

b.      Centering teacher emotions: Help teachers acknowledge their feelings – not what they think they should be feeling – and make room for a wide range of emotions, including despair and pain.

c.       Experiment and iterate: Lily Rabinoff-Goldman at Gann Academy explored the power of reflective writing while making room for other ways of healing.

d.       Create Connections: Carve out time and structures for teacher communication & collaboration. According to the recent study from the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE),76% of Jewish educators feel supported by their colleagues; let’s encourage that!

e.       Look for signs of recovery and anxiety/stress/depression in your teachers’ words and actions.

4.       Collaborate with other school leaders as you experiment with new ways of making teachers feel supported differently. The Jewish Education Project, in partnership with Dr. Betsy Stone, is convening a year-long Day School Leaders Network to learn more about post-traumatic growth, share challenges, explore possibilities and plan for next steps in our schools.

As we look toward 5782, let’s continue to prioritize educators’ mental health and wellness. Let’s provide multiple avenues of healing through networks, coaching and workshops  aimed at exploring more tools to support well-being.

Judith Talesnick is managing director of professional learning and growth at The Jewish Education Project, collaborates with NY area Day School leaders to refine their community goals and create learning experiences that move the teachers and leaders closer to their vision.