Teacher Wellness – What Are We Really Talking About?

Teacher wellness has become the latest buzz word as schools continue to struggle to recruit and retain enough educators to meet community needs. It turns out, encouraging the adoption of yoga classes isn’t quite enough. But there are meaningful things schools and districts can do to support their staff – and their students – both physically and emotionally.  Rick Wormeli joined Joe Mazza and Phyllis Fagell to talk about some of these strategies on the latest episode of the Middle School Walk and Talk podcast. You can listen to the full discussion or enjoy a written recap here.

First, we need to be able to talk about the hard stuff

A struggle to discuss the most controversial topics in a way that’s healthy and productive hasn’t just permeated our political discourse, it’s something Wormeli sees school staff struggling with among themselves as well. As an example, he points to grading practices. “Grading is such a barometer of your core values that nerves can be very raw,” he explains, “In fact, because the way you grade is a statement of who you are as a teacher, your whole identity associated with that.” This anxiety around these discussions can lead to them not happening when they need to. It also reflects a desire, after several years of school disruption due to COVID-19, to hang onto something familiar. As a result, having the skillset to have conversations about these core values in a positive way can make a meaningful difference for the educator and the school’s overall culture.

Teacher autonomy as an essential tool for wellness and escape from imposter syndrome

Wormeli has also found in his nationwide work that there is a looming sense of imposter syndrome among educators. “I feel out of my depth, and you’re now going to ask me to do something that I would don’t feel trained to do,” he recounts hearing, “I don’t like doing this sort of thing. I’m used to being very confident.” After three years of barely keeping up, that’s a hard issue to combat. In addition to the urgent need for more mental health supports, and to reduce the stigma around them, Wormeli points to another essential tool to support wellness – empowering teachers with the autonomy they deserve as trained professionals.

“When teachers have tools that they need, there’s a positive effect,” Wormeli says, “When they get to use these tools they get that psychological reward, and they feel more empowered, and to find more energy.” One of these tools is helping teachers identify their core virtues, their bottom line, and to empower them to act on that.  “What do you really believe?” he asks, “Do you think grades should be accurate? Do you think, the teacher can find pathways with pretty much any student. If we had a large enough repertoire and versatility, and the willingness to act on that and to be able to teach and be successful with kids, it just might take longer or shorter when they feel empowered to act upon what they believe they find more energy.”

Minimizing the hypocrisy between that bottom line and what we’re asking teachers to do can make a massive difference. “When they’re asked to do things that are not in alignment with what they believe they’re exhausted at the end of the day, and they’re wildly stressed out,” Wormeli explains, “When you have that integrity you find meaning and joy in your job again.” That means giving teachers a safe space to try new things and have agency in what they’re doing. A constant sense of being out of control can be a key factor in creating chronic stress.

Sometimes this means you have to replace old tools with new ones. Back to the grading example, if you suggest a new approach that homework shouldn’t count as a grade, you’re taking away a tool that that educator is used to having. “You have to replace it with something of equal or greater practicality,” he says, “Otherwise they won’t go for it because you’re taking away one of their prime tools, and they’ve got nothing left.”

Advocacy as a tool for wellness

But what about in areas where divisive politics have led to extreme restrictions on what teachers can do? Or certain mandates create a major roadblock to educator autonomy? At the most basic level, it’s about implementing the practices you know to be effective and then translating them into the district or locality’s language. But taking it a step further can also provide a source of support for yourself and your students. Volunteer to be on the committee to revise, or change the culture or reform things, Wormeli recommends, adding that, “one of the most powerful things you can do is simply turn to one of your colleagues that you respect very much and say I volunteer to be your campaign manager if you run for governor.” Beyond activating change, being an advocate can also provide a sense of purpose that is key to your own wellness.

Another way to do this is by equipping yourself to have conversations with those that disagree with you in a way that actually shifts their thinking. “Find a way to question things diplomatically,” he says, “Say, ‘Hey, I wonder if I could make you aware of another perspective.’” Wormeli notes that in these instances it helps to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, even when you know they’re perpetuating a certain belief and that they may exist in an echo chamber. No matter what side of the spectrum their beliefs come from, to start that conversation it can help to go back to what we know to be good and true about how young adolescent minds best learn. You might use language like, “We know they learn best this way. Yet we are doing this other thing. I wonder how we might reconcile that. Can you help me? Can you walk me through it?” The aim, says Wormeli, is how do I help somebody see the error of their thinking without making them defensive. How do I ask questions to get you to arrive at that discovery yourself rather than me, just telling you are so wrong, and let me prove to you how you’re wrong? This is a skill teachers can learn, Wormeli says, “You can overtly teach teachers, and if they need to step up for what is right, not succumb to the politically expedient.”

Combatting the physical toll of stress

While the idea of yoga classes or meditation moments may seem overplayed, providing and prioritizing opportunities like these for physical wellness are absolutely critical tools for teachers. Wormeli recalls other creative ways schools have promoted wellness, including allowing teachers to use planning time to engage in physical activity and providing puzzles and gadget/fidget tools in the faculty lounge. At one school, paths were created and adult-only showers provided so that teachers could take a walk or go for a run during their planning periods. Others have replaced food at faculty gatherings with healthier options.

Another way to combat stress is to provide opportunities for your teachers to learn new skills or develop interests during the school day. Maybe they want to learn about Minecraft coding, or expand their knowledge about a particular period of history they teach. It’s about giving teachers supported opportunities to engage in lifelong learning of their own choosing. Sounds like what we recommend for middle school kids as well!

Wellness at the core

Summarizing how to support teacher wellness, Wormeli returns to the idea of core values. “What we really need to do is we need to say, ‘Look, what do you really believe? We’re not going to stifle creativity? I really think that’s important. We’re teaching for long-term memory not just short-term they knew it, and then they forgot it.’” This means staying open to new ideas. “The professional is the one who is always open and accessible, to revise in light of new perspective and in light of new evidence,” he adds, “And that’s all we can hope for, and that is a wonderful way to conduct your teacher self. If you think middle school is the front line of humanity and the place to be, and not merely a stepping stone to high school. You will honk your horn, you will shine your light, you will raise your flag for the whole world that’s what we’re about, and you know what our students need models of how to do that.”