2020 News Stories
David C. Anchin Center hosts presentation on improving teacher well-being
by Jessenia Rivera
As the kick-off presentation for this year’s community speaker series, the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching hosted a presentation that addressed and examined a rising issue in the education profession—teacher emotional health and well-being.
Dr. Nathaniel von der Embse, an associate professor of school psychology in the USF College of Education and an Anchin Center Policy Fellow, served as the keynote presenter and shared several studies he has conducted on the topic. Throughout his presentation, Dr. von der Embse presented attendees with key findings that helped explain the stressors associated with being an educator in today’s classroom.
According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, 93 percent of educators have reported high levels of stress. A Gallup Survey also revealed that the teaching profession and the nursing profession are tied as having the most stressful jobs in the United States.
Furthermore, research Dr. von der Embse conducted in North Carolina revealed that nearly one-third of 8,000 teachers reported experiencing “clinically significant” stress. This finding led to discussion about another issue currently facing the field—a shortage of teachers serving in K-12 schools.
“It’s no wonder why we have high rates of turnover,” Dr. von der Embse said.
In his presentation, Dr. von der Embse identified three key stressors that are regularly placed on educators: student behavior, standardized testing, and unstable school leadership.
With evaluations affecting job performance and pay being linked to student achievement on standardized exams, Dr. von der Embse said teacher stress tends to peak during testing periods. His studies in Texas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida allowed him to see more similarities in the impact of high stakes testing across states than differences.
“Despite states having different accountability systems, how states use the test is going to consistently impact teacher well-being,” Dr. von der Embse said. “Even though the policies are different, the impact of those policies are about the same.”
In addition to looking at teacher stress during a specific point in time, Dr. von der Embse also examined teacher emotional health throughout the course of a school year. In one study, he asked approximately 70 teachers to record their stress, efficacy, and connectedness levels each week. These levels were positive at the start of the school year for most teachers, but they did not remain that way year-round.
“In the beginning of the year, most teachers generally felt connected to their school,” Dr. von der Embse said. “They felt a high sense of efficacy in their teaching practices and moderate to low stress. As the year went on, we saw declines in the positive and increases in the negative.”
Seeking to examine daily stress patterns, Dr. von der Embse had teachers record their stress and wellness levels throughout the day over the course of four weeks. Though he was unable to pinpoint an exact time of day where teachers find themselves the most stressed, the data allowed him to draw a few solid conclusions.
“You have a group of teachers who are high stressed and they are always going to be high stressed,” Dr. von der Embse said. “Whereas other teachers might be more susceptible to a moment in time where a student may be acting out and then they become stressed.”
When discussing solutions to teacher stress, Dr. von der Embse outlined a few treatment and program options such as mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s) and “packaged” programs. Though seemingly effective, Dr. von der Embse observed that neither of these options consider the limited time teachers have and the lack of resources in schools to support these methods.
He believes a combination of efforts is essential to bringing about change for teachers. However, Dr. von der Embse also says that administrators could do more to minimize stressors.
“I think there are things that an administrator could do to make that environment much more conducive to teacher well-being,” Dr. von der Embse said. “(Such as) teacher gratitude and making sure that teachers are not only teaching socio-emotional learning to their kids, but there are also engaging in those reflective skills themselves.”
As emphasized by Dr. von der Embse, administrators who focus their efforts on both student and teacher health will be able to facilitate a lasting difference in their classrooms year-round.
“When you have an administrator who is truly encouraging those skills, it becomes a culture in that school and that really fosters that long-term well-being,” Dr. von der Embse said.
Following his presentation, three panelists consisting of two school administrators from local school districts and a College of Education researcher further explored the topic by describing their own perspectives and experiences.
Panelists included Tricia McManus, Assistant Superintendent for Leadership, Professional Development and School Transformation for Hillsborough County schools; Andrea O’Sullivan, English Language Arts Department Chair for Polk County Public Schools and Dr. Mandie Dunn, Assistant Professor of English Education at the USF College of Education.
Drawing from her own experience as an English teacher at Kathleen High School, Sullivan shared how she incorporates activities into the school day to alleviate both her own stress and the stress her colleagues feel.
“I try to take care of my stressors as a teacher first and then a teacher leader next,” Sullivan said. “I have a cup of tea. I take a walk during my lunches. When I work with my teachers, I invite them over.”
While agreeing with the teacher stress solutions presented by Dr. von der Embse, Sullivan said she believes schools should start small first.
“If we can take a minute to think about the small things we can do before we look into those programs, it would really make a difference,” Sullivan said.
McManus shared that teacher stress tends to be overgeneralized, as some individuals assume that the same thing causes stress for every person.
Moreover, she also hinted that some solutions only remedy the problem on the surface. She identified what she believed to be some of the root causes of teacher stress and where she feels action should be taken.
“I don’t think it’s a program that will fix teacher stress,” McManus said. “I think it’s legislation. Stop adding more things to our plate, stop adding other certifications on top of other certifications and telling teachers you have two years to get all of this done.”
When responding to the issue of teacher well-being, Dr. Dunn presented an essay she wrote that highlighted her time as a public-school teacher and the results of her own research.
“Teachers don’t burn out,” Dr. Dunn said. “They are extinguished.”
She went on to describe the “emotional labor” educators experience as they navigate their own personal difficulties, while also trying to put students first. “I want to suggest focusing on retaining teachers by considering what we must do to sustain them,” Dr. Dunn said. “A perspective that retains teachers makes space for teachers to be human and to bring humanity to their work in a meaningful way.”
This presentation was hosted as part of an ongoing series of presentations by scholars and policy fellows in the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information about future presentations, please visit the Anchin Center’s website.