Teacher wellness: On the decline?

Want to know what I’ve been wondering about lately? I want to know if teacher health/wellness is declining amidst the pressure of educational reform today. A few days ago, I was walking behind a colleague and noticed that this person had gained some weight. It was nothing major–just something I observed. The observation prompted personal reflection. I thought about the changes in my own health and wellness over the past few years: the smaller clothes (now at the back of the closet), the infrequent trips to the gym, the lack of sleep, the quick meals on my way home when I’m wiped out, and the rare opportunities to actually EAT during my “lunch break” (a.k.a. more work time)! Being a teacher today is CHAOTIC! Though some of my colleagues sweat out their stress at the gym regularly, I am experiencing waning commitment to healthy outlets for releasing stress. This week, I’ve been wondering: Is it harder for teachers to find time for health and wellness given the many aspects of their jobs today?

My gut tells me: YES. I think the educational climate of “reform,” accountability, and the multi-faceted nature of the job keep educators busy long before and after the school bells. Finding balance is incredibly challenging in education today because there is a lot to do! Some SfS bloggers have offered great examples in recent posts below. I see it in my own practice, too. Every time I turn around, there seems to be a new initiative to connect with families, another way to track/report student progress, a new committee/club looking for teacher volunteers, another meeting to attend, a new form to fill out, another grant to submit for classroom supplies, and more items on the staff meeting agenda afterschool. Is this the price of being a “teacher?” I only seem to think about my health and wellness when I get to a breaking point, like when I get really sick or find myself completely exhausted. Otherwise, it’s ‘boots on the ground’ go, go, go, go, GO! Teachers are world changers, and we don’t like to stop and think about ourselves. How does that affect our health when there are so many things to do as a teacher today?

To take this further, serving as a teacher-leader adds additional responsibilities. I believe that teacher-leadership is essential in the profession, but it takes a huge toll. Every time I turn around, there is another training to plan, another teacher with a (great!) question, or a new resource I’d like to create. Of course, these duties come on top of my commitment to being an excellent teacher for my students. Good teachers who are also teacher-leaders are BUSY! Is this the price of “teacher leadership?” I can’t possibly count the Red Bulls that have kept me going with energy and enthusiasm despite very little sleep. But I’ll stop there with this one. Teacher leadership is worth it.

How does all of this affect the health and wellness of teachers? In a profession with high levels of attrition, could teachers be leaving because the stress/wellness issues are overwhelming with limited time for improvement? Additionally, declining health and wellness would be a serious concern for school districts that are self-insured. This past year, I heard about a local school district that increased employee healthcare contributions (what teachers pay to the district) by $700! A representative from that district said, “Employees need to get healthier to keep the cost down.” Talk about a double-edged sword. This profession requires more hours than other fields of work. Worse yet, many other fields have accepted long hours as common practice in the American workplace. I’d like to go on the record here: I don’t think that long work hours are good for health and wellness at all.

So what does the research say? I checked out keywords including: teacher, declining, health, and wellness in various combinations using Google News and Google Scholar. Unfortunately, there was nothing specific to teachers and their health/wellness. So does this mean that teacher health and wellness is not declining? Or does it mean that no one is asking questions or studying this topic? Sorry to say: I don’t have the answers there. But I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think that teacher health and wellness are declining in education today? What other research/news do you think relates to this topic?

When you’re ready to share your thoughts, come and find me. I hope I’ll be at the gym.

 

Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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