A View from the Classroom: How Policymakers Can Improve Teachers’ Mental Health

By Julia Collins

Teachers are experiencing a mental health crisis that’s pushing them out of the profession. With the transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic; attacks on critical race theory and social emotional learning; and the teacher shortage, teaching is more stressful than ever. In American society, teaching is not a highly regarded profession, making it easy to attack educators for issues that stem from the larger system. But it will take more than professional development meetings on self-care and wellness to address these problems, which have 55 percent of teachers thinking about leaving their job. Federal, state, and district policymakers must focus on lasting solutions, such as improving wages, professional development, and the evaluation process.

For an on-the-ground perspective to these deep challenges, I spoke to Kayla, who was formerly a high school English teacher in Virginia. She shared some hurdles she faced and her thoughts on how to promote effective change.

Kayla taught for nine years before she decided to leave teaching. Having taught in suburban, city, private, public, and Title I schools, she’s had a range of experiences in how schools address teacher mental health. Every school she’s worked in has offered a handful of free counseling sessions. The district solutions included free donuts and the chance for teachers to wear jeans to work. All of these failed to address the root cause of the problem—teacher burnout.

Kayla began to feel burned out only two years into teaching. Her feelings were escalated by the pandemic. By October 2020, Kayla’s mental health was suffering, and she began to look for other opportunities outside of the classroom.

“I was not sleeping well, I was not ever happy, and I just knew I couldn’t honestly go on with this profession at this point in time,” she said.

It will take more than a few mental health sessions or free donuts to address teacher burnout. Policymakers need to listen to the lived experiences of teachers and make serious policy changes. As Kayla noted, “there need to be better policies in place to support teachers, which ultimately supports students.”

The first change should be in teacher wages. The average annual salary for U.S. teachers has gone down since 2000. Kayla remarked how many teachers she knew who had second and third jobs to make ends meet: “Teachers need a livable wage so they don’t have to work extra jobs so they can actually have that time to recover from an emotionally exhausting profession.”

Next, policymakers need to eliminate punitive measures of teacher evaluation. “Teachers do not need to feel as if their job is in jeopardy if students do not score certain numbers on an assessment,” Kayla said. Test scores are likely to be lower for students of color and students from households with low incomes due to deeply entrenched racial and economic bias in standardized testing. Basing teacher evaluations largely on test scores means that teachers may put stress on students to perform well on testing rather than learning to be a good citizen.

Teachers also need more time for continuous professional learning. Unlike existing professional development, which expects large results after a short amount of time, teachers are looking to learn from each other over an extended period of time. Kayla explained: “Teachers… learn the best from other teachers. Let them be the leaders in their schools and let them train other teachers.”

Finally, teachers need to be included in policy decisions on every level. “Policymakers need to bring teachers into the fold,” Kayla shared. “They need to give them a voice. They’re the ones who live in schools every single day… they know schools better than anyone else.” On federal, state, and district levels, policymakers must include teachers and their lived experience in substantial ways. Simply inviting teachers to sit silently at the table is not enough.

Implementing these policies will not only help teachers’ mental health but also improve student learning. Kayla explained that teachers who are burnt out are not performing their jobs as well as they could be. Student learning suffers as a result. This appears in not being able to make creative lesson plans, give robust feedback on student assignments, or build relationships with students.

“The best school environment has happy, productive teachers. That’s what students need and what teachers want to be.” With effective and transformational policies, this environment can become a reality.