Educator’s View: The Key to Helping Students Right Now Is to Invest in Teachers’ Well-Being. How My Inner-City DC School Is Doing Just That

Rocketship D.C.

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The pandemic, plus the current socio-political climate, has compounded everything that was already hard about teaching in public schools. So it’s no surprise that districts across the country are reporting high levels of teacher burnout. Some media reports are calling it a crisis

The situation feels especially bleak in schools like mine, in Washington, D.C., that serve mostly vulnerable families. Helping at-risk students thrive during the best of times is a challenging job. Their life circumstances and backgrounds often put them at a disadvantage. Now, their families have been the ones hardest hit by the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. Their mental health is suffering as a result — which, combined with two years of disrupted learning, has made academic gains even harder.

That’s a big reason why Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a boost in funding for public schools. She has proposed a 5.9% increase to the city’s per-student funding formula, which equates to a $200 million increase in school budgets. During the announcement, Bowser spoke about the importance of supporting the social, emotional and mental health of students at this time. 

At Rocketship Public Schools, we agree, and we believe the key to helping students right now is to invest in the well-being of our teachers. Public education has often sacrificed teacher health in order to meet the social-emotional and academic needs of students. But here’s the reality: Teachers can’t serve students’ emotional and mental needs if their needs aren’t being met as well. Our school wellness manager likens the effort to “putting your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” 

It’s time to rethink how schools approach wellness and extend mental health supports that are regularly provided for students to school staff, as well. This undertaking has to be as multifaceted as the issue itself. 

The employee wellness program at Rocketship Public Schools includes professional development to give teachers practical tools for managing their well-being. These sessions are led by experts from the Wise Center at Georgetown University Hospital and cover all areas of health — including physical, occupational, intellectual, social and emotional. 

While the sessions were designed to provide our staff with the knowledge and skills to prioritize their well-being, the program also offered a safe place to discuss topics that staff might have felt were taboo in the workplace before. One of our teachers said that afterward, she was able to confidently have a conversation with her supervisor about work-life balance and set clear boundaries that made her day feel more manageable. 

Our teachers also have access to individual counseling through a third party and get multiple breaks throughout the school day. Wise Center experts conducted walk-throughs to see our schools first hand and recommended changes to teachers’ work environments based on the needs they identified. Each school also has the flexibility to design its own initiatives to support a positive staff culture, which have included everything from support groups to cafe carts. 

Rocketship had some teacher wellness supports in place pre-pandemic, but when COVID hit and schools went virtual, we had to adapt and shift our approach. Having these mental health measures in place seemed more important than ever. And by summer 2020, it became very clear that we needed to do even more. Those efforts seems to have paid off: Last spring, 90% of Rocketship teachers told us they planned to return to work this year. In contrast, at the same time, almost half of all D.C. public school teachers said on a Board of Education survey that they had considered leaving the profession because of the challenges of teaching during COVID-19. 

Then we returned to in-person instruction this fall, and we’ve had to battle one wave of the pandemic after another. Our school leaders, who would normally start the year leaning heavily into instructional coaching, became de facto COVID operations response teams as well as substitutes, covering classrooms, lunch and recess. Safety protocols to maintain social distancing and minimize close contact naturally led to staff working more independently, with fewer opportunities to collaborate with colleagues. This resulted in a lack of trust and teamwork. On a staff survey, teachers reported overall feelings of burnout, including loss of personal connections and stamina, just a couple months into the year.

Burnout has impacted all three of our campuses this year, despite our ongoing investments in teacher well-being. I can only imagine how teachers have suffered at schools and districts that haven’t made staff wellness a priority yet. It also became clear we must do still more.

All of us connected to education – whether as educators, parents or engaged citizens — have to recognize that the well-being of teachers and students is deeply interconnected. When adults experience stress and its physical manifestations, children who are around them acutely sense it. The rise of stress in our society is almost palpable, and schools have seen the consequences of this play out as incidents of bullying and school violence rise

With additional city funding from Bowser, Rocketship will be able to expand programs and resources, including hiring more staff dedicated to supporting community well-being within our schools. The bottom line is that we have to invest in the health of families, students and teachers to truly support our students’ emotional and academic needs, and to forge a path back to normalcy. We at Rocketship D.C. encourage other cities, districts and schools to do the same.

Candice Bobo is DC executive director of Rocketship Public Schools.

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