Put on Your Oxygen Mask First

School leaders can use these three strategies to promote the social-emotional health of new teachers in a stressed out world.

Topics: Teacher Effectiveness

Before takeoff during every airplane safety demonstration, flight attendants tell passengers to “put on your oxygen mask before helping others.” The rationale behind this is that individuals need to be fully functioning with the necessary oxygen flow so they are able to effectively help others. If they do not take care of themselves first, they will be unable to take care of others. This same idea is important for teachers. To be at their best to effectively meet the needs of their students, teachers need to take care of their own needs.

Teaching is a socially and emotionally demanding profession, and new teachers are stressed and burning out, leaving the profession at a pace faster than ever before, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have a big impact on student achievement, so high turnover and teacher attrition is having a negative impact on student achievement. Prior to the pandemic, the main reasons new teachers cited for leaving teaching were inadequate preparation for the reality of teaching, lack of mentoring and support, challenging working conditions, dissatisfaction with compensation, and better career opportunities. Those have only been compounded by the pandemic, as teachers are asked to do more with less, while juggling the demands of their lives outside of work. While school administrators cannot control a teacher’s decision to leave the profession, they can put practices and opportunities in place to support new teachers and help them face the realities of teaching during the pandemic and beyond.

  1. Mentoring is essential for new teachers. Even in the midst of COVID-19, new teachers are still “learning the ropes” of teaching, while also balancing the ever-changing protocols related to the pandemic. Having an experienced teacher as a mentor helps new teachers navigate the demands and challenges of the classroom, and also provides them with a sounding board for questions, concerns, and advice. It is essential that new teachers feel comfortable and supported in their mentoring match, as they must know they can trust their mentor to ask difficult questions and seek the support they need, and they must also respect their mentor as an educator and advisor. Mentoring may also help new teachers navigate challenging working environments by providing support to help them through difficult situations, as well as practical advice and tools for facing challenges through the pandemic. Administrators can take the time to ensure they provide healthy, respectful matches between new teachers and their mentors.
  2. Creating new teacher support groups. Administrators can work together to identify new teachers in their schools and facilitate a safe place for new teachers within a district to gather, voice their concerns, and receive professional and emotional support from their peers, as well as experienced teachers and administrators. Peer mentors can be a powerful resource for new teachers as well, as they are “in the same boat,” so to speak, so they can walk together through the first years of teaching. Peer teachers can provide tips and advice that have worked for them related to teaching in the pandemic, as well as promote a sense of solidarity. Within the support group, experienced teachers and administrators can also provide professional development on topics that are pertinent to new teachers, such as classroom management techniques, communication with parents, and teaching in a pandemic. These support groups can take place in person or online.
  3. Focus on self-care and wellness. Administrators can help teachers do this in several ways. Acknowledging the fact that teaching is a demanding and stressful job and encouraging teachers to talk about their needs is an important step that administrators can take. Having an open-door policy and regularly checking in with teachers will also help new teachers feel valued and noticed. Introducing after-school exercise programs for teachers is an innovative way administrators can promote health and self-care and also provide ways for teachers to connect with each other through different avenues. Encouraging a monthly book club, either in person or online, about an education-related book or other books of interest, adds value to the staff by providing time to enrich teachers’ lives while also providing time for socialization. Promoting social events for staff outside of school can also be good for morale, boost the social health of new teachers, and create a positive work environment. These activities and events can also help teachers feel a sense of normalcy in the midst of COVID-19.

New teachers will be better prepared to help students “put on their oxygen masks” if there are practices and opportunities in place to support them in their areas of need and promote their social and emotional health. New teachers have even more on their plates now in the reality of a COVID-19 world. Administrators can make the social and emotional health of teachers a priority by facilitating and encouraging mentoring opportunities and encouraging self-care and wellness through regular “check-ins.” Ultimately, their students are the ones that will benefit the most as a supported, thriving teacher is a more effective teacher.

Sarah J. Kaka is the department chair of the Education Department and an assistant professor of Education at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Jennifer A. Tygret is an online course developer and professor in the Department of Education at Illinois College.