Searching for the Secret of Teacher Well-Being

Searching for the Secret of Teacher Well-Being

By: Curtis Kelly

Sitting at the gate

To tell the truth, until recently, teacher well-being is something I hadn’t thought about much; student well-being maybe, but not for teachers. I often come across articles in Edutopia and other places about the strain of emergency remote teaching, etc., but that was never a problem for me. All those articles made me wonder sometimes, whether people were just complaining instead of trying to adapt. But my view changed after I had this conversation with Sydney Lee last fall:

Sydney Lee: “Professor Kelly, we’d like you give a presentation at our Korea TESOL conference next spring.”

“Fine,” I replied. “I really like engaging with the KoTESOL folks.”

“We’d like you to talk on teacher well-being.”

“Um. Teacher well-being? Why me? Can I talk on teacher and learner well-being? I know more about that.”

“No. Not for this conference. It must be on teacher well-being.”


And so, I promised, along with hefty disclaimers, to study this topic for a presentation. “Sure. I could do that,” I thought. “After all I have been reading up on student depression, and I’ve also written on how stress works, as both an aid and hindrance to learning” (June 2021 Think Tank). So, I was not flying off completely into the dark, but still, my search for the secret of teacher well-being would not be easy. It was not a direct flight, and it guaranteed some unscheduled stops along the way. I also promised myself that I would find a workable solution to offer. And finding a solution I could be satisfied with was the hard part.

So, I’d like to take that journey again, with you along this time, in a search of the secret of teacher well-being. It took a while, but in the end, I discovered something about well-being maintenance that surprised me, but something that makes complete sense once you think about it. You’ll find out what that is when we get to our destination.

So, get your boarding passes ready, and let’s go. As with all trips, don’t panic and remember to bring your towel.

Departure: Is teacher well-being really an issue?

Or is it my imagination? After all, I think going online during the pandemic, often written about as the main detriment to 2020 teacher well-being, actually made things better for me. Had I been in this study, I would have been on the “thriving” side.

Then again, I’ve always felt that teaching is high-pressure, exhausting work, even with good classes. It is particularly draining if you have a heavy schedule, courses that are hard to teach, reluctant learners, and an imbecile administration. Put in the other pressures of life—arising from relationships, health, family, or financial issues—and the pressure level goes up.[1] Then, throw in the turmoil of a pandemic on top of that and Bingo! Your teacher well-being is at risk.

No wonder that Rand Corporation found that the number of American K-12 educators worrying about burnout doubled in 2020, with a hefty quarter of the teachers planning to leave the profession at the end of the year (Education Week), three times the normal rate of quitting. (A theoretical 100% turnover in four years?) Teachers in the UK seemed to fare worse, with double that figure: Education Support found that 54% of the teachers were considering leaving due to mental health and well-being issues! (The 100% turnover down to two years? “Lions and Tigers and Bears…”)

77% of UK teachers experienced behavioral, psychological, or physical symptoms (anxiety, depression, exhaustion), mainly because of the workload, and that might make you wonder why administrations were not more responsive. The answer lies in figures for the administrators’ own distress, which were even higher than that of the teachers, at 84% (Education Support). So, the next time you get annoyed at the admin and their dysfunction during emergencies, remember that they are bearing the brunt. (…Oh my!) Honor them.

[1] Even before the pandemic, teaching was found to be one of the most stressful jobs, as stressful as being a nurse or physician (source).

Whatever the case, a lot of people in our profession are in trouble and it is not just that they are complaining. True, the pandemic might be receding, but teachers are still suffering from the mayhem it has left behind: more restrictions, tougher rules to enforce, and fewer experienced colleagues. Nor is the pandemic the main cause of well-being decline. Teacher well-being has always been a problem, one that the pandemic just put in the fast lane.

That’s why school superintendent Meria Carstarphen tells her teachers to take care of themselves before their students: “Put your oxygen mask on first,” she tells her rookies. “Then we’ll talk about everybody else” (nprED, para 17).

So why does this matter, anyway? Sarah Mercer tells us why in her delightful talk with Tammy Gregersen. Basically, teacher well-being shapes how good a class is, and ultimately, learner well-being. As she quoted: “If you want to do the best for the kids, start by loving and caring for their teachers.” So that’s it. Teacher well-being is at the heart of good education.

Stop one: The usual cures

So, how do we maintain teacher well-being? The internet is full of cures, with the usual prescriptions of meditation, yoga, sleep, and following a healthy lifestyle. I get it. But like when you talk to a Vegan friend who lectures us on why we should not eat meat, it is hard to disagree, but even harder to change the way you live. The people who can make those changes are usually 90% of the way there already, not like me, who is just 10%. Yoga poses? I can hardly put my socks on without straining something. So, in reality, mindsets and lifestyles are extremely hard to change, even if you try. So articles for teachers like this one tend to make me even more of a curmudgeon.

This advice makes me think of my doctor, who tells me the best way to reduce heel pain would be to lose weight. I’ve tried. It’s not easy. He might as well tell me I should get 20 years younger.

Stop two: Looking deeper

So, let’s go back to the research. Looking at learner well-being in what I call “The Dark Year” (last 6 months of high school and first six months of college), we see something interesting. Depression rates double among Japanese students, tripling if we look just at female students (source) and that does not seem to be unique to Japan. Yet, according to the research, there are two agents that provide protection. One is having a teacher who cares, but an even better one is having a friend. In fact, the surprising effect of classroom friends on learning and performance is barely mentioned in our field (see para 1 of this article). Helping students make friends through the kinds of activities we have them do, should be foremost in our minds.

It is not hard, then, to extrapolate that a similar protective factor for teachers might exist. And it does. Most of us are probably aware that study after study has found that intimate relationships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness in life and longevity. In fact, the world’s longest study done on humans–at Harvard–tracked graduates for 80 years (John F. Kennedy and Washington Post editor Ben Bradley were in the sample). As Robert Waldinger tells us, the study found that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives,” surpassing IQ, genes, and even low cholesterol levels. Being connected saves lives.

A study of teachers found the same pattern. More than 50% of the teachers surveyed turned to spouses, family, or friends for support (as compared to bosses, at a measly 10%). Interesting, but unfortunate as well. Isn’t this the same as the yoga problem? We can’t tell people to go out and have good marriages to protect their well-being, so we are back at square one in our search for a doable solution. We have to find something else. And, I think, the answer lies in our next stop: a visit to Susan Pinker.

Stop three: Pinker Field

Susan Pinker gave a TED Talk on longevity, where she, too, pointed towards intimate relationships as a protective factor. Again, no help there. But when she came to Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s massive study, we heard something surprising. Holt-Lundstad went beyond just marital happiness and intimate relationships and found another social factor that was even more powerful. It is the top bar in the chart below. Can you guess what it is?

The answer is “social integration,” and here is where Holt-Lunstad’s study tread new ground. She looked at all the social contacts a person might have, even casual ones like talking to the man who makes your coffee, greeting a neighbor, asking about someone’s pet, and found that these little interactions, deterrents of loneliness, are what kept people alive.

That discovery fits things we have found about educator well-being as well. Remember how I wrote that over 50% of teachers get support from their spouses? Well, next on the list is colleagues, at 27%. Education Support’s Teacher Well-being Index shows that, too. At work, staff turn to colleagues first if they are suffering from stress or a mental issue (source), even though 6 out of 10 still feel they do not receive enough guidance for these problems. So, if you think about it, we might have found an easy way to increase teacher well-being that has nothing to do with yoga or who someone marries. All we have to do is talk to each other more.

And this is exactly what Rico Patzer wrote about in his own search for solutions. He offers four proven ways leaders can support teacher well-being. They are:

1. Show staff your appreciation

2. Provide opportunities for peer coaching and mentoring

3. Encourage sharing and collaboration (even over distance)

4. Invest in staff development


Wonderful, but I think we have to tweak this list. The admin people, “the leaders,” is already overloaded, so let us, the teachers, make ways we can interact and support each other. In fact, isn’t that what the sponsor of this magazine, JALT, exists for?[2] I believe that the teaching organizations we belong to do far more than just professional training. They also let us interact with other passionate teachers, share our problems and discoveries, and be part of a community. I have always suspected that the people who come to my presentations get more from just sitting next to each other than from anything I have to say!

But we can do more. When the pandemic hit, a few English teachers in Japan made the Online Teaching Japan private group on Facebook, and the membership shot up to 3,000 in no time. Teachers offered each other support during that difficult time.[3] Likewise, at my university, when classes went online in in 2020, a couple Japanese teachers and myself, who were already Zoom savvy, held a Zoom workshop for 12 native speaker teachers. The participants were so appreciative that they had us do additional sessions for weeks afterwards and the number of attendees grew to 60, who also started interacting with each other in a group mail. Even now, I sometimes run into teachers who tell me those exchanges helped them make it through those difficult days.

[2] … and, come to think of it, this magazine!

[3] The OTJ TV shows, made by José Cruz et al., are particularly impressive.

Prepare for landing

So, what is the takeaway from all this? First of all, we have discovered that teachers talking to each other is the most doable way for us to build teacher well-being. This idea is supported by a wide variety of research and we have just looked at some examples where teachers talking to teachers helped them make it through emergency remote teaching.

But do we really have to wait for a crisis to take initiatives like this? Maybe we should view all teaching, at all times, as a kind of crisis. Remember? Back at the departure gate we saw how being a teacher, even before the pandemic, was as stressful as being a nurse or doctor. So, let’s be proactive. All we need are a couple motivated teachers in each institution to be our priests and priestesses (see Deal and Kennedy’s Corporate Cultural Model). Just put in a little effort locally, by doing things like:

– inviting colleagues at the semester start to share ideas in a Zoom meeting

– eating lunch in the teachers’ room and sitting with different people, especially those who tend to sit alone

– having a picnic with a few teachers and passing on that everyone else is welcome to drop by and share the wine

– sending notes to colleagues showing your appreciation for their work

…and so on. It’s not just for us. Going back to Sarah: “if you want to do the best for the kids, start by loving and caring for their teachers.”

Suggested Resources

Curtis Kelly (EdD.) has packed the Think Tanks in his carry-on. Literally. He is leaving Japan in a few days.

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