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Remote Learning Taking a Toll on Teacher Health, Morale

Some schools are offering hotlines and virtual options for teacher mental health services, but it hasn’t always been enough for those feeling stressed and hopeless in the face of hardship and wavering public support.

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As millions of Americans have learned to cope with the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the focus for schools has been on the mental well-being of K-12 students navigating virtual instruction and the hardships associated with the virus. Often overshadowed are the teachers who have faced their own difficulties coping with stressors during the public health crisis.

Like millions throughout the country, teachers have experienced the deaths of loved ones or contracted the virus themselves, all while bearing the responsibility for educating students with new methods and environments.

Educators have also felt the effects of “swinging support” from many in their communities amid all of this, according to Dr. Rena Subotnik, a former educator and director of the American Psychological Association's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education.

When the crisis began in the spring of 2020, several of the teachers Subotnik worked with said they had strong support in their communities. But as the pandemic dragged on, educators, school officials and teachers’ unions experienced growing criticisms around whether to resume in-person learning to combat the learning loss millions of students have struggled with during school closures.

“That’s an issue that’s very disturbing for teachers,” Subotnik said. “That the support system that was starting to emerge is also crumbling.”

According to a 2020 distance learning survey by ed-tech company Panorama, more than 20 percent of the roughly 13,000 educators surveyed said they were concerned about their mental well-being. Another 2020 study of teachers in Southern California schools found that after listening to so many students' stories of family hardship, teachers were worried about student welfare and could experience symptoms of secondary trauma.

Jeannette Sandoval, therapist and founder of the school mental health platform Wellducation, said teachers and school staff members she spoke with expressed the need for more emotional support during the crisis. She said teachers have been particularly concerned about their ability to serve students virtually, hurting the morale of even the most dedicated and ambitious teachers who pursued education primarily to help children.

Overall, Sandoval said, many teachers felt hopeless, a common theme in anonymous Wellducation surveys.

“Some are feeling that they’re unsure of the line of work that they got into, and they’re reassessing if they need to make a pivot professionally,” she said.“I’m seeing that repeatedly across state lines ... All across the country, we’re hearing this.”

This ability to help students was something many teachers felt confident about going into in-person classrooms prior to school closures. For some, that responsibility is now daunting, according to Subotnik.

“In the end, they are held responsible for these students,” Subotnik added. “Their concerns might be with how to deal with a range of needs within the same class.”

Throughout the pandemic, schools have been working with limited resources and funding to connect teachers and staff members to emotional support through local and state programs geared toward boosting educator morale.

In December 2020, the Tennessee Department of Education encouraged teachers to use its COVID-19 emotional support hotline, originally launched for first responders and frontline health workers. Teachers and staff at Johnson City Schools in Tennessee have made use of the state’s hotline over the past year, according to Greg Wallace, the district’s supervisor of safety and mental health.

In addition to the state hotline, district employees have taken advantage of remote counseling through a partnership with local mental health-care provider Frontier Health, which worked last year with digital health app developer myStrength to make their platform available to anyone in need of tips and resources for stress management, self-care and emotional support. The school system also recently produced online videos for teachers and students about best coping practices.

While figures on the number of teachers and staff in need of emotional support during digital learning have not been released to the public, Wallace said services such as these have been particularly important in Northeast Tennessee, where hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 cases.

“We have teachers who have lost friends and family members, had to cope with their own quarantine issues, child-care issues and loss of social opportunities. All of these have been expressed to me and have required various levels of support,” Wallace said. “Professionally, teachers have had to deal with the stress of pivoting quickly from in-person to remote, learning new platforms and not being able to have in-person daily interactions with their students. We have worried particularly about students who come from significantly dysfunctional homes.”

Nationally, Sandoval said teachers just want to be heard – about school safety policies, personal hardships and everything in between. She thinks educators need safe spaces to vent, and that this has been a “blind spot” in many districts throughout the country.

“Creating systems that include their feedback in a way that feels safe to them is so important because, at the end of the day, we want the systems that are in place to really reflect what the community is comfortable with, and that includes our teachers,” she said.

Subotnik recommended networking between educators to learn from each other about approaching virtual learning and self-care. This could take place virtually via mediums such as podcasts, online dashboards directing visitors to mental health resources or through content similar to the videos produced in Johnson City Schools.

“Teachers mostly like to listen to other teachers," she said. "So posting some kind of organized conversation that’s focused not on complaining but on problem-solving [could help]."

Efforts such as these, Subotnik said, could help bolster morale among teachers and minimize stressors that create a need for emotional support. A more constructive approach to emotional support, she said, could ultimately make hotlines and virtual services more beneficial and impactful.

But emotional support doesn’t begin and end at “venting" alone, according to Subotnik. She said giving teachers a voice in formulating school and classroom policies may help teachers feel more supported overall, even beyond this period of virtual learning during school closures.

“There are things that could mitigate the need for as much support,” she said. “I would say the worst thing would be a place [only] to vent because then you just get resentful and feel worse than if you can problem-solve together.

“Venting is not healthy, to a certain degree, without feeling like you’re part of a solution,” she added. “We know, psychologically, that this can put you spinning into rumination, and what people need is to feel like they’re a part of a movement that’s changing things.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges anyone dealing with an immediate mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts to call 911 or seek help from one of several mental health hotlines.

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.