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5 Trends in Teacher Wellness to Watch Out for in 2021

Teacher in blue shirt leans against windows in a hallway as children run by in a blur

We can all agree that 2020 was hard. As a teacher, here are 5 key challenges to watch out for in 2021 to protect your own health and wellness.

Every year, in December, we hear that teachers are tired and how September to December always feels like the longest stretch of the school year because there are few breaks. 2020, though, was just a whole other level. Even more than expected, we heard that teachers were tired, but also admin, local union leaders, and district reps. From top to bottom, everyone was exhausted to their cores by the time we headed into the holiday season. And, as much as we hate to say, we still aren’t even half-way through the school year.

Of course, the reasons for all this exhaustion are clear: the constant changes, COVID protocols, and risks to personal safety have made the overwhelming job of teaching seem downright impossible; not to mention the personal struggles that many teachers and their families have experienced as a result of restrictions, lockdowns, isolation, and the economic impacts that COVID has had on so many other professions.

In “normal” years, there are somewhat predictable wellness patterns with the teachers we work with; the challenges that teachers experience and when they tend to experience them have a general flow. In 2020 though, the word “unpredictable” just doesn’t seem to do it justice. Teacher wellness was challenged in unexpected and difficult ways. And, with today marking the first day back in the classroom for many, we think it’s a good time to look back at some of those unique struggles that emerged for teachers throughout 2020 and that we should keep in mind as we move forward into 2021.

Teacher sitting at u-shaped desk receiving ergonomic support from a Rehabilitation Consultant

Ergonomics

Proper ergonomics has always been important for teachers and yet, most teachers don’t typically get to the point where their set-ups are causing physical injury. But in 2020, teachers have been forced to fundamentally change the way they teach in more ways than one. The shift to home-based teaching in the spring, meant that teachers were working long hours in kitchens and dining rooms, sitting in chairs designed for appearance and not function, and standing with their computers on counters and filing cabinets. This rapid and dramatic change in teaching environments created physical problems that some teachers are still trying to correct 6 to 8 months later. Now, although teachers are back in their classrooms and they are in better teaching environments than they were at home, they are spending more time sitting and less time walking and moving. This, in turn, has resulted in longer periods spent in awkward postures and static pain. In many situations, the rapid succession of changes to the teaching environment has served to highlight the discomfort of poor seating, inappropriate computer set-ups, and other ergonomic barriers in existing classroom set-ups.

If you’re concerned about your own ergonomics, a great first step might be to consult the Ergonomics chapter in The Well Teacher. We have also provided some free ergonomics and physical health resources on our website, here and here. Lastly, if you are a BC teacher you may want to consider referring to the BCTF Health & Wellness Program.

Voice dysfunction

Though not an official statistic, it seems that over half of our new referrals are for teachers who are struggling with voice dysfunction and requesting voice amplification. This makes sense, since teaching with a mask makes it harder for students to understand what is being said. Teacher are, in turn, raising their voices and this is adding to the vocal strain of an already very vocal job. Throw a face shield or plexi-screen into the mix, and volume and voice production become an even bigger challenge. Teachers who were right on the cusp of voice dysfunction in previous years, are now being pushed over the edge. In fact, some districts are a bit overwhelmed by the number of requests they are receiving for voice amplification. These requests are being managed differently in each district, but quality voice amplification systems are expensive, and this has put additional stress on already tight budgets. Saying that, COVID has forced the entire education system to prioritize voice; and, in truth, even though voice amplification technology is costly, it is less costly than teachers needing to take extended medical leaves due to voice dysfunction. If you are struggling with your voice, please remember that voice amplification is only part of the solution. Proper voice use, which can be learned through training and appropriate exercises, is still the primary key to success.

Woman in white shirt is wearing a blue disposable mask in front of a grey background

If you think you might need additional support for your voice, we have an entire chapter in The Well Teacher dedicated to understanding voice use in the classroom. You can also find The Well Teacher Webinar handout on The Teacher Voice During COVID-19, developed in conjunction with Registered Speech Language Pathologist Sherri Zelazny from Surrey Voice Clinic can be found here, or download The Well Teacher Voice Exercises, from our website here. And, if you're local to the Lower Mainland, you can always contact Sherri Zelazny at Surrey Voice Clinic directly.

Trauma

We have seen trauma play a fairly significant role in the challenges facing many teachers in 2020. Without a doubt, this year has been traumatic. And, although not everyone has experienced a trauma reaction, many have. Without being trauma informed, it is easy to compare reactions from person to person, and to judge those that seem overwhelmed as being mentally weak or as having poor coping skills. But we must remember that trauma affects each person individually. And, when we think about how this year has progressed – with the fear associated with COVID, the constant changes, and teachers being asked to work in a public environment where the potential for exposure is higher – it is understandable why some teacher have experienced a trauma response.

Teachers face many challenges in normal school years, but fear isn’t usually one of them. Yet, when teachers returned to school in September, there was an almost palpable sense of fear across the group as a whole. For some teachers this fear was at moderate or even high levels, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions that leave them feeling even more vulnerable. Over the days and weeks and months, this fear has resulted in a trauma situation from which teachers don’t feel like they can remove themselves. For many, this has led to “new” trauma. And, for others COVID has resulted in situations where previous traumas have also been triggered. Unfortunately, we are seeing a trend where teachers who are experiencing trauma are afraid to ask for support, because they look across the hall and see others struggling, so they invalidate their own experience because everyone is “in the same boat”. There is a general feeling that this suffering is something that must be endured, but this simply isn’t true. There is no hierarchy of trauma. Let’s say that again: There is no hierarchy of trauma. The individual’s experience is all that matters. If not addressed, the effects of trauma can lead to major mental health challenges in the long term. If you are struggling, with trauma or any other mental health concern, please reach out to your doctor and consider trauma counselling. It’s ok to ask for help. Concerningly, we’re hearing discussions about leaving the profession much more frequently as of late and trauma is undeniably a common denominator.

Wade Repta is wearing a black collared shirt is perched on a sofa arm as he speaks to a woman wearing a purple sweater and is seated in a chair facing him

Burnout

This one seems obvious as burnout is common throughout the teaching profession but, in 2020, burnout has been an especially significant concern. The reasons for this are too long to list but they include the fact that teachers barely got through to the end of June, and then spent the summer worrying about what September would look like, and how or even if they would be teaching. This meant that during the time teachers would otherwise have a chance to recharge, at least in part, they were saddled with additional worries, fears, anxieties, and responsibilities. The summer break wasn’t much of a break at all.

In fact, anxiety and worry actually grew through the summer for most teachers. We polled over a thousand teachers from August to September, asking them to rate their wellness. In other years most teachers would start the school year feeling at least somewhat rested and ready to return. This year the majority of teachers rated their wellness at a 5 or less out of 10, at the start of the school year! Typically, we would expect to see these kinds of figures at the end of a school year, not the beginning. What this tells us is that teachers started the school year already feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Burned out from COVID, burned out from all the changes, burned out from fear, and burned out from not really having a break. So, it’s no wonder that everyone is just bone tired these days.

If you are looking for a few quick and easy tips to help you recharge, follow us on Instagram for #wellteacherwednesday, where we post a few of our favourite teacher wellness tips every Wednesday. If you are feeling burnt out on a deeper level, you may want to consider making some changes that will enable you to get through the school year intact. Burnout is a complex challenge. So, if you haven’t already, take a look at the Burnout section in our book The Well Teacher for ideas on how to get started. The Burnout Questionnaire can be a helpful tool in pinpointing some areas you may want to consider focussing on.

Female teacher in a pink sweater over a white shirt stands in front of a classroom. She is pointing out to the students who all have their hands raised.

Environmental Wellness

If you’ve been with us for a while, you know that we look to the Wellness Wheel a lot. At the moment, we’re seeing that certain areas of the wheel are playing a larger role in affecting teacher wellness than others.

As we’ve already mentioned, there is generally an ebb and flow to the types or challenges we see teachers experiencing throughout the year. From September through December, teachers tend to look at addressing their physical and social wellness needs. Mental health starts to wane during this time as well but is still mostly manageable. From January to June, the emotional and mental wellness components typically tend to need more attention, with teachers feeling burned out and overwhelmed. By the summer, teachers look forward to re-engaging in physical wellness practices such as sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Throughout the year, environmental wellness only rarely comes up as a challenge for teachers. This year however, it has been one of the primary components of the Wellness Wheel teachers have been struggling with. Environmental wellness, in this case, includes the added health and safety protocols, concerns about distancing and exposures, use of masks and shields, and additional cleaning requirements – all of which are demands that didn’t exist in previous school years. The equation is pretty simple: increased demands = increased stress.

And, because all those other challenges to mental, social, and physical health still also exist, such as burnout, ergonomic concerns, trauma, and voice dysfunction, we are seeing that they heavily influencing the component of environmental wellness for many teachers.

Unfortunately, we can’t really provide helpful advice in this brief blog about improving environmental wellness while we are in the midst of a pandemic, beyond encouraging everyone to follow the advice of their health officials, and school and district protocols. Saying that, we can see how many of the wellness challenges teachers experienced through 2020 and continue to face going into the New Year are interrelated. We also know that improvements to one wellness area tends to alleviate pressure on other wellness components of the Wheel. If you are struggling in any of the ways listed above, remember that you don’t need to change everything all at once. Start by exploring one area first and go from there.

This past year has been particularly hard. It has pushed the limits and the resilience of a group of people, who by rule are extraordinarily resilient. As we look ahead to 2021, we are hopeful that things will improve as the COVID vaccine becomes available to more and more people. Teaching will undoubtedly still be difficult and overwhelming, and there will still be the regular challenges associated with mental, physical and social health. We encourage you to be very mindful of your own wellness and consider how these emerging challenges are affecting you and your needs. Ask for help and use the resources available to you, so 2021 sees you moving in a positive direction and away from a year we are all ready to put behind us.

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