5 Research-Backed Ways to Support Teachers Now
It was early morning last November and I was getting ready for a day of teaching,
the way I did every morning.The minutes between when my alarm went off and my first period class began were finely
timed – there was never enough time to do everything, and I needed all the sleep I
could get before 6:15 am. I was in my own head, thinking in loops about all of the
things I had to get done before 9:00 am, and I guess I was being a little louder than
usual, banging the closet door shut in my distraction. My fiancé stirred awake to
ask me if I was okay.
Have you ever had a moment when you hadn’t even realized you weren’t okay, and then someone asks the question, and all of a sudden, you feel a lump in your throat?
A Full Plate
I wasn’t okay. It was 6:45 am and somehow I was already late for a meeting taking place before the school day started. I was teaching two courses – that’s two planning preps per day – and I was teaching in hybrid mode. On a given day, half of my students were in front of me and half were on Zoom. I had to find ways to engage both groups, but had no simple way to facilitate communication between them. Best practices for the two learning environments are very different.
When I took just a moment to check in with myself, I teared up – then pulled it together and kept going. Forty minutes later, I rushed into the classroom where I taught first period, late for my 7:30 am meeting. Even if I were a morning person, to be behind already that early in the morning is inherently overwhelming. I took the meeting with my camera off, working on three other things at the same time.
The Challenges of COVID
I was new to teaching these two curricula, which would be tough for anyone, during any year. Last year, though, we all worked double-time, all the time. After I internalized curricula materials and prepped my lessons, I then had to differentiate methods and materials four ways: for different levels and different learning spaces, “on-Zoom” and “in-the-room”, as we would often say.
There’s no faster way to leave someone feeling overwhelmed and exhausted than by giving them a nearly impossible task, asking them to do it multiple times a day, and then scoring them on their efficacy. And that’s what teachers have experienced for nearly two years. We’ve walked through fire and now, just starting to see the end of the line, many feel that they’ve been left to tend to the burning ashes on their own.
Burn out vs. Demoralization
Scholarship discusses the difference between burnout and demoralization1, with burnout being what we all know – the feeling of having nothing left to give – while demoralization is more pervasive and harder to move past:
"Demoralization happens when one’s values conflict with the work. Teachers leave the profession, or are not attracted to it in the first place, because they do not see teaching as a way to advance the human condition, what Howard Gardner (2001) called “Good Work."
“Good Work” is what brings most teachers into the profession – it’s the heart and
soul of helping young people find joy in learning and growing up. The belief in this
work is why teachers bring home the complexities of each kid with them at the end
of the day; it’s why they go supply shopping on their own time. It’s why they deserve
So, what’s the way out? What are tangible, workable actions that schools can take to ease the stress, renew the joy, and chip away at demoralization? Here are 5 research-backed ways.
5 Research-Backed Ways to Support Teachers
- Make the workload manageable.
Prep time is an invaluable resource and two preps per day, or the equivalent of 60-80 minutes, is considered standard. Many districts provide less; very few, more. This is the only time that teachers have to plan, prep, grade, collaborate in their teaching teams and grade teams, attend meetings, and contact families. It’s a square peg that doesn’t fit in a round hole, so there’s an assumption that work will happen outside of work hours. That’s the baseline – so adding anything to a teacher’s plate makes the workload even less manageable.
- Show trust and respect through autonomy.
Consider that if your curriculum for a given grade is so jam-packed with required material and assessment, autonomy is as good as gone. That’s like implying someone stuck in a maze technically has the choice to take a right or a left. But true autonomy2 is when a teaching team can make many decisions around curriculum and methods based on their professional expertise and personalities. For instance, I’m good at teaching through student-centered methods, so shouldn’t I be able to do so?
- Develop teacher-centered professional development.
Teachers are professionals with expertise, often multiple degrees and certifications, and a deep sense that what they do is important. Research shows3 that teachers want space and time that is not attached to direct outcomes for professional learning communities, and isn’t just a “sit and get”4, but is dynamic and relevant. Pay for a teacher to attend an outside PD opportunity and turnkey it to his peers. Offer choice and let teachers self-direct to the area where they know they have learning needs, interests, or both. Teachers rarely have time throughout the normal school day for enrichment – it’s go, go, go – so PD should offer a chance to decompress, connect, and find enrichment.
- Make mentorship a professional learning opportunity.
Schools with mentorship programs in place already know that they are proven to help retention2, because when new teachers have a mentor who is not linked to output or evaluation, stress is reduced. But, these programs can sometimes feel too formal, with mentors and mentees gathering for a monthly meeting to check off a requirement. To enrich the experience, these programs can be structured as professional learning communities, where teachers both new and experienced with overlapping disciplines, certifications, interests, specialties, or walks of life, can come together to connect, grow, and support one another.
- Support and evaluate teachers formatively, first.
While some argue to remove evaluation altogether5, another approach is for administrators to build a trusting relationship with teachers through lower-stakes, more frequent formative evaluations, that asks less “Why did you…” and more “How can I…”, as educational scholar Kim Marshall’s methodology6 outlines. Particularly in the next couple of years, teachers who had to get comfortable with educational technology and blended learning practices now get to use those tools to enhance learning – and they can be supported by a forward-thinking administration along the way to mastery.
Working in a school can be overwhelming. I know that I felt it that early morning
in November when my chest tightened and I knew that the only way forward was through.
But any teacher or administrator knows that working with students is also full of
joy. Small, actionable steps backed by research like the five listed here can make
meaningful changes in the life of a teacher – and that’s worth the effort.
1 Bohan, C. H. (2021). What do teachers need to rejuvenate and recapture “good work” in a post-pandemic world? Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 23(1 & 2), 3-6.
2 Leichtman, K. (2021, November 30). 5 Ways School Leaders Can Work to Prevent Teacher Burnout. Edutopia.
3 Rivero, C. (2020, August). What teachers need now. The Learning Professional, 41(4), 24-27.
4 Matherson, L., & Windle, T. M. (2017). What do teachers want from their professional development? Four emerging themes. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin: International Journal for Professional Educators, 83(3), 28-32.
5 Shapiro, C. (2020, December 23). What Teachers Really Want. Cindy Shapiro.
6 Marshall, K. (2011, August 31). Teacher Evaluation Rubrics. The Marshall Memo.