Jan 28, 2021 · 16 min read

Educator Well-Being and Connection

November 25, 2019 | A student is greeted by her teacher at Van Ness Elementary in Washington, D.C. as a part of their Strong Start program — a set of routines conducted each morning | Photo courtesy of Van Ness Elementary.

This week, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) Vice President of Research to Practice, Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, presented at the ASCD Virtual Leadership Summit on Educator Mental Health & Wellness. Dr. Stafford-Brizard spoke about the need to prioritize the mental wellness of teachers and school leaders. Supporting well-being and deepening connections starts with creating the conditions for healing within a school community — regardless of whether learning is in-person, remote, or hybrid. And it starts with the wellbeing of our teachers.

Here are Brooke’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning or good afternoon, depending on where you’re joining us from. I’m Brooke Stafford-Brizard and I’m the Vice President for Research to Practice at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And I’m honored to be here with you today to share some learnings and insights from our partners in the field, who are prioritizing something incredibly important at this moment. Educator well-being, and educators connection with each other, and with students.

Speaking of connection, I truly wish we could be together in person today. I know we’re getting very tired of these events happening on screens. And I have all the hope and optimism that we will be together in the near future.

At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, our vision is grounded in a broader definition of success. We envision a future where all students develop the knowledge, skills, habits and agency to thrive and to reach their full potential. And we are dedicated to ensuring that demographics do not predict any component of this success. This requires a whole child approach to education. And we define a whole child approach by naming the areas of human development and learning that are critical for all individuals to thrive. Here we name academic development, cognitive development, social emotional development, identity development, and physical and mental health. Our work is dedicated to supporting environments that integrate all of these areas, because you cannot tease them apart in the human being.

But I do want to focus in on one particular area today, that’s mental health and well-being. And by that we mean how we support students to be healthy, aware, and present in their relationships with themselves and with others.

Now, we cannot take a whole child approach by focusing on students alone. How we support our adults, our teachers, our leaders, our staff, and cultivating and creating these environments requires two critical things. One, is to focus on their whole development. This is a framework that’s not just relevant to students. It’s relevant to all individuals. And so when we think about how we support our adults in the field, we look to this framework because you cannot support the identities and well-being of students if you cannot focus on that for yourself.

The second thing we focus on is the capacity of adults to support all of these areas of development. Most teachers have been prepared through a focus on primarily academic development. That’s a critical piece of our whole child framework. But in order to support areas like social-emotional development and identity, we know that teachers require further supports. And so we look to the development of those resources to prepare teachers to support students.

Today, I want to focus on concrete strategies and approaches that some of our partners in the field are taking. But before we do that, I want to anchor us in how teachers are doing, how they are feeling today. It’s no surprise that in the last year, it has been a challenging one for teachers. We have asked them to learn entirely new methods of teaching in both remote and hybrid spaces. We’ve asked them to attend to the trauma and stress that students are experiencing in these times of uncertainty, and all while they have to attend to themselves and their families and communities.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence asked more than 5,000 teachers how they were feeling. Anxious, and overwhelmed, rose to the top. Educators pointed out how much was being asked of them in a time where things were changing every day. More than nine months since the pandemic began, we find that teachers are feeling very similarly. A recent poll by Ed Choice, found that half of teachers considered retiring or leaving the profession in the last three months. And Yale recently asked over 2,600 teachers in Connecticut, how they were doing, they felt stretched thin, and they felt like too much was being asked with too little time and in asking for those supports, for students, they were asking for supports for themselves as well, saying they could not support students without self-care strategies for themselves.

And while the challenges are great right now, there is also joy in innovation. Those teachers in Connecticut named working with students supporting them and connecting with them those moments, as their source of joy. And teachers are innovating. A recent report by the Clay Christensen Institute found that 79% of teachers have identified resources that they plan on using after the pandemic.

As the pandemic hit, we partnered with the team at the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to develop guidance for how districts could support schools as they began this new year in multiple settings in-person, in remote settings, hybrid. Now the full set of guidance includes a number of different sections focusing on system conditions, academic supports, as well as a section on connection and well-being. In partnership with an incredible team at WestEd, the well-being and connection guidance was developed to include three key sections. One, focusing on the connection and well-being of our staff, another focusing on the connection and well-being of students and how to create those environments for all. And then third, a section on tailored supports for students who have more intensive needs.

Today, I want to reinforce the importance of that section on staff connection and well-being. As I shared earlier, adult development and capacity is a critical priority for developing whole child environments. We have partnered with a number of schools over the past few years, who are doing an incredible job developing whole child environments, and every single one named adult whole development as a core priority in creating these environments. Now, a large portion of the staff well-being in connection guidance focuses on how we can support adults to care for themselves.

The first recommendation in the guidance is to ensure that staff have the opportunity to engage in community and connection opportunities. Trusting and strong relationships between adults is just as important as those between teachers and students in a school community. But we cannot leave this up to chance or assume that adults are making these connections in the free moments they find during their very busy days, even busier than usual now. Our partners at the Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, have designed a school that prioritizes relationships and social emotional development as a priority as high as academics. Students engage in carefully designed Circles, where the trust and vulnerability that anchor strong relationships is prioritized. And because we cannot ask for this trust and vulnerability of students without asking it of adults, and because we know this is just as critical for all people in the building. Valor asks adults, their teachers and their leaders to engage in the same Circle model. Let’s take a look.

Now, the guidance also encourages districts to design opportunities for staff to assess their own well-being and to cultivate self-care strategies, such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or personal goal setting. Now these self-care strategies are skills that need to be taught and practiced. And the individuals need feedback as they engage in this practice. Just like academic skills, we need to bring the principles of learning science. Cycles of practice, feedback and application to the development of skills connected to well-being. Our teachers need these resources to cultivate their own self-care strategies. And our partners at the Healthy Minds Institute offer an example of such resources for well-being. Now they define well-being as awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. Awareness is the ability to be focused and bring attention to the present experience. Connection with others involves practicing the skills of empathy, compassion, and gratitude. Insight is the knowledge and awareness of ourselves, including understanding that we change and evolve as we grow. And purpose is that connection to where we find meaning in our beliefs and in our actions.

The Healthy Minds Institute has developed a free app that supports these elements of well-being with the opportunities for guidance, practice and feedback grounded in learning science. They recently used this resource to deliver a well-being intervention with almost half of the teachers in Madison, WI. The experience includes audio content, offering guidance, both active and sitting practices, as well as feedback integrated into the experience. For the four week intervention, they reported a retention rate of over 80%, which was a first signal that this was a deep value for teachers. And after 15 weeks, the intervention showed lower rates of psychological distress and loneliness, and higher rates of mindfulness, self compassion, and connection to meaning or purpose, as well as higher rates of overall well-being.

If we are going to guide districts and schools to provide these supports for teachers, they must be readily available. And we’re proud to support the development of accessible resources that help districts and schools prioritize these strategies for adults.

In addition to support for staffs’ own well-being, the guidance reinforces the importance of building adult capacity to create environments that support students, ones of healing and equity, and where there’s a focus and a priority on relationships. As our students and teachers continue to navigate uncertainty, instability, and trauma, environments that prioritize healing and equity are critical. Environments where the assets and the experiences connected to students culture and their identity are celebrated, recognized and honored. Environments of healing and equity focus not just on how educators engage with each other and with students, but on how and what is taught.

PilotED is an example of a school that integrates healing and equity into teaching and learning. For students at PilotED, issues of identity are worked directly into the curriculum. For example, a history lesson about Plymouth Rock includes the traditional story of the gathering of Pilgrims and indigenous people. But it also includes what is left out of traditional history books. Teachers talk with students about who they identify with in the story. How do they relate to individuals and communities who have been persecuted for their beliefs, or communities who’ve experienced genocide? The lesson would wrap up with the discussion of emotions and questions, such as, what would it feel like if this was you, your friends, or your family? Here’s a little more about the school.

PilotED is a powerful example of a whole child learning environment that does not separate or silo a focus on social emotional development and identity. In order to create these environments of healing and equity, the team integrates this into their academic instruction in the core of teaching and learning.

The guidance also recognizes the science behind relationships as the foundation of healthy and rigorous learning environments. Positive, trusting and healthy relationships cannot be left to chance. Just as we saw with the adults in the Valor community, when we support relationships with students, there must be intentional design, resourcing and monitoring of how we create and foster these environments.

Our partners at the Search Institute provide resources like building developmental relationships during COVID, a checklist that supports teachers to recognize how they can reinforce developmental relationships with young people recognizing the unique settings that we’re in right now, with in-person, remote, and hybrid learning. Now, the science shows that developmental relationships are about warmth and care. But that’s only part of it. There are other critical elements to keep in mind and bring to relationship building with students, including challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities. As we continue to navigate remote, hybrid and in-person environments during this pandemic, Search Institute’s checklist offers specific guidance for supporting these pillars of developmental relationships. For example, teachers who express care can do so through a text, an email, a video or a note that says, “You matter to me personally, and I’m thinking about you.” They can challenge growth by asking young people to set a personal goal for something they want to achieve during this time and then periodically check in on their progress. Sharing power can show up as letting young people design or lead some of the virtual activities and lessons assigned to the group. Research demonstrates the strong connection between developmental relationships and a positive school culture as well as student performance.

Like I shared earlier, the science of relationships is not something that teachers are traditionally exposed to, through pre-service training. And it is also a dynamic area of research where we are learning more and more every day. So we must make professional development opportunities available for educators to learn the science behind relationships as a foundation for learning, as well as how to bring intention to supporting relationships in learning environments.

The guidance from CCSSO includes resources developed by the team at Turnaround for Children, an organization that translates the science of learning and development into practical tools and strategies for educators. There are tools shared in the guidance, support teachers to build an understanding of the brain science connected to relationships, and how to build students’ understanding of this brain science as well. They walk teachers through the connection between emotions, human relationships, and cognition. We survived as a species, relying on our emotions, to drive our alertness and our awareness to our surroundings, including how we respond to threats. And we evolved by relying on our social connection to each other in community. Because emotions and social connection are so deeply rooted in our success as a human species, they are intertwined with cognitive processes, like attention, and memory. And we access these processes when we engage in learning.

When we are feeling disconnected or stressed, our brains are wired to respond to these states and protect us. The hormone cortisol is released in a state of stress. And this puts us in a reactive state, and it quiets the centers of the brain responsible for attention and memory, and it activates the center responsible for emotional response or amygdala. This is because stress is perceived as a threat, a sign that we are not safe, and our brain moves into a state that prioritizes the fight, flight or freeze that keeps us safe. The brain and body perceives that ability to react in the moment, as more important than higher order thinking that we use to engage in learning. Relationships are where safety can be found here though. Just like cortisol is released with stress, oxytocin is released through human relationship, and connection. The sense of safety and belonging that relationships provide, truly is the foundation for learning. Because these create the context that readies the brain to learn.

I shared the intentionality that the Valor team brings to relationship building, and I want to share one more concrete example. Van Ness Elementary School is a district school in Washington, DC. Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, the principal of Van Ness has woven rituals and systems into the school day to ensure that students are anchored in the safety and belonging of relationships. This begins every day with what Van Ness calls Strong Start. A set of routines conducted each morning in which every student is greeted at the front door by a staff member, invited to set a goal for the day, given a nutritious breakfast in the classroom, and then engaged in community building exercises with peers including techniques to keep their body calm and present. They might go through exercises that involve deep breaths and slow body movements and the students connect this to their learning. When we observed these activities in a classroom, a student came and told us, “This is about getting us ready for what we are about to learn.” If Van Ness’ team sees any evidence that a student needs more time and relationship, they prioritize this. Students might have an adult buddy providing what they call Time-Love-Connection or TLC. The adults will check in individually to explore what the student might need to feel safe, connected and present. Cynthia and her team know they cannot leave this to chance. So they get creative with spaces in the schedule that they can leverage on a regular basis for TLC time, like recess. The Van Ness team names the psychological safety that comes from trusting and caring relationships as a required foundation for their students to engage in learning. They reject a false dichotomy, that academic learning happens in one space and relationships and well-being happen in another. But recognize through their grounding in the science, that beginning with the humanity of our students, their connection to adults and to each other in the community of a learning environment, is the responsibility of educators and the foundation for all the learning that happens in a school. And the Van Ness team is seeing the results of this in their success as a school and their success as a community. This is demonstrated across multiple data points, not just student outcomes, but in outstanding teacher retention data as well. Prioritizing the holistic development of our students, helps everyone in a school community thrive.

As our partners at Yale, and their research with teachers reminds us relationships and connection with students is a source of joy and efficacy for our teachers, particularly right now. I would love to leave you with that today. The well-being and development of our students starts with how we care for our adults, and how we support them with resources to care for our students. Across the field, we see incredible work being done to support our teachers. Thank you for letting me share some of that with you today


About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across our issue areas, we’re pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit chanzuckerberg.com.

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