How to reduce stress and ease teacher burnout? Let them—and students—take ownership

Choice creates a culture of efficacy in which teachers feel they are contributing to a school's progress
By: | December 6, 2021

Giving students and teachers more ownership over learning is one way a Dallas high school is rekindling engagement and, therefore, reducing stress.

Key to this approach is working with students to set standards-based learning goals and assess their progress along the way, says Sarah Foster, assistant principal at Bryan Adams High School Leadership Academy, a high-poverty school in Dallas ISD. “When students are assessing themselves and we give them time to struggle and teachers are there to facilitate and let students digest the skills, teachers don’t feel like they’re carrying that whole load and it reduces burnout,” Foster says.

Teachers do guide their classes to write their goals in non-academic, student-friendly language so the learning objectives are clear.

And administrators also empower teachers to drive this approach. Leadership teams comprising administrators and teachers meet throughout the week to identify and share strategies that are showing evidence of success. These strategies are then disseminated through professional learning communities.

“It’s very bite-size; it’s not overwhelming for teachers to choose one or two strategies to commit to,” Foster says. “As administrators, we’re not necessarily coming in with our own ideas. These are strategies that have been shown to work in classrooms in our building.”

Teacher choice also creates a culture of efficacy in which teachers feel they are contributing to the progress a school is making and that leads to buy-in when it comes to best practices, Foster says. They also have built-in multiple levels of support, such as providing teaching assistants in certain classrooms where students are struggling. Instructional lead teachers offer guidance to PLCs, and assistant principals and the principal helping support all those different layers. “That way a person doesn’t feel like they don’t have a team to work with,” she says. “And having a team to work with helps us create work-life balance. Teachers have someone to lean on when there are things to take care of at home and in their personal lives.”

‘Wide range of emotions’

After extending fall break over Thanksgiving, the Poudre School District in Colorado will offer additional mental health services throughout the school year, says Madeline Noblett, the executive director of communications.

“Like the adults in the district, our students are experiencing a wide range of emotions,” Noblett says. “Although many were excited to come back to school this year, some students in PSD are struggling. They are experiencing anxiety, depression, uncertainty and emotional dysregulation, which poses challenges for them, their teachers and their families.”

Students have launched kindness activities while teachers have stressed character education this school year. As for teachers and staff, they can access the district’s free employee assistance services. Principals and supervisors have also been making time to stop and celebrate through shows of appreciation like a cup of coffee, thank-yous from students and other efforts. The district’s wellness coordinator helps staff access fitness classes and nutrition experts while a resiliency coach trains staff employees on regulation, trauma, managing stress, self-care, and community building.

This spring, the districtwide will host a Mental Health Matters event where staff, families and students can take classes, talk with mental health experts and access additional wellness resources. “People were excited to return to full-time, in-person learning this fall,” Noblett says. “It has taken time, however, for everyone to rebuild their collective stamina to be in class and present, in-person, each day.”