‘A Culture of Care’ – How Schools Can Alleviate Educator Stress This Year

Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher
August, 2023

Originally published in EdWeek, this article looks at the ways we, as leaders, can influence our school's climate and culture.

Schools need a culture of care now more than ever.

Everyone from bus drivers to teachers, to central office staff, to students and their families. Our school communities have been through a lot. Collectively, we have returned to work and school, but many educators are returning to our classrooms and schools exhausted, disillusioned, and in some cases burnt out.

A recent RAND study stated that nearly 1 in 4 teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–21 school year, compared with an average of 1 in 6 prior to the pandemic. And a joint report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) from earlier this year reported that 42 percent percent of surveyed principals were considering leaving their position—a 110 percent increase.

It has been, and for many still is, a traumatic year. Many of our students are also returning to school having experienced trauma, loss of loved ones, and uncertainty about the future.

Schools play a big role in establishing spaces where everyone feels that they belong. The culture and climate established can be supportive and boost caring, or it can be unsupportive and raise stress levels. And for any meaningful learning to occur, everyone must feel safe, secure, and supported. And the actions that we take to help create this support can range from meaningful to tokenistic. As was highlighted in the article When Netflix Isn’t Enough: Fostering True Recovery for Educators, many schools embark on well-intended but ultimately flawed tokenistic approaches.

“The problem is not that activities like orchestrated gift exchanges and happy hours—or even self-indulgent Netflix binges and spa days taken by teachers—are bad. It is that none of these practices provide true recovery and, as a result, they don’t lead to sustainable practice.”

The same tone was reiterated in a recent EdWeek article Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be, and it called on administrators to start to think differently about teacher well-being.

Encouraging yoga or meditation can’t make up for systemic issues that cause stress, experts say. “You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems,” said Chelsea Prax, the programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers. “Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem.”

Schools that have only created a superficial culture of care may struggle to meet the needs of everyone in their community. The PTA teacher luncheons, spontaneous coffee carts, and gift cards—practices that many schools and communities have adopted to show appreciation to teachers—are admirable but too often not sufficient to meet the needs of teachers. Practices such as morning meetings, spirit days, and rallies are a good beginning to show care for students, but they too will have to be reevaluated with a new lens knowing that the needs many students have will not be met with surface-level solutions. Given so much need, now is the perfect time to acknowledge and invest in creating a culture of care at your school.

Caring cultures start with strong relationships that are developed when leaders prioritize human needs. These leaders encourage everyone to prioritize their own well-being and understand the positive or virtuous impact it can have on others. They also encourage relationship building and intentionally setting aside time in the busy school schedule for people to get to know each other. And they set expectations and create opportunities for teachers to get to know their students and take the time themselves to get to know everyone in their community.

While relationships are key to creating a culture of care, school leaders are often the greatest single influence in shifting or creating a new culture at a school. Principals have the power to set the tone and establish a new order of business in a school. The principal provides education credibility to almost any initiative they champion, and as such, most school teams buy-in.

When care is a priority and becomes ingrained in the school’s DNA, and becomes part of its culture, great things happen. Investing in creating a culture of care will not only improve the well-being of staff, it can also improve retention rates. The statistics around retention and burnout among educators are grim. And while some things are difficult to address in a single school year, investing in people to show them how much you care for them and value them can have immediate impact. And in our current circumstances, not demonstrating care can instead exacerbate the stress. Retaining staff and improving your culture of care can benefit student achievement, and performance, it can also benefit your budgets. Replacing a teacher is a costly endeavor, with researchers estimating these costs reach as high as 150 percent of the departing teacher’s salary. Or in other words, two new hires could feasibly cost the district the same as three departing teachers.

Caring cultures have other benefits as well, they create a sense of ownership in everyone in a school community and create space for innovation. When individuals have a say in what they do, feel seen, heard, and valued, they develop a sense of belonging and ownership that fosters positivity and enthusiasm. It becomes a virtuous cycle of positive energy where good things happen, people flourish and grow. In these types of environments, trust and psychological safety develop, giving people the confidence to take risks, challenge current thinking, and innovate. When schools are driven by the needs of their people, not just the curriculum or school improvement plan, employee happiness increases, and student engagement and learning skyrockets.

Building a culture of caring does not happen overnight. It requires ongoing effort and action for the shift to create real change, yet it is also something that you can start to affect tomorrow.

  • Acknowledge individuals. Throughout the year, highlight individuals and share about who they are both personally and professionally.

  • Demonstrate care. Engage your team in nontask-oriented discussions. Ask how they are doing during these times. Be genuine.

  • Show your human side of leadership. Ask questions, admit vulnerability, listen actively. Check on how your team is doing and ask them what would reduce stress.

  • Learn to adapt your leadership style. Different individuals respond to different leadership styles and being able to adjust your style can have a big impact on your team and your school culture.

  • Provide training and professional development. Invest in and expand the skills and mindsets of everyone in your school.

  • The old saying goes: “Put your money where your mouth is.” If you make a tangible investment in building a culture of care, your staff will know that you are serious about it. This can range from scheduling more time for collaboration, to hiring support staff, through to professional learning. Your budget is a moral document.

Education is a human endeavor, and learning is built on relationships. Creating a culture of care in our schools is a necessary endeavor in the best of times and an imperative when times are tough.