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One way to help support teacher mental health and teacher well-being is to rethink how school systems recruit and assign substitute teachers.

This key strategy can help boost teacher well-being immediately

One way to help support teachers' mental health is to rethink how school systems recruit and assign substitute teachers

Key points:

  • Teachers have juggled so much during the pandemic and the return to school–it’s no wonder they’re burnt out
  • High-quality substitutes are key to teachers’ ability to take breaks, and technology can aid in recruiting subs
  • See related article: Survey highlights troubling teacher morale issues

In the wake of the pandemic, student mental health is a top concern for K-12 leaders, as it should be. But teacher wellness is also at crisis levels, and this has important implications for the quality of education that students receive.

When education shifted online in spring 2020, teachers had to learn new technologies and instructional strategies in a very short amount of time. Many endured the loss of friends and family members to COVID-related illness. When school districts returned to in-person learning, several teachers worried about their own safety. Teachers have had to deal with a sharp rise in behavioral issues and address a growing number of social-emotional needs among their students. They’ve worked long hours to facilitate learning recovery.

It’s no wonder teachers are burnt out, and many are leaving the profession. We’re asking them to do a lot, and it’s taking a toll on their well-being. In fact, pandemic-related anxiety was higher for teachers than it was for health care workers, one study reveals.

Students can’t learn if they don’t have dedicated and highly qualified teachers who can fully focus on their students’ academic and social-emotional needs. This becomes nearly impossible to do when teachers are worried about their own mental health.

Improving teacher wellness is a complex challenge, and solving it will require a systemic approach that includes making widespread changes to improve teachers’ working conditions. However, there are also some immediate steps that K-12 leaders can take to support their teachers more effectively. One of these is to rethink how school systems approach the recruiting and assignment of substitute teachers.

Why high-quality substitutes matter

Like everyone else, teachers need to take a break once in a while. They might need a day off to relax and recharge, or just to get away from the mental and emotional strain their job entails. However, good teachers also care deeply about their students, and many won’t put their own mental health requirements ahead of the needs of their students.

In conversations with teachers, I’ve learned that many avoid taking sick days because they have concerns about the quality of the substitutes who will be assigned to their classes—or even if they’ll have a sub at all. I had one teacher tell me that the first person she checks with when planning a vacation isn’t her husband, it’s her favorite substitute teacher to see if they can fill in while she’s gone.

Teachers need to be able to take mental health days every now and then, without worrying that their students aren’t going to learn in their absence. If educators can feel confident in the quality and availability of the substitute teachers in their schools, they’ll be much more likely to take days off as needed, which will make an immediate impact on their mental health and well-being.

How technology can help

For educators to feel comfortable in taking days off when they need to, school districts need a reliable supply of high-quality substitute teachers. However, many districts struggle to maintain an adequate pool of subs. And that’s preventing full-time teachers from taking the occasional breaks they need for sustained wellness.

One way for school districts to overcome this challenge is to actively recruit more subs within their community. There are aspiring teachers, talented members of the community, and retirees with the knowledge and skills to be effective substitutes who would welcome the chance to support their local school system—while also making extra money on a part-time basis.

This is where technology can help. Online marketplaces are connecting people in innovative ways, bringing together people with a need and those who can help fill that need across a wide variety of industries. Similarly, technology can connect schools with people in their community who are interested in becoming substitute teachers.

Not only can technology help forge these connections; it can also simplify the process of becoming a sub, finding and accepting assignments, and knowing what to expect. An online portal removes many of the key hurdles that make being a sub more difficult that it has to be. By improving the substitute experience, many of the barriers that contribute to the shortage of substitute teachers in a school system dissolve.

In transforming how K-12 leaders find, recruit, and interact with substitute teachers, technology can help schools build a stable and reliable pool of qualified subs. This will help full-time teachers feel better about taking the days off they’re entitled to, resulting in improved wellness and a more satisfied teaching staff. It’s a win for school districts, teachers, and the students they serve.

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Why student and teacher wellness comes first

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