May 31, 2024

Class of 2024: Education researcher sheds light on teacher wellness amid pandemic

Healthy teachers are better able to support student success, says Lisa Taylor
Lisa Taylor enjoying a ride on her mountain bike
Lisa Taylor embodies wellness in her professional and personal life.

Former K-12 teacher Lisa Taylor was in the process of defining her doctoral dissertation topic at the Werklund School of Education when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Upon learning of the increased exhaustion and stress teachers were enduring because of the outbreak, she knew she had to give voice to their health and wellness experiences. 

“One colleague took to social media and indicated that they were overwhelmed and underappreciated. They stated that the way they used to support their own wellness and self-care was to go for runs, but they just couldn't find their runner’s high anymore. That really stuck with me,” she says.  

Taylor interviewed eight elementary-level teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties they were facing and what could be done to better support them. Through the discussions, she came to view the contributors as wounded, metaphorically speaking.

"A wound is commonly understood as a physical, visually accessible injury to the skin. However, a wound can also be emotionally experienced, and the concept of wounds as wear and tear sites constantly affected by stressors resonated throughout the data," she explains. 

Complexity of wounds

The stressors contributing to these wounds are profuse. 

According to Taylor, understanding the "complexity of wounds" requires recognizing that teacher health is impacted by complex systems (e.g., the education system, political system, family system) that create unique circumstances for each individual. In addition to pressures within family groups, stressors specific to educators include increased demands with insufficient time — a problem that spans various levels of the education system.

One example shared by the study participants is the ongoing shortage of substitute teachers, which requires them to sacrifice preparation time to cover each other’s classes.

She says that teachers are doing everything they can in terms of personal wellness, but that the organization bears responsibility for addressing such systemic stressors. 

“It is not that teachers are not running hard enough or drinking enough water. Those are decisions that the teachers can make for themselves for their own self-care. But we need to have resources that are appropriate to each system level.”

Healing forward 

So, how to move forward and heal teachers’ wounds?

Taylor advocates for a trans-systemic care approach involving stakeholders from within and across various systems, including educational and political systems, who can take appropriate action.

“If you take the substitute teacher shortage, we need school district-level personnel to rally the resources that they have to better support teachers. 

“There are school districts in our country that mandate teacher prep time, meaning that if a teacher gives up their time to support their colleagues or the students in the school, they get that time back. But that's not the case in many districts.” 

Taylor also advises administrators to support teacher autonomy and suggests that families reaching out and sharing appreciation are a couple of ways to honour the work teachers have done and continue to do.

Teacher health and student success

While it may be tempting to minimize the importance of educator wellness, Taylor says advocates of health promotion in schools recognize that wellness is a precursor to achievement.

“If a student has not had breakfast, or if they've not slept well, or if they're in an unsafe home, it's going to be difficult for them to reach their potential as learners,” she says. “Similarly, a teacher who is not well, is not likely to achieve their potential as an educator.

“If our teachers are well, then they are better positioned to support our students.”

Taylor works to live wellness in her teaching at Mount Royal University by building relationships with her students.

“This fosters a community where social and emotional wellness has an opportunity to flourish.”

Honouring educators

Taylor earned a Canadian Association for Teacher Education Award for her research. She is grateful for the acknowledgement and the opportunity to advocate for teachers. 

“I think that when you receive an award for the work that you do, it's a form of validation and recognition that this topic is important. I appreciate the recognition that comes with it to really honour the experiences and struggles of teachers.”

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2024.

Graduates, as you prepare to transition away from student life, we'd like to also welcome you into the UCalgary alumni community. Learn about the programs, benefits and services available exclusively to UCalgary grads, and be sure to keep in touch. 

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