3 State Policy Levers to Support Teacher Mental Health

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With teacher appreciation week only a few weeks behind us and mental health awareness month coming to a close, we have a great opportunity to reflect on a pressing issue in the life of many teachers — their mental health.  

While state policymakers have been working to improve student mental health for years, there has not been much legislative action related to teacher mental health. It is, however, an issue that warrants attention from policymakers. Even before the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic set in, survey results showed that 58% of teachers were experiencing challenges with their mental health. These challenges can negatively impact student outcomes and have consistently been cited among the key causes of teachers leaving the profession both before and throughout the pandemic.

Supporting teachers’ mental health is one way to show true appreciation for our teachers and can have positive impacts on teacher retention and student achievement. In addition to providing direct support for teacher mental health by addressing things like secondary trauma in the workforce, states can take several actions to decrease teachers’ stress and improve job satisfaction, which may positively impact teacher mental health.

Here, we highlight three policy options for state leaders to support teacher mental health: 

    • Address Secondary Trauma in the Workplace. This direct approach to support teacher mental health is not yet common in state legislation. So far in 2021, there has only been one bill enacted that directly addresses this issue. Washington House Bill 1363 focuses on secondary trauma — or compassion fatigue — in the educator workforce by requiring states and districts to develop educational resources, policies and procedures to prevent and address secondary traumatic stress. 
    • Support Teacher Mentorship. Teacher mentorship programs can foster a more supportive school environment, which research shows may reduce teacher stress. Providing teachers with support from a colleague in their early career is crucial to their ongoing success in the classroom.  

As of 2019, 31 states require induction and/or mentoring support for new teachers, though research shows that high-quality, comprehensive programs must incorporate a variety of components, such as appropriate timing and length, setting high standards and mentor criteria/training. There are several state and local examples of these types of programs, including North Carolina’s Beginning Teacher Support Program, which is a required three-year induction program for beginning teachers that provides mentor teachers with protected time to support beginning teachers and enable their success.  

    • Implement Planning Time and Reduced Work Hours: Because research also demonstrates that job demands are a source of teacher stress, providing teachers with more planning time or reducing work hours may also improve teacher mental health. According to ECS’ 50-State Comparison on Teacher Recruitment and Retention, as of 2019, only 11 states required an established portion of a teacher’s workday to be designated for planning.

Virginia, for example, requires at least an average of 30 minutes per day during the school week as planning time for elementary school teachers and one planning period per day for middle school and high school teachers. Some states, like Indianahave introduced legislation this year to require planning time. Indiana Senate Bill 57 would require governing bodies and administrators to provide 30 consecutive minutes for teacher preparation time that’s free of any other assigned responsibilities.  

While there has not been much legislative action in states to reduce work hours, this approach may also help reduce teacher stress and improve mental health. South Carolina introduced House Bill 3004 this year, which would prohibit teachers from being required to work more than 37 1/2 hours each week without overtime pay. 

These approaches provide just a few examples of the ways that states might support teachers’ mental health. There are a variety of other policy levers that state leaders could explore in the future to accomplish this goal — including support from school leaders and social and emotional learning for teachers. To stay current on proposed and enacted legislation on this topic and many others, visit our State Education Policy Tracking page. 

Author profile
Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | arafa@ecs.org

Alyssa Rafa is a former senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

Author profile
Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States | cfrancies@ecs.org
As policy researcher, Cassidy supports the Policy Team by tracking legislation and responding to information requests on a variety of education policy issues. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Cassidy completed her bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Cassidy is passionate about providing state leaders with quality information to support them in improving education systems for all students.

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