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Teachers & Schools

Q&A with The Teaching Well

Kat Clark | 3 Feb 2019

Landed works closely with local organizations to address educators’ financial wellness needs and to gain a broader understanding of the housing landscape and how it impacts our communities. One of the organizations we have enjoyed working with at our financial wellness events is The Teaching Well, based in Oakland, which serves schools across the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Sonya MehtaThe Teaching Well works with schools to provide teachers with tools for emotional regulation, mindful dialogue, and stress resilience. Their model consists of a three-year professional development program alongside regular 1:1 mentoring for administrators and teachers, focused on interrupting teacher burnout by building a more sustainable school culture, informed by teacher voice. In their own words, “The Teaching Well takes an organizational health approach to education, to support schools in more effectively retaining and leveraging the brilliance of their educators.”

I interviewed the organization’s Director of Partnerships, Sonya Mehta, to learn more about The Teaching Well and how their program is working to address teacher retention and health. All answers below are Sonya's.

What is the problem The Teaching Well is trying to solve?

The Teaching WellNationally, almost half (!) of our teachers are leaving the classroom within five years, and this teacher turnover rate is closer to 70% in areas furthest from opportunity, like East Oakland, where The Teaching Well was born. This churn comes at a huge cost to student learning and relationships with communities that are often most in need of stability. Teacher burnout also has a massive financial impact on an already strapped system. According to a 2014 study by the Alliance for Education, replacing teachers who leave the profession costs our system $2.2 billion annually, and we know that if we retained just 2% more of our teachers nationally, we'd have an additional $44 million each year to invest in our students.

We know that teachers who experience chronic stress are likelier to burn out and leave teaching in the long run. Research by Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, also suggests that chronically stressed teachers are likelier to show signs of implicit bias in their daily work with students and families, so investing in the emotional regulation of our teachers is a powerful lever for equity. Moreover, nuanced school-based initiatives like restorative justice, data-driven instruction, and project-based learning can't take root and succeed if sites are constantly turning over their teachers, so the work of cultivating healthy, resilient educators lies at the heart of the movement for educational justice.

How would you describe teacher burnout to someone outside the world of education?

It’s important to understand that teaching is immersive. Leading a classroom of students through daily challenges to new levels of learning and growth takes both courage and commitment. Teachers across our nation are on the frontlines: aside from providing individualized instruction to scores of students in their care, our educators are often tasked with helping families navigate problems at home and within their communities. They often become de-facto therapists, social workers, and advocates supporting families through immigration challenges, navigating social services, and making sure their students’ basic needs are met. It’s a profession that is deeply relational but can also be isolating and stressful. Chronic stress and vicarious trauma that stays in the body as a result of working in high-need, under-resourced environments manifests health issues, burnout, reactiveness with students or colleagues, and implicit bias.

Our structure not only supports the teacher but confronts the deficit in the system that doesn't provide support to match the demand on teachers’ energy and output. We are filling a gap, but more importantly, we are working to help schools integrate our strategies and hold them as their own.

What types of tools do you provide to help improve teacher wellness?

We provide a comprehensive suite of offerings to our schools to intervene in teacher burnout both at the teacher and systems levels. We offer:

  • Professional development in areas like stress resilience, strengths development, managing transferred and vicarious trauma, healthy communication, mindfulness, nutrition, and financial wellness
  • Mindful mentoring sessions where we work with teachers one-on-one to provide personal wellness coaching, with the goal of turning the above concepts into habits to transform the narrative of what it means to be an educator
  • Action research at our schools where we interview teachers to create research reports that serve as a landscape analysis around personal and organizational sustainability; we give actionable steps to school leaders about how to course-correct mid-year to support their teachers
  • Executive-level leadership coaching with school and network leaders to support them in building more sustainable school ecosystems, informed by teacher voice

How have you seen teacher wellbeing impact students?

The Teaching WellAt our school sites across California, we’ve seen that prioritizing teacher wellbeing, health, sustainability, and longevity has had a profound impact on students and school communities. One of our teachers, Jorge Pacheco, is a great example of what’s possible when teachers develop healthier habits, mindsets, and communication patterns that allow them to invest more deeply in their students.

Jorge grew up in the high-need community of Oak Grove, San Jose. After working his way through community college and UC Berkeley, he returned to Oak Grove to serve as an educator in the same neighborhood where he was raised. After a few years, though, he found himself struggling to develop habits and practices that would allow him to sustain himself in this work. In his own words, “Before The Teaching Well, it is no secret that I was consistently burning out year after year to the detriment of my personal health and my students' achievements. I was self-medicating with caffeine and sleeping pills, my eating habits were unhealthy, my sleep schedule was self-destructive, and I was constantly thinking about leaving the profession with every passing day as I continued teaching despite being burned out.”

Jorge decided to work with The Teaching Well because he knew deep down that he did not want to leave the profession. He just needed help figuring out what was causing him to engage in unsustainable habits and mindsets. As part of his school’s partnership with The Teaching Well, he received personal wellness coaching that he says has helped him “gain incredible skills in emotional self-regulation and understanding.” Jorge says that with these shifts in his life, he can now see himself staying at his school for many more years to come.

In addition to committing to teaching for years to come, Jorge has since worked to found California’s first middle school Ethnic Studies program in San Jose, is pursuing his National Boards Certification, and was elected to the Oak Grove School Board in November 2018. He said that in spite of taking on more responsibility than ever before, “The work feels manageable because I now have healthier habits to support my personal sustainability.”

How can you tell your work is making a difference?

Over the last two years, with the support of our comprehensive model, our partner sites across the Bay Area have cut teacher turnover in half, keeping 56 more educators in the classroom serving students and accelerating academic and life outcomes for our communities. This increase in teacher retention has saved our school and district partners nearly $1 million in attrition-related costs, which they have then been able to re-invest in students. Our work is creating more stable educational communities for students who need them the most and growing the resource pie for our schools, so they can funnel savings from reduced teacher turnover back to their students.

We know that these two years are just the tip of the iceberg, and that there is vast potential for investing in teacher sustainability and retention in order to transform the public education system into one that is more stable, healthy, and supportive. We will know we’re successful if more good teachers continue to feel empowered to stay in the profession for longer, and if they make this decision from a place of feeling supported and valued by the system.

How can teachers and school leaders bring The Teaching Well to their schools?

We’re currently in the process of growing our reach across California and are recruiting new school partners for the 2019-20 school year in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. We work with Landed and other community partners to meet teachers and administrators across these areas and provide resources to improve wellness. If you know a school, district, or charter network that would benefit from the support we offer and may be interested in entering into partnership – or if you are a philanthropist interested in helping us expand to more schools across California – please reach out to sonyamehta@theteachingwell.org.

About the Interviewee: Sonya Mehta

Sonya Mehta serves as Director of Partnerships for The Teaching Well, an Oakland-grown nonprofit focused on supporting schools with investing in teacher wellbeing in order to more effectively retain, support, and leverage the brilliance of their educators. Prior to joining The Teaching Well, she spent five years teaching in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland and was an early homebuyer with Landed's down payment program for educators. Sonya sees her work in public education as profoundly political, with the potential for far-reaching impacts on social inequalities.

The contents of this Q&A do not necessarily reflect the views of Landed, Inc. and are shared for educational purposes. To learn more about The Teaching Well, please visit theteachingwell.org.

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About the Author

Kat Clark

Kat works on the Growth team at Landed, where she leads Engagement. She previously worked at four schools in three states.

Looking for Landed's down payment program? Due to a temporary unavailability of DPP investment funds, all Landed metro areas are being put on a DPP waitlist effective September 8, 2022. You can read all the details (including FAQs) here if you would like to know more.