NORTH ADAMS — Even before COVID upended the world, Clio Stearns was already thinking about the lack of support for educators.
“Teachers need support,” said Stearns, assistant professor of education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. “That’s always been true.”
Two years of the pandemic have only exacerbated that need. In districts across the county, Stearns said, “teachers are dealing with this tremendous emotional and behavioral fallout from kids who have lost people, they have lost secure economic circumstances, they’ve been through this massive upheaval and trauma.”
In many cases, students learned remotely for a long period of time at home, “which could mean a thousand different things,” she said.
Now, Stearns and North Adams Public Schools are teaming up for a pilot program aimed at providing more emotional support to educators.
A group that includes teachers, counselors and teachers’ assistants in all the district’s four schools started meeting with Stearns a few weeks ago. The group meets weekly for six weeks. In total, there are 16 staff members participating, according to Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Roberts-Morandi.
In the sessions, Stearns talks about different theories or strategies the school staff can use in their work. They also chat in small groups, but if the discussion starts to turn into complaining, Stearns said she redirects the conversation to “really think through what’s going on and how we can take better care of ourselves.”
Across the country, educators are retiring early or taking other jobs, a trend that the pandemic accelerated, Stearns said.
“This is definitely not specific to North Adams, but we’re seeing really high numbers of teacher burnout,” she said. “I think North Adams is a great district and gives teacher a lot of support, but this is a national phenomenon.”
She pointed to New Mexico, where National Guard troops started working in schools as substitutes to plug staffing shortages. “That’s how hard it is to find teachers right now,” Stearns said. “That really is a crisis.” In the Berkshires, some districts have struggled to find substitute teachers and other staff to keep schools running.
The district has seen slippages in reading and math skills, Roberts-Morandi said. It was a phenomenon they expected given national trends, she added.
“Teachers need support and they need it this year more than ever,” Stearns said. “The best thing we can do is offer support and ways to make sense of all the different things that are happening.”
As the pilot program rolls out, Stearns has been collecting data on it to inform future work. “I definitely have a hope, and I think the district has a hope, to turn it into something longer-term and bigger,” she said.
“There’s a lot of excitement about exploring what this could look like,” Roberts-Morandi said.