Psychological Safety: One ingredient in the recipe for teacher and student wellbeing

Kristina Campa-Gruca

October 27, 2021

Teacher dissatisfaction has skyrocketed over the past year and a half, with one-in-four teachers indicating a desire to leave the classroom within the next year.1 Extraordinarily high levels of stress have led to a dramatic increase in burnout and overall decrease in mental health and wellbeing.2 

We know from our work with partners across the country how the pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of teachers. The numerous factors that contributed to employee dissatisfaction prior to the pandemic have been magnified over the last year and a half. They include:3 

  • Very high workload (often unrealistic) 
  • Poor work/life balance  
  • Frequent organizational change  
  • Lack of resources  
  • Unreasonable demands from managers  
  • Not feeling valued or appreciated  

Because there remains uncertainty about what the future holds for schools as the pandemic wanes, it is imperative that leaders address these issues head-on to prevent an exodus of their teachers. In some organizations, leaders have been able to provide additional compensation, mental health benefits, flexible schedules, opportunities for remote work, and other interventions meant to increase wellbeing. And, we also know that many organizations do not have the same resources or ability to offer these benefits. 

Regardless of the availability of resources for additional monetary benefit leaders must work to create a culture of psychological safety, one that provides staff members with the safety to share their perspectives, failures, and be fully open with their teammates and leadership

A school with high psychological safety is positively correlated with wellbeing, creativity, innovation, effectiveness. Indeed, Gallup found that cultivating psychological safety can have a significant positive impact when a majority of staff perceive the organization as psychologically safe: a reduction in employee turnover by as much as 27% and an increase in productivity by as much as 12 percent.4,5

This isn’t just for the adults in the building. The benefits of psychological safety also extend to students. Research has shown there to be a positive correlation between a teacher’s psychological safety at school and student levels of self-confidence and learning.6 

Strategies to cultivate psychological safety in your organization 

  • Assess the level of psychological safety among staff using the seven questions below.7 (Note: Endorsing the first four statements would indicate a sense of psychological safety, and the last three indicate the opposite.)
    1. Teachers at this school are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
    2. Teachers at this school feel it is safe to take a risk (e.g. trying something new in the classroom).
    3. No teachers at this school would deliberately act in a way that would undermine my teaching.
    4. Working with teachers at this school, my unique skills and talents are valued and used.
    5. If you make a mistake at this school, it is often held against you.
    6. People who work at this school sometimes reject others for being different.
    7. It is difficult to ask other people who work at this school for help. 
  • Analyze the data using multiple vectors to identify any differences by demographic sub-group (e.g., position, gender identity, race, and ethnicity). Understanding how psychological safety is experienced by different staff sub-groups will enable you to answer the hard questions: “Are team members of a certain race or ethnic group more or less likely to feel psychologically safe?”; “To what extent are differences correlated with certain managers or departments?”; and others.
  • Identify strategies for increasing psychological safety that are relevant to feedback from your staff, and ensure those strategies are modeled by leaders and managers. Leaders have a significant influence on the organizational culture and on staff member wellbeing. Staff members must feel supported by their leaders and managers. Some actions leaders and managers can take to facilitate psychological safety among their staff members are8:
    • Show your humanity and be willing to be vulnerable: name when you don’t have the answers or when you feel challenged and motivated
    • Acknowledge the reality of workplace challenges – and demonstrate commitment to working through them together; invite team members to share their perspectives and ideas for navigating common challenges
    • Talk about mental health and wellbeing regularly in whole groups and one-on-one with managers
    • Actively discourage habits which harm staff mental health – working excessive hours, working on weekends/holidays (e.g., give time back wherever you can (cancel meetings, give workdays as days off)
  • Show appreciation and gratitude
    • Have a human moment in each of your meetings with school leaders and/or teachers and ask them what they need (and task for instructional coaches and VPs to do the same)
    • Ask the parent association to organize ongoing celebrations for school staff. This could be things like coffee and donuts, but also non-monetary actions like thank you notes or video messages from parents and students.
    • Give and invite feedback regularly in the moment and in intentional, structured processes.

We are interested in hearing from you: is your organization a psychologically safe one? How will you commit to fostering a psychologically safe culture for your team members?

1While teachers are indicating a desire to leave, research shows that they are not actually leaving. We use the desire to leave as a proxy for overall dissatisfaction with their work. 

2Kaufman, Julia and Melissa Diliberti. (2021) Teachers are not all right: How the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the nation’s teachers. Center for Reinventing Public Education. 

3Education Support UK. (2021). Psychological Safety in Schools.

4Herway, Jake. (2017). How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety. Gallup Workplace. 

5Edmonson, Amy. (2018). How Fearless Organizations Succeed. strategy + business. 

6InnerDrive. Psychological Safety in the Classroom.

7Wanless, Shannon and Dana Winters. (2018). A Welcome Space for Taking Risks. Focus Social and Emotional Learning, 39(4), 41-44.

8Education Support UK. (2021). Psychological Safety in Schools.