How Administrators Can Support Teachers: Tips to Move Teams Forward with Compassion

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By: Melissa Bloom and Camile Earle-Dennis


Tips to identify each stage of grief, offer support, and what to avoid


Teacher growth and professional development must continue despite the COVID-19 crisis. School administrators can lead through these tough times with compassion by understanding grief and how to help themselves and their teachers move through the six stages of grief.

The following tips can help administrators use specific strategies to offer support and continue professional growth.


What kind of support do teachers want and need right now?


Emotional Support

What is the “biggest risk” schools and other organizations are facing right now, according to Fortune magazine? (Aspan, 2020).


While times of challenge and trauma are not new, the global COVID-19 crisis has the entire world grappling with the loss of loved ones, fear, and social isolation.

Negative impacts of grief and stress include:

    • Lost productivity
    • Difficulty concentrating on teaching and learning
    • Teacher burnout

Many teachers say they have never received training on emotional self-management, a critical skillset for recovery and well-being.

Emotionally supporting teachers means first recognizing the level of stress and grief they are experiencing, and then approaching it as a trauma that they can work through with the right tools, including social-emotional learning (SEL) to build competencies such as self-care and self-management.


Professional Support

Instructional Empowerment’s Applied Research Center has interviewed many school leaders this past year, and it was clear they wanted to help lift teachers’ burdens and provide educators with the skills to navigate remote and hybrid learning environments.

Many administrators expressed worry that in their efforts to assist, they might add further tension and that teachers “could not deal with one more thing.”

The reality is that school leaders have never encountered such a monumental challenge and an urgent need to move learning forward and address the COVID-19 student achievement gaps that continue to widen.

Professionally supporting teachers in the classroom will not only help teachers feel more in control – it will also encourage growth and development in the classroom and strengthen tier 1 core instruction.

A few strategies administrators can use to improve professional support include:

    1. Give teachers the foundational self-care and self-management tools to reduce stress and increase teacher and student performances
    2. Support teachers to accelerate student learning rather than default to academic interventions
    3. Adopt the “4Rs” of effective virtual instruction – Relationships, Routines, Roles, and Rigor – which gives teachers simple, doable guidelines for remote learning environments
    4. Create a system for formative assessment to give students a more active role in learning and ease some of the burdens on teachers
    5. Conduct virtual classroom walkthroughs and provide teachers with valuable feedback
    6. Strengthen your own instructional leadership by building a culture of continuous improvement for your school

Educational leaders cannot afford to “push pause” on teacher professional development and must also be cognizant of the overwhelming stress confronting teachers. When done right, implementing new and effective strategies won’t be just “one more thing” on teachers’ plates.


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Supporting teachers and school communities through the 6 stages of grief and the COVID crisis

In order to give teachers the emotional and professional support they need, it is important for administrators to understand the grief process and how it applies to school communities in particular.

The first five stages of grief, defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – have long been recognized during times of crisis. Kessler added “meaning” as the sixth stage in 2019. (You’ll find specific tips on how to recognize and navigate each of the six stages of grief in the tables below.)

In a recent interview on Harvard Business Review, Kessler said the worldwide changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have created a sense of collective grief. “We’re feeling a number of different griefs …The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air” (Berinato, 2020).

Schools, as microcosms of society in many ways, continue to be one of the most impacted organizations of these crises.

We have seen schools rise from trauma in the past, coming together to provide their communities with compassion and simultaneously construct new practices. However, we have never seen every school community in every state simultaneously facing this level of grief.


Understanding normal grief vs. complicated grief

There is a particular name for the enduring and life-altering grief caused by the COVID-19 pandemic: complicated grief.

“Complicated grief, also called persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a phenomenon…due to which the individual has trouble recovering from the loss of and resuming his or her normal life” (Mortazavi et al., 2020).

While normal grief symptoms gradually fade, complicated grief symptoms remain or worsen over time (Mayo Clinic, 2017).

Beyond the grief in teachers’ personal lives, educators also had to relearn fundamental elements of their profession practically overnight as schools pivoted to virtual instruction. And as schools have begun to reopen, concern for personal health has become an added layer of stress for many.

Grief upon grief, along with social isolation, has caused high levels of trauma and anxiety (Aspan, 2020).

Teachers face a complete loss of normalcy both at home and in the workplace. The systems underpinning schools – with all the time-honored routines and traditions – have rarely been rocked so abruptly.

The National Association of School Psychologists (2020) warns that “the constantly evolving situation may create significant stress and uncertainty” and advises that self-care should be a priority for school staff in order to keep the school community strong and improve outcomes for both students and adults.

Crisis and trauma can cause a system to grieve on a “micro and macro” level according to Kessler (Berinato, 2020). With multiple levels of stress involved, normal grief can quickly become complicated grief. Understanding this can help us define our feelings and concerns, as well as acknowledge grief as a temporary and transitional phase.


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Grief can come from unexpected places

Recognize the different forms of grief and how they affect your teachers.

For example, one of your veteran teachers may have formed a self-identity as a highly skilled professional – someone who is confident in the classroom and a strong mentor who can offer support for new teachers. Despite all their experience, this teacher may feel lost in a remote learning environment, and this loss of self-identity is a form of grief.

Even as schools return to in-person classrooms, school may never be the same again, and teachers are grappling with their new reality.

George Bonnano, PhD, who is a psychologist and leads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University said, “We don’t only grieve for what’s missing, but also for the ways in which those losses affect our senses of self” (Weir, 2020).

Administrators can support teachers by keeping in mind that grief doesn’t always stem from apparent factors like lost loved ones, but also from less expected places like losing your sense of self.


Moving teams forward with compassion

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress published guidance for leaders as they attend to their organizations during times of grief. Among these steps are “recovery” and “growing” (n.d.).

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES)’s blog also encourages administrators to find forward momentum amidst crises:

We now have an opportunity to reflect on how to foster teacher wellbeing practices that encourage teachers to build and strengthen caring relationships with one another and with their students and prioritize designing and sustaining classrooms where everyone feels emotionally and physically safe and supported. (Porter, 2020)

School leaders can support teachers by introducing adult SEL strategies and systems that:

    • Establish trust
    • Ensure safety
    • Include teacher voice
    • Empower teachers to make choices that improve both their teaching experiences and their students’ learning environments
    • Increase collaboration among teachers, school leaders, and students and their families

The tips below describe how administrators can support teachers. They are organized into the six stages of grief, so you can meet your colleagues where they are and offer support appropriate to their situation and need.

Meeting teachers where they are helps to rekindle and activate their existing resiliency. When teachers learn how to tap into their existing resiliency, they can move through the initial stages of grief and reach the final acceptance stages.

Figure 1. Compassion can evolve along the same continuum as grief. While you may start with pity for yourself or those you are supporting during their grieving process, you can arrive together at a place of compassion and meaning by moving through the stages mindfully and intentionally. The statements that explain the lenses of each stage (“I feel for you,” etc.) were inspired by an empathy spectrum created by Sarah Gibbons (2019).


Tips for the 6 stages of grief: How to identify each stage, offer support, and what to avoid

Stage 1: Denial

Denial is the first step of the grieving process. Fueled by fear and confusion, denial is a coping mechanism that negatively influences perceptions and thought processes.

The denial stage of grief does not only pertain to the loss that one feels when they lose a loved one or friend. Denial also occurs during crisis and especially when enduring or experiencing trauma.

When we detach ourselves from the crisis and choose to ignore or even dismiss it, then we prevent ourselves from fully healing and growing within the process.

If you or those you support are in the denial stage, the following tips can help you move past self-pity and start the journey toward compassion.

Stage 1: DENIAL
Signs of denial:

  • Suddenly withdraws from peers
  • Becomes unusually quiet in meetings and social gatherings
  • Becomes easily frustrated and/or confused
  • Utilizes fixed mindset language such as “I can’t, I won’t, That’s not possible”
  • Overuses “I” and rarely uses “we”
  • Avoids conversations and social interactions
  • Often appears tired and melancholy
How to support:

Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT share personal information outside of the safe circle*
  • Do NOT tolerate behaviors and actions that serve to further isolate the individual(s), such as cliques and gossip
  • Do NOT distance yourself from the individual(s) experiencing denial

*A safe circle refers to the individual(s) experiencing the denial stage and the individual(s) providing support.


Stage 2: Anger

Anger is the second stage of the grieving process. During the anger stage, individuals recognize the reality of the situation and may become anxious and frustrated.

As educational leaders worry about adding additional stress to teachers (often avoiding pushing them out of pity), teachers are striving to meet their performance goals. Both are often missing the target.

This has created an anger funnel that is being fueled by the frustrations of missed targets and unresolved grief and trauma.

If you or those you support are in the anger stage, the following tips can help you move past pity for others and toward sympathy (which focuses on understanding individual experiences).

Stage 2: ANGER
Signs of anger:

  • Easily offended
  • Very short or curt
  • May become overly anxious in group or team settings
  • Often wears a frown
  • Frequently sighs or furrows brow
  • Displays crossed arms during conversations and in meetings
  • Demonstrates difficulty accepting responsibility
How to support:

  • Encourage short breathing exercises in meetings and in classroom settings with students
  • Encourage individuals to feel their anger in order to successfully progress on their grief journeys
  • Remind individuals that suppressing feelings of anger encourages passive aggressive behaviors
  • Provide self-care and self-management resources to help determine if anger is caused by underlying fear or anxiety and provide resources to address fear and/or uncertainty
  • Provide training and/or resources in coping mechanisms for self-regulation and co-regulation
Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT lose sight of the fact that anger is a natural and necessary part of the grieving process
  • Do NOT distance yourself from the individual(s) experiencing anger
  • Do NOT expect individuals to turn off their anger or avoid it


Stage 3: Bargaining

Bargaining is the third stage of the grieving process. During this midpoint, individuals may grapple with why things happened the way they did and may reach out to others for help.

Individuals in the bargaining phase may unintentionally lower expectations for themselves, those they serve alongside, and those they serve.

In the quest to maintain control and avoid the realities of the current situation, one may choose to bargain with themselves and others and may even use trauma and crisis as an excuse for pressing pause rather than engaging in the professional and personal development necessary for transformational change.

If you or those you support are in the bargaining stage, the following tips can help you move past sympathy (which focuses on understanding individual experiences) and toward empathy (which focuses on understanding collective experiences).

Signs of bargaining:

  • “What If” statements (such as, “If I had made a different choice, could I have prevented this situation?”)
  • Focuses on wanting to return to the past
  • Fixed vs growth mindset
  • Spends a lot of time in isolation and/or reflection
How to support:

  • Practice mindfulness
  • Model actions and behaviors from a compassionate lens
  • Invest in adult SEL training to help shift into a future-focused lens
  • Participate in adult SEL trainings as a leader with your staff to support collective empowerment and agency
Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT press pause on important opportunities for growth out of pity
  • Do NOT view the grief journey as a hindrance to success


Stage 4: Depression

Depression is the fourth stage of the grieving process. In this stage, individuals become increasingly aware of why they are grieving.

During this processing period, individuals reflect and may even reminisce about what they have lost and what they are experiencing and give themselves permission to feel.

If individuals are equipped with effective coping mechanisms and self-care action plans, then they utilize this time to reflect and grow through their pain and discover, and in some cases, rediscover their strengths and talents.

If you or those you support are in the depression stage, the following tips can help you shift from empathy (which focuses on understanding collective experiences) and toward compassion (which focuses on taking action based on your understanding of collective experiences).


Signs of depression:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • “Why” questions (such as, “Why did this have to happen?”)
  • May engage in negative self-talk
  • Avoids eye contact
  • During in-person meetings, sits away from the team
  • During virtual meetings, keeps video off and/or appears unresponsive
How to support:

  • Model regulatory behaviors
  • Encourage reflective journaling
  • Identify your personal and collective why
  • Refer to the collective why as a shared mission
  • Highlight individual contributions to the collective why
  • Invest in self-management training for yourself and your staff to fuel co-regulation and collective agency
Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT ignore the warning signs
  • Do NOT judge individuals based on their temporary grief behaviors
  • Do NOT engage in gossip that negatively portrays the person(s) and their journey(s)
  • Do NOT tolerate behaviors from teammates that may divide and further isolate


Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance is the fifth stage of the grieving process. During the acceptance stage, there is a “stop and pause” moment.

This pause moment is one in which individuals reflect and celebrate the personal and collective growth of their teams and the individuals they serve alongside.

It is here that teams make a complete shift from individualistic mindsets and begin to leverage and develop the collective strengths of the team. Teams begin to realize how their individual strengths contribute to the collective vision and purpose and see others’ strengths as compliments to their own.

Acceptance allows persons to shift to compassionate lenses, where individuals make a conscious and intentional commitment to relinquish thought processes that solely fuel their personal gain and focus more on the collective and what can be accomplished together.

If you or those you support are in the acceptance stage, the following tips can help you shift from compassion (which focuses on taking action based on your understanding of collective experiences) to compassion for a collective why (which focuses on collective empowerment, learning, and growth toward fulfilling a shared vision or mission).

Signs of depression:

  • Attempts to “go back to how life was before” but eventually recognizes the need for change and moves forward
  • Looks for ways to be more involved
  • Highlights teams’ individual and collective strengths
  • Celebrates team wins
  • Publicly affirms others
  • Demonstrates servant leadership qualities
  • Embraces the discomfort of change and encourages the same for others
How to support:

  • Assist people to readjust and reorganize practices to fit current state
  • Celebrate having more good days than bad days
  • Recognize the collective strength of teams and leverage those strengths
  • Use we language instead of me language
Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT confuse “OK” with acceptance
  • Do NOT equate acceptance as the cure-all


Stage 6: Meaning

Meaning is the sixth and final stage of the grieving process. In the final stage of grief, we acquire new learning and see trials and challenges as opportunities.

It is here that one realizes that the grief journey is actually a growth journey whereby one comes out better on the other side.

When we are operating from a place of meaning, we also strengthen our compassion lenses to naturally create a safe and nurturing environment that allows teachers and students to thrive.

Stage 6: MEANING
Signs of meaning:

  • Says “we” more than “me”
  • Sees challenges as growth opportunities
  • Enjoys learning and growing professionally and personally
  • Demonstrates confidence and compassion
  • Strives to celebrate others’ strengths
  • Selfless commitment to a shared vision or mission
How to support:

  • Refer to goals and action steps as a journey toward the collective mission
  • Openly address team challenges as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Empower teachers and students through an affirming lens
Things to avoid:

  • Do NOT stop referring to grief as a form of trauma
  • Do NOT equate finding meaning with the option to discontinue personal and professional growth and development


Summary: Tips from the 6 stages of grief

Take a moment to pulse check where you and your teams are in the grieving process and empathy journey.

If you are in a place where you feel that you are merely surviving, take a moment to reflect on which of the six stages of grief you are in and what lens you are operating through and from (see figure 1 – lenses range from pity to compassion).

If you find that you have not yet reached a place of acceptance and compassion, make a commitment to yourself and your team to get there. These commitments are not only for yourselves, but also for the collective mission and vision that we strive to fulfill for our students.

IE’s experts are ready to meet you wherever you are in the process. Our science-back SEL and trauma-informed courses equip educators with the necessary tools to manage their own emotional and mental well-being.

We encourage you to stay connected to us as we strive to meet the SEL and trauma-informed needs of the field. Join our Facebook Page and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter. Check back regularly to learn more about our SEL offerings and field supports. We look forward to seeing you soon in our SEL and trauma-informed courses.


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About the Authors

Melissa Bloom, Ed.D.

Dr. Melissa Bloom is Executive Director of Evaluation and Strategic Partnerships at Learning Sciences Marzano Center. Her passion is to energize and inspire K-12 educators to improve effectiveness through research-based instructional and evaluation models. After spending her career as a teacher, regional school improvement coach, school principal, assistant superintendent for curriculum, and continuing teacher education coach at Quincy University, Dr. Bloom understands what it takes to encourage teachers and leaders in a way that ultimately results in increased student learning.


Camile Earle-Dennis

For more than 20 years, Camile Earle-Dennis has served districts and schools as a teacher, literacy coach, district trainer, curriculum writer, national mentor, regional instructional coach, and leadership advisor. She is a nationally awarded Milken Educator and published author. She relies heavily on her cognitive sciences and instructional leadership backgrounds to empower leaders and their teams by aligning social emotional learning and the power of foundational relationships to transform, transcend, and further drive learning and teaching.


Aspan, M. (2020, September 27). The biggest risk in business right now is grief. Fortune.

Berinato, S. (2020, March 23). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review.

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (n.d.) Grief leadership during COVID-19.

Gibbons, S. (2019, April 21). Sympathy vs. empathy in ux. Nielsen Norman Group.

Mayo Clinic (2017, October 7). Complicated grief.

Mortazavi, S. S., Assari, S., Alimohamadi, A., Rafiee, M., & Shati, M. (2020). Fear, loss, social isolation, and incomplete grief due to COVID-19: A recipe for a psychiatric pandemic. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, 11(2), 225–232.

National Association of School Psychologists (2020). Coping with the COVID-19 crisis: The importance of care for caregivers: Tips for administrators and crisis teams.

Porter, T. (2020, June 22). Reflecting on teacher wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regional Educational Laboratory at the Institute of Education Sciences.

Weir, K. (2020, April 1). Grief and COVID-19: Mourning our bygone lives. American Psychological Association.



Joys and Affirmations

A special appreciation to Michael Toth, whose relentless belief in the capacity of all children fuels this essential work.

A warm appreciation to Taylor Barahona, Editorial Assistant, whose enormous investment in our guided research and unwavering commitment to helping us share our findings with the field have been both encouraging and inspiring.

A heartfelt appreciation for our SEL team who we have the honor and privilege of serving alongside. Thank you for serving the field behind the scenes and on the frontlines to support and guide districts and schools with their SEL needs. You bring joy to this work.

  • Gail Charles-Walters, Staff Developer
  • Claire Erwin, District Partnership Representative
  • Victoria Goodyear, Staff Developer
  • Gary Hess, Staff Developer
  • Jan Matthews, Staff Developer
  • Shawn Merriweather, Staff Developer
  • Rebeccah Potavin, Staff Developer
  • Susan Schilsky, Staff Developer
  • Lorie Spadafora, Staff Developer
  • Maria Thomas, Operations Manager, Evaluation and SEL

We would also like to extend our appreciation to our Scheduling, Research, Marketing, and Sales Teams who are extensions of our SEL team. We appreciate your support and shared commitment to our SEL vision. We cannot drive this essential work without you! Together, we are One IE. We are One Team. We are IE Family Strong!



About IE

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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