Creativity in the classroom reduces burnout and improves teacher and student wellbeing
Teacher burnout is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. Even 15 years ago, when I was teaching middle and high school, it was always a question of when (not if) my colleagues and I would reach burnout towards the end of the year. On a good year, with ideal conditions, some teachers would make it until around April. But, of course, we always looked out for teachers who showed signs of burnout as early as mid-year.
But since the global pandemic and its total disruption of the education system, burnout is no longer seasonal but an ever-present state for many teachers. And even with the return to in-person learning, we’re still seeing how deeply teacher burnout impacts every aspect of the classroom — from academic outcomes, to teacher and student well-being, to staffing shortages and educators leaving the profession.
But with a new school year starting this fall, how can this year be an improvement from the last? What can we learn from teachers who seemed to fare better last year so that educators and school leaders can deploy the right programs and strategies to increase teacher and student well-being and capacity?
Insights on burnout and well-being from K12 educators
To help us answer these questions, the Adobe for Education team partnered with Advanis to survey K-12 educators about their experience the past school year. We asked about their stress and burnout levels, the key causes, how their students are coping, and what personal or curricular activities most improved their well-being.*
Unsurprisingly, more than half reported experiencing burnout; among them, 79 percent noted how this sentiment has only increased over the past year. 66 percent shared feelings of total exhaustion, citing classroom management, low engagement, and student mental health as top concerns worsening their well-being. And “always-on” burnout is rising: 43 percent of educators feel exhausted most or all the time.
But one promising variable jumped out of the data: teachers who practiced creativity or integrated creativity into the curricula reported lower levels of burnout and stress for themselves and their students.
Overwhelmingly, 95 percent of educators said that fostering creativity leads to better mental health and less stress for themselves and students alike. Of the respondents in our educator survey who used creative activities with their students this past year, 82 percent saw positive impacts on student well-being and engagement, contributing to teachers’ increased feelings of satisfaction and reduced burnout.
When it comes to academic outcomes, nearly all those “creative curriculum” educators also observed positive changes in their student's learning and engagement, with half saying that it also significantly increased their personal enjoyment as a teacher.
So what did those creative activities look like, and how can they be implemented effectively? We’ve gathered these insights and top tips to share with educators and school leaders for this Back to School season to make it easy to adopt and implement these strategies and set the next school year up for success.
Cultivate classroom culture and connection with creativity
The culture of a class as a learning community is set in the first few weeks of school, even the first day. Will learning be independent or collaborative? Will lectures be sage on the stage or guide on the side? Will the class be a safe space to explore, take risks, make mistakes, and let students shine in multiple ways by bringing their authentic selves? Introducing a creative activity early on sets the stage for a learning culture committed to self-expression and well-being. As one 5th-grade teacher shared.
“Creative learning allows for stronger relationships to be built between the student and teacher, creating a more positive environment for both. It also gives me a break from direct instruction while the students are working, giving me time to appreciate their unique talents and creativity that I might not otherwise see.”
A key theme related to teacher burnout that this research highlighted was the heightened need for connection, especially after distance learning, when connecting with students over video, often with cameras turned off, felt impossible at times. “Being able to be creative and involved in creative activities with students gives me an opportunity to connect with them,” noted a high school library and media specialist in our study, which “makes me feel that I have made an impact on my school and students.”
Here are three short, creative challenges teachers in any subject or grade level could quickly introduce with Adobe Express in the first few days of class to set the right creative culture of connection. You can also explore all of Adobe for Education’s short creative challenges with monthly themes that align with the school year.
Creativity boosts engagement and reduces burnout
Of the 1,000 K-12 educators and school leaders we surveyed, the top benefit from creative activities was “greater student engagement,” as reported by 81 percent of respondents. “Creative and self-expression activities have increased the overall engagement of my students significantly, as they are excited to share their talents, interests, and methods that they, themselves, have found instrumental to their learning,” shared a high school teacher in our study.
They added that “when these activities are not only incorporated but encouraged, students take more ownership of their learning and can also see how creativity is not separate but included in the learning process.”
Decreased student engagement was one of the most immediate and apparent effects of remote learning after COVID, and the after-effects of that engagement drop are still felt in classrooms today and are evidenced in empirical research.
Behind that lower engagement is an awareness that students and youth, in general, are still struggling today in a way that traditional standards or rote curricula are not equipped to address fully. But creative activities in the classroom provide one possible anecdote to this phenomenon, as one K12 school counselor shared:
“Creative endeavors in the classroom have changed my students' attitudes and give motivation in a time where so many of them feel hopeless or that school is not important.”
This secondary benefit from student engagement was a sentiment noted by many teachers, and the impact was also felt by school administrators and leaders who support teachers. As one school administrator shared, “Any creative activity usually boosts student engagement and improves classroom behavior. This lowers my stress levels and helps me feel like I'm actually helping my students become their best selves.”
Another noteworthy result from this research centered on the impact of higher levels of student engagement from creativity activities on teachers' mental health. As one high school science teacher observed, “Creative activities keep students engaged, which has a positive impact on me. When students are engaged and interested in learning, I spend less time trying to get them to work.”
School leaders should proactively provide creative well-being programs for educators
We found that fewer than half of educators proactively seek out resources to address burnout or support their mental health. With that in mind, there’s an important role school leaders can play in providing wellness activities designed to reduce teacher burnout. However, 65 percent of the educators we surveyed said their schools or districts failed to provide any form of staff wellness activities during the past school year.
And while we know creative activities and curricula can help, only 45 percent say they receive the tools they need to incorporate creative activities in the classroom. The lack of tools is due, in part, to the mistaken belief that staff wellness activities need to be time-consuming, resource-intensive, or challenging to implement.
This research shows micro-activities of creative expression throughout the school year can have a significant impact. Think 10-minute creative prompts at the beginning of a department meeting. Or 15-minute “creative challenges” at the beginning of a class each Friday or 30-minute “creative kickstarters” at the beginning of a new unit.
Commit to continued learning, creating, and support
These are just a few light-lift ways to use creativity to improve teacher and student well-being this year. The results of this research also align with the latest insights from the Adobe Foundation’s study with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which underscores the role of creativity as a pathway to support mental well-being.
Considering teacher well-being, which impacts their performance, student outcomes, and teacher retention, the impact of school leaders who champion creativity in the classroom can’t be overstated. As one middle school teacher in this study shared,
“The impacts on my own mental health from using creative activities are obvious. There used to be days when I didn't want to wake up and go to work. On the days when I use creative learning, I am excited to go to work.”
Many participants in our research shared that creative activities in the classroom reconnected them to the mission of education and why they chose the profession in the first place. “[Using creative activities in the classroom] makes you feel like your career is worth it, you feel relieved, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” shared one 6th-grade school social studies teacher.
Another middle school teacher shared that using creative activities in their curricula allows them to “see happiness within my students and to know they’re learning and having fun … I feel like my job is complete.”
And any leader — whether a leader in a school, business, or organization — shines when they enforce a sense of meaning and purpose in their team and staff, especially such a mission-driven group of professionals like educators. As one middle school visual and performing arts teacher in this study shared,
“Helping students be creative is one of the things that inspired me to be a teacher, and I love watching students find creative outlets. It gives me purpose in my profession.”
To ensure a school-wide culture of creative teaching is cultivated this year, teachers and school leaders can draw on the support and inspiration of other creative educators. One great way for educators and admins to stay engaged in this way is to join a community committed to well-being and creativity, such as Adobe’s Creative Educator (ACE) Community.
Through professional learning, in-person and virtual events, and Facebook groups, the ACE community is all about educators supporting educators with ideas, inspiration, and a shared commitment to cultivating creativity and well-being in the classroom.
Champion creativity in the classroom
At Adobe, we believe in the profound impact of creativity across all areas of teaching and learning. More than ever, schools can help educators manage their mental health struggles, daily stress levels, and growing list of responsibilities by giving them outlets to foster their own creative expression.
And while there is no single solution to well-being and mental health, Adobe is committed to continue working in partnership with leading educational and mental health organizations, as well as providing our education community with the tools, curricula, professional learning, community, and support. Learn more about Adobe’s commitment to positive mental well-being and explore ways to leverage the Adobe Education Exchange to keep students engaged.
Of course, this work is far from over — at Adobe, we will continue to support mental health initiatives and help teachers to improve their well-being, so they can focus on what matters most: inspiring students to learn and reach their full potential.
*This survey and research were conducted in the US among educators (teachers, administrators, teacher’s aides, school counselors, librarians and media specialists, and youth workers in education settings). Participants had to teach in grades 3-12 within the past year to qualify. 1,000 educators were surveyed, and data was collected using an online sample panel, where participants received a small honorarium for participation.