“We need to pay attention. I wonder if we realize that many courageous teachers are standing before our students and they are suffering from mental illness and are bucking under the pressure we continue to put on them. They deserve our attention.”
I believe in the power of conversation and getting a peek into what a person is thinking or experiencing. On a recent call I was chatting with a school leader. The leader was expressing concern about the overall well being of the teachers and staff. Most recently a teacher had a meltdown. The teacher was in a fetal position crying uncontrollably. A scenario playing out more and more.
I’ll never forget at the end of one of my teacher self-care workshops a new teacher coming up to me tears filling her eyes as she shared her recent trip to the Emergency Room. She was attending a training and began to feel her face drooping. She thought she was having a stroke. Turns out her stress levels were so high she developed Bell’s Palsy. Unfortunately, I have far too many stories. We must pay attention and create safe spaces that support teacher mental health.
What Is the Data Saying?
A majority of American teachers feel stressed at work, according to a new survey from the American Federation of Teachers — and the number citing poor mental health has jumped alarmingly over the past two years. Experts say resultant costs in human resources and health care spending could amount to billions of dollars, according to Kevin Mahnken. Kevin is a contributor to, The 74 a non-profit news website focusing on education issues.
According to Starling Minds, over 43 million people in the U.S. who will report symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance abuse and/or suicidal ideation. In the U.S., there are 3.2 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) K-12 teachers. A 2017 educator work-life study surveyed teachers across the US and found that 1.86 million of these FTE teachers describe their mental health as “not good”.
Why Are Teachers Not OK?
Anyone in education that is present can add to the list of reasons why teachers are not ok. I think it is important to not only validate and acknowledge the reasons but keep spreading the message and push for change. Teachers are struggling and the pressures do not seem to be easing even in the midst of a pandemic. According to Starling Minds there are four critical areas that impact teachers.
- Unhealthy work environments-poor culture and climate
- Increased job demands-high stakes testing and increased work pace
- Disappearing autonomy-impacts morale and confidence
- Limited Social and Emotional Competence-not equipped to meet the emotional demands of students
Environmental self-care is important especially, since teachers spend so much time in a school building. The demands are unwavering. Even during the pandemic not having a swift national decision regarding testing promoted anxiety and stress. Autonomy and having the confidence of your leaders is essential for teachers it translates as trust. Lack of autonomy is crippling. The emotional needs of students have increased and post COVID will drive this up. Teachers need the tools to merge the science of teaching (mind) and the art of teaching (heart) for their students. I will push it one step further; they need tools to navigate their own social and emotional needs. Teaching is emotionally demanding and depleting. Every week I declare, “Our teachers don’t have the time for people, politics, or policies to align and meet their needs.” Self-advocacy and self-efficacy becomes paramount.
Moving from OK to Great
The systemic change needed for our educational system to be healthy and equitable for our students and teachers is going to take time. I am hopeful change is coming. However, it is going to take a collective effort at prioritizing our wellbeing. Recently interviewed a guest for my podcast Debbie Gonzalez. One of her comments really resonated, “This work is hard but it doesn’t have to be painful.” How can teachers ease the pain?
- Control only what you can control
- Maintain mental health by carving out time daily
- Move your body
- Practice self-compassion and extend grace
- Be reasonable when setting expectations (I need to really work on this)
- Communicate your needs
- Stop saying your sorry
- Establish a separate space for self-care
- Leave work at work (even if remote teaching)
- Get help
Listen to the data but more importantly listen to your body and take your power back. I certainly agree with the four critical areas that impact teacher wellness. I lived in these areas for many years. Taking my power back for me meant transferring to a school that was less toxic, focusing on data and building relationships with students to inform instruction and not teaching to the test, taking my damn autonomy back, and getting my social and emotional needs together so that I could be healthier for my kiddos. Now, this meant standing alone (often) but in time my radical behavior was soon celebrated. Because a healthy teacher impacts all and is the breeding ground for student growth and success.