There's a growing need for mental health support in schools, as student face increasing struggles with anxiety, depression, and more. But what about teachers?
Teachers spend their day not only instructing and guiding students in academically but giving of themselves to help students emotionally as well. Such a giving career is without a doubt rewarding -- but it can’t be ignored that it’s draining and puts tremendous pressure on educators as well, sometimes to the point that they may decide they need to leave behind the classroom for good. Every day teachers go into school, not knowing exactly what challenges await them, or what new challenges their students are facing. And when the school day is at its end, many teachers remain in the classroom for hours; planning, grading, perhaps offering after-school help or attending meetings. Even when they head home, there’s still schoolwork to be done into the evening and on weekends.
Teachers may feel overrun, and exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. The toll teaching takes may be great for some, especially if they already have preexisting mental illnesses or disorders like depression or severe anxiety. Added to that, teachers often feel that they have no support, or can't even talk about what they're going through for fear of being misrepresented or perhaps judged by colleagues. As mental health shifts into focus in schools as it becomes apparent that more and more children and teens face such difficulties, what about teachers? For students to be successful and have inspiring educators, as is so often expressed a factor to student success, then is the mental health of teachers being adequately prioritized as well?
What about at your school? Are there any measures in place to assist teachers who may be struggling? And what about preventative measures? Let’s take a look at what some schools are doing, as well of some helpful resources you can look to if you’re an educator who wants take better care of your mental health, and the mental health of your school.
At one elementary school in North London, England, headteacher Daniella Lang decided to institute a staff wellbeing team after some changes were made to the school that left teachers feeling drained. This team started off with honest, open discussions about their struggles and concerns. And it was more than just talk -- teacher concerns about things like getting the support they needed, and working overtime, led to school policy changes. And the team itself made efforts to make other teacher's working environments a more positive place. At first, it was small, fun things, like leaving mugs filled with candy for staff (which they coined 'mugging'). But as time went on, these positive staff-to-staff acts of kindness and workplace initiatives have led to upcoming projects like staff nights out, a DVD and book swap, information about managing stress, and more. They also made sure teachers were getting the support they needed, so that their work-life balance could be restored. Did all of this work? At the end of 6 months, teachers were surveyed and 96% reported that they felt inspired to do their job (as compared to 20% previously). And that's just one statistic of improvement from their survey. Open communication, community, and action helped this school greatly improve its teacher well-being, all starting with a small team of educators and school leaders who wanted to help.
At Centerpoint School in Vermont, wellbeing for students and teachers is at the forefront. Former school leader and teacher at Centerpoint, Alex Shervin, states "It doesn’t serve anybody to pretend that we’re teacher-bots with no emotions, which I think sometimes teachers feel like they have to be.” At this mental health-focused high school, teachers are encouraged to do the opposite of hiding their emotions. Educators, administrators, and social workers meet in a monthly wellness group. They talk about their challenges and personal goals they set for their own mental and emotional wellness. In addition, groups meet on some in-service days to participate in activities like bike riding or learning a new skill.
In one rural school in Indiana, the addition of an on-site mental health clinic for staff led to not only benefits for educators, but in the long term, increased student achievement as well. This clinic at Seymour Community Schools offers health care at low or no cost at all, and proved helpful for many with chronic conditions. It also offered incentives for teachers who wanted to improve their health and set and meet health goals. But more than seeing to teachers' physical health, this clinic also saw to it that teachers mental health needs were met by offering counseling for stress management, behavior, nutrition and more. Did this have a positive impact on teachers? Looking back from the inception of this program five years ago, CFO of Seymour Community Schools says "teachers are happier and healthier." And as a result, the quality of their teachers and overall energy has improved at the school.
This idea of providing onsite medical care to teachers is seen in other districts as well. In Nashville Tennesee, one school district's integrated Employee Wellness Center has been giving its teachers a hand. The Center provides medical care and a gym facility for district-wide staff use, as well as offering psychological counseling. Support like this not only helps teachers feel appreciated and boosts morale, but it can give them much needed medical care for their mental health needs.
Some schools are getting the idea -- take care of teachers, and they will be better able to take care of students. It's no secret that the mental health of children and teenagers is rapidly on the decline. Young people need caring adults in their lives, and teachers who will reach out and be able to see warning signs of depression, anxiety and more. For teachers in an increasingly emotionally challenging and stressful work environment, caring for their own mental health is critical. We hope the resources below may help you and your school find ways to offer support, or begin to get the conversation started.
Organizations that are dedicating to improving the mental health of teachers. They offer classes, workshops, meetups, and other resources for educators all over the country:
Helpful documents for starting the conversation, and for those currently seeking to improve their mental wellbeing:
Questions to ask educators about their mental health: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/caring-teachers-supports-sel-students-maurice-elias
An excellent compilation of resources for educators, from how to manage your time to dealing with SAD or developing cultural competence: http://www.uft.org/our-benefits/member-assistance-program/well-being