Best Practices To Support Teacher’s Mental Health
It’s no secret the last few years in education have been rough. After a grueling pandemic, perpetual teacher shortages, health mandates and safety issues in schools – it’s no surprise that our teachers are struggling with mental health and burning out.
In the article, America’s Teachers are facing a Mental Health Crisis, too Sari Beth Rosenberg, a writer for Parents and an educator herself, states, “A study from Rand Corp. researchers from early 2021 found that 27 percent of teachers have experienced symptoms consistent with depression, while 37 percent have experienced symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety.”
Other studies indicate online and hybrid learning environments thrown together in the wake of the Spring of 2020 and afterward have dramatically shifted teachers’ workloads, stress and risk tolerances, and love for the job. More than 70% of those surveyed by Horace Mann were spending more time working than in years prior, and over 60% reported enjoying their jobs less.
We know there’s a problem, so what can we do?
How Can Education Leaders Support Teachers’ Mental Health?
Make Mental Health Visible
Education leaders need to take the initiative here, and emails aren’t going to cut it. Whether it’s coordinating group meetings face-to-face, in-person or through Zoom, leadership can start by addressing concerns, providing support, and showing compassion.
Creating a culture of support for “mentally healthy workplaces” can be as simple as setting an away message in your email or social media that indicates a digital detox to fully recharge and practice self-care or as vulnerable as sharing your own stresses and struggles as a means to open lines of supportive communication.
Be sure to avoid toxic positivity – burying emotional difficulties with blanketed or scripted pep talks will only further alienate a group that is consistently asked to shoulder more weight than they can bear. Be a listener. Be authentic. Be empathetic.
Training For Spotting Early Signs Of Mental Health Struggles
Sometimes it can be difficult to spot the difference between “healthy” stress responses and “unhealthy” stress responses – especially in the workplace. It’s okay to ask for help as you train your leadership teams and faculty to recognize serious mental health issues.
At a time when more adults than ever are reporting mental health struggles like anxiety, depression, and persistent feelings of melancholy, experts and group training provide leadership teams with resources and tools to help and can also help teachers see the signs on their own teams.
One district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began conducting regular surveys and “pulse” checks to monitor their teachers’ wellness and burnout levels with Mind Tools’ Burnout Self-Test.
Education leaders need to know the “temperature of morale” in their schools and be willing to receive honest feedback regarding mental health and wellness. It’s the only way to make sure that the environment is not only being supportive of teachers – but also of the school community in general.
Recognize Teachers’ Needs
A study by Mind Share Partners done in 2019 found that “6 in 10 employees had experienced symptoms of mental illness in the past year, but most never told anyone” – especially at work about it.
While districts and leadership will typically communicate that teachers’ emotional and physical well-being are paramount in their schools – the data shows teachers rarely feel these organizations provide adequate mental health benefits.
Ongoing Systems Of Support And A Culture Of Check-Ins
Support groups, whether virtual or in-person, are great ways for districts and leaders to partner with community mental health providers or establish peer group systems of support. Ongoing social-emotional support groups, like “healing circles”, “circles of support”, or even separate groups established by districts but outside of the school (to provide anonymity) can offer teachers a refuge from the stresses of coping and teaching during these stressful times.
One-on-one check-ins or 15-minute coffee talks can take the place of long meetings that don’t provide the personal space to authentically check in with teachers and staff. Culture and climate coaches are helping districts manage time wisely and with teachers’ social and emotional needs in mind. Opening clear lines of communication and using phrases like, “It’s okay if you’re not able to do this today,” or “Could we take a coffee or tea break together?” as a means to truly touch base with team members is a way to make sure teachers aren’t disappearing in the weeds.
The best way to establish a culture of supportive mental health practices is to start small and make sure to ask for support from mental health professionals and community services. Leadership and districts might not be able to do all four of these suggestions right away – but letting teachers know that you are authentically working towards increasing awareness of their situation and building these support systems is key.
Self-Care For Struggling Teachers: Boundaries, Breath, & Movement
Another truly important component of increasing best practices for teachers’ mental health is to help teachers identify mental health issues and establish their own self-care routines.
Teachers can have all the motivation and support from leadership and districts in the classroom, but if they aren’t establishing their own self-care routines, mental health issues can begin to surface regardless.
Heroes With Boundaries
Even Superheroes need breaks – think Avengers after Civil War or Spiderman in Far From Home – even the strongest of individuals need time to rest.
Learning when and how to say “no” can be difficult for teachers who’ve been told that being a teacher means being a superhero. While teachers are amazing and at many times to their own detriment self-sacrificing individuals, they are human beings.
And this means having to admit when they are carrying too much weight or obligations – especially in the workplace. Sometimes, the best thing a teacher can do when called upon to pick up another administrative task, extra duty, weekend tutoring, summer school class, etc. is to politely decline. It’s imperative as teachers to take the time off necessary to rest, recover, and rejuvenate in order to keep from burning out and to come back mentally and physically stronger.
Short, unfocused breathing can have dire side effects on the mind and body inducing states of anxiety and panic in an individual. As more research comes to the forefront of mental health concerns, multiple doctors, therapists, counselors, and holistic practitioners are seeing the benefits of breathing techniques as a form of self-care and relaxation.
Simple deep breathing exercises can help boost moods and have positive effects on both the state of mind and the physical body.
New to deep breathing exercises? Check out this article written by Sheryl Ankrom, MS, LCPC.
Another crucial tool in self-care and mental health management is movement. Getting physical - even if it’s for only 30 mins a day can help boost overall mood, manage stress and anxiety, as well as help manage depression symptoms.
Teachers who enjoy group exercises might want to join an intramural or social sports team and take up basketball, baseball, soccer, or volleyball.
If solitude is a better option to decompress and recharge, yoga, cycling, running, hiking, or gym/aerobic exercise are excellent options. The best thing to do is to get moving.
The key is to find an exercise that can be done regularly and bring joy - not more stress or anxiety.
* Please consult with your healthcare provider prior to starting an exercise program.
This year might not have been a banner year for education - but we can move forward with a gentler and more supportive approach to teachers and their mental health.