A laptop held in the crook of an arm that used to carry a plan book. An empty stainless steel canister in hand, curled close to the chest. The free hand now pulls out an empty chair at a table where several teachers offer a polite, knowing smile with the last few drops of compassion they can muster. The Friday faculty meeting at the end of the eighth week, just before a three-day weekend begins.
“I don’t know if I could have made it another week without this break,” I hear one teacher whisper. And I think, Is that true for me? Am I spent? How many of us are empty like the stainless steel canister?
As the meeting went on, I glanced around the cafetorium at the eyes of our faculty and thought of the pre-service teachers I work with and why they want to become teachers. I thought about the hope in our Wednesday night discussion and imagined how they’d be feeling in the eighth week of their first year teaching, and then their tenth — if they’d make it.
I thought about how (if) teacher education programs are preparing teachers to stay healthy physically but also mentally so that they can 1) stay in the profession and 2) be their best selves for the students who need healthy adults in their lives.
A short digression.
As much as I love to read, my hands and eyes can use a break at the end of a full day, and network TV still has a few shows that both my husband and I can enjoy. We’ve been watching Blindspot for a couple seasons and just started watching a revival of Lethal Weapon. What I most look forward to is Madam Secretary.
And here’s why I bring this up: in these shows that feature “public servants,” there is a therapist on staff to support agents, police officers, and even the Secretary of State as they recover from trauma. Unfortunately, the characters in these shows tend to resist therapy, associating this source of support with weakness. I think this is, in part, because therapy tends to be seen as an intervention at a time of crisis instead of one aspect of being and staying healthy for ourselves and the people we serve.
We take care of our bodies for the most part. There is no shame in having a gym membership or a FitBit. Why, then, is how we care for of our minds and hearts a secret (or at least it seems to be) in the teaching profession? It is assumed that teachers are superhuman never able to run out of compassion for those we serve. Why isn’t there a therapist on staff in schools to support teachers when they are feeling exhausted or on edge, when they notice their emotional state is impacting their teaching?
A Google search of “teachers and therapy” revealed a Reddit forum where a few teachers chatted openly about exhaustion, anxiety attacks, and seeking therapy:
I’m losing it. I’m a first year middle school teacher in a title I school with bad teacher retention, teaching a subject I didn’t want. I had my second ever anxiety attack last night/today. I’m exhausted all the time. I get angry over nothing. I’m fighting with my SO over the dumbest things. On the way to school a part of me hopes something kinda bad will happen so I don’t have to go. I mentioned my attack to another teacher, and she told me about the counseling services our district offers through insurance. She said she did it last year and the person she saw had several other teachers coming in. Has anyone else had to go this far? Am I just not cut out for this? Edit: I don’t mean to come off as so whiny, I just want to make it clear that I don’t feel like it’s just normal “first year sucks” kinds of things. Some days are good, but a few too many days feel like this.
There are several other comments in this thread that reveal teachers recognizing the need and benefit of therapy for teachers. I think we need to create more spaces, virtual or actual, to support teachers who notice they are not being the teachers they want to see in this world.
In “The Brief Wonderous Life of Teachers’ Mental Health,” Isaiah Pickens writes:
Few antagonists to teachers’ mental wellness contribute to burnout as much as feeling incapable of successfully fulfilling teaching responsibilities—also known as low teacher self-efficacy. Having difficulty connecting with students, classroom behavior problems, perceptions of limited support from administration, and little time to recharge outside of work can undermine the most resilient teachers’ mental health. Equally important, teacher’s struggling to manage stress can unintentionally create tense classroom environments that model unhealthy stress-reduction strategies for student’s learning how to become socially and emotionally healthy people.
I am invested in supporting pre-service teachers, my colleagues, and myself so that we can have healthy teachers who will nurture and mentor emotionally health students. Our world needs all generations of human beings to be healthy if we are to imagine a more healthy world.
When I was a social worker, part of my preparation included a class with specific strategies to protect my emotional health. My first employer gave us three “mental health days” that we “had” to use each year in part because, in the social work field, there is a code. When a social worker becomes aware of psychological distress that impacts judgment and performance, it is that person’s ethical responsibility to seek help because it may (and likely is) impacting clients. Being worn out or emotionally drained as a social worker can lead to misdiagnosis and treatment of a client.
As a teacher, the impact of being worn out or overly stressed may not be as severe as misdiagnosing a disorder, but you may begin to make mistakes in the lesson or assessment and lose sight of the instructional goals — your job. And beyond that, consider the impact on your students’ academic and emotional well being if your brain is foggy or your stress level is making you more irritable. Might your actions or reactions be harmful in some cases?
As for the culture of schools, I’d like to see a change in what schools “ask” from teachers beyond their work in the classroom. New teachers want to get involved to show they’re dedicated to the school, and they are willing to put in the time beyond their teaching responsibilities to show that. Veteran teachers still join committees and start clubs and sign up for the “duties” like lunch room and detention supervision (consider the toll that takes on teachers’ well being over time). And many teachers find time to squeeze in meetings for clubs, student conferences, and collaboration at lunch time — time when they can be drinking water, doing some relaxing, and taking a walk — while also coming to school early for committee meeting, which means giving up extra sleep or a workout. We do this because we care about our school and students and believe in the community that is our school, but we also do this because the school culture makes it hard for teachers to say “no.” I’d like to see a culture in schools that creates space for self-care and does not ask just one more thing of the teachers who want to be at their best for themselves, their students, one another. Indeed, we are public servants. I think it is in our nature to handle one more thing, but we are, in fact, not superhuman.
If we can agree that teachers are ethically bound to self-monitor their emotional well being, then we have to ask how we can be more conscious and even systematic about addressing emotional needs of teachers. We can start doing this in our teacher education program by adding self-care to our syllabi, but we can also start right now.
- Do a self-exam regularly (perhaps every 3-day weekend). How many of these descriptors apply to you? Exhaustion, reduced feelings of sympathy, dreading going to work, irritable, angry, hypersensitive, headaches, trouble sleeping/sleeping too much, weight loss/gain, more arguments. Do you need to make time for self care? Yes, definitely yes.
- Practice self-care. Of course, if you knew how to do this consistently, you would likely not be exhausted right now, so I’ll just say that when you do a self-exam, make some changes and do your best to keep them up. If you can eat more fruit, drink more water, go to a yoga class, take a walk, add a weekend nap, start a new hobby, say “no” to a committee for a few days or weeks before falling off the practice of self-care until the next attempt, that is a good enough. You are trying, and in those weeks you will be better for yourself and your students.
- Make a friend. As an adult and an introvert, I have a hard time making friends, because talking is actually exhausting to me. However, having a positive relationship with a few colleagues has really sustained me in recent years. Knowing there are few people in my school who like me (and least I think they do because they smile at me or share experiences with me) and just knowing they’re there if I need to chat, feels good. If you don’t have those people, try to make a friend by smiling at your colleagues and stopping in their room to ask what they’re teaching this week. Show an interest in others, and they’ll show an interest in you — and this can help minimize feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Revise, reinvigorate your lesson plans. Would you want to be a student in your class? Do you love what you’re teaching? Even if you have a set curriculum and are feeling like you are behind in your plan and can’t possibly take a day off to explore something new, do it! Why did you want to become a teacher? What story, concept, idea made you say I want to become an English teacher? Read it, write it, watch it, act it out, make a game with. Do something you love, and I bet your students will love it, too and maybe your students will see an opening to give you some love for sharing your passion with them.
- Seek therapy. If you’re a full-time teacher, your insurance plan most likely has some coverage for personal therapy. Set it up. Psychology Today makes it easy to search therapist in your area.Find a therapist near your home or school so that it is easy to make the appointments. Read the bios of several therapists and consider their style and education. Many have a cognitive approach, but more and more therapists have a holistic approach and can help with childhood issues, mind-body connections (like if you carry your stress in your shoulders or back), meditation/mindful practice, and do overall life coaching. See the therapist once a week, once a month, once every few months. There are no rules to this.
I hope you find time to rest and take care of yourself this 3-day weekend, and I hope you take some time to consider how you will take care of yourself in the weeks to come. We need your best you. Fill up that water bottle.
I’d love to hear any stories of personal resilience or tips for self-care if you’re willing to share.