The brief wondrous life of teachers’ mental health
By Dr. Isaiah B. Pickens, Ph.D.
Fresh chalk and clean seats line the classroom as the promise of changing lives fills the heads and hearts of new teachers prepping their first lessons. The fresh car smell enveloping the next few months inevitably will fade and an aroma filled with the demands of teaching —from ensuring students pass standardized tests to addressing their behavioral challenges — linger in the air.
As a clinical psychologist who has worked in school-based clinics and as the son of educators, I found the data from two studies — the federal review of teacher job outcomes and survey results from the American Federation of Teachers — particularly intriguing. Findings from that research indicate that 78 percent of teachers express overwhelming levels of stress, but only 17 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. These findings provide a nuanced picture for understanding an important contributor to our students’ academic success: teachers’ mental health.
The journey leading teachers to emotional burnout is multifaceted and influenced by both how teachers deal with stress and how stress shows up in the classroom. Christina Maslach, a trailblazer for understanding professional stress that over-whelms teachers, defines burn-out as a person having emotional exhaustion, feeling disconnected from others and her work and difficulty feeling accomplished in her job. 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 re-charge outside of work can undermine the most resilient teachers’ mental health. Equally important, teachers’ 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.
Building mentally healthy teachers, who can subsequently build emotionally healthy students, is a benefit that many in the education community have taken seriously. While pro-grams such as School Climate Teams and collaborative groups focusing on social-emotional learning appear to be growing, the scattered approach to implementing these support systems nationwide brings into question how well teacher mental health and stress management is systemically addressed, particularly for teachers in classrooms with significant behavior disruptions. Integrating additional resources into already-packed professional development days and extra-curricular laden school years may be difficult, but an opportunity may lie in plain sight with targeted approaches to building teacher self-efficacy.
Helping teachers feel competent in managing classroom behavior and connecting with students in meaningful ways are core intangibles that both facilitate healthy learning environments and anecdotally have provided teachers rejuvenating moments to press beyond mentally draining work days.
At minimum, training on basic classroom management is already integrated into teacher’s professional development, but what if a holistic approach was adopted that addressed how healthy management of behavior and emotionally over-whelming situations impacted both teacher and student mental wellbeing? An approach that acknowledges the multifaceted identities of the teacher and student as well as the seen and unseen stressors they face — the burden of being a single parent and a teacher or the weight of feeling the stereo-types of gender or race in the classroom but having no outlet to express it. Whether it’s mind-fulness-based lunch breaks for teachers or employing culturally competent approaches that encourage classes to dissect a book by Junot Diaz that facilitates discussions about race, finding practical and healthy ways for teachers and students to unload these stressors may provide a foundation for greater systemic change that addresses teacher stress beyond the class-room.
In the process, we give teachers the chance to better connect with students by modeling healthy ways of dealing with stress and extend the longevity of their mental wellbeing by helping them fully believe they are the dynamic teachers they are capable of becoming.
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