Serving Students While Suffering in Silence

stressed teacherTeachers have to deal with other people’s problems all day long. Teachers must mediate the effects of the societal and parental exposures their students experience. The National Education Association wrote, “Mental health conditions affect one in five adults in the United States every year.” [1] Nearly 50% of U.S. teachers polled in a recent Gallop survey reported high doses of daily stress. [2]

We are not alone.

Mental illness is not just an American educator issue. In a recent poll of nearly a thousand teachers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, 38% reported seeing a “rise in mental health issues among colleagues in the past two years.” [3] Teachers self-reported an increase in disrupted sleep due to “being in a high pressured profession, being on the public stage.” [3] Yet, 68% of respondents claimed they told no one of their anxieties due to the social stigma associated with mental illness. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2014, said, “”Those working in education need to be supported better.” [3]

So how can schools support the mental health needs of teachers?
Mary Cathryn Ricker is executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. recounted a powerful story of a colleague who was struggling emotionally, struggling alone in a self-prescribed shell. Ricker stated, “The stakes are too high when we do that, too high for the consequences that come when mental health is ignored, too high for our colleagues who feel powerless to support us, and most clearly, too high for our students, who we got in this business to teach in the first place.” [4]

Provide conscious leadership
Principals are a significant factor in, first, recognizing that something of concern is happening with a teacher. It is vital that the principal seeks to understand the “why” behind the “what” when addressing any unusual or inappropriate behavior by a teacher. Read more about how to find the “why” in my post How to Motivate the Un-Motivatable.

Be a concerned colleague
Ricker described her colleague as believing personal pressures should take a back seat tot eh needs of students. This sense of self-defeating altruism is common among teachers. Colleagues can help by getting to know their grade-level teammates well enough to see any changes in typical demeanor or disposition. The depth of the professional relationship is in direct proportion to the ability of the colleague to notice things and the comfort level of the ailing teacher to request help.

I have to call my mother weekly just to “check-in”. My mother just wants to know how things are going. That way when things aren’t going as usual, she will have a sense of it and can offer assistance and support. Colleagues can establish routine check-ins. Make it a habit of walking by your teammates’ classrooms, leaning in through the doorway and asking, “How’s it going?” Take note of their response. Be genuinely curious about their well-being. Step into the room if you sense something is “off”. Be engaged. Be aware.

Organize for awareness
The NEA recommends several ways schools can organize a mental health campaign on their campus. [1]

Health and Safety Committees – Health and safety committees are the most important tool NEA members have to correct work related problems or issues at your school. The committee focuses on health and safety issues to ensure that they are being identified, prevented or resolved.

Health and Hazard Surveys – While human nature tells us when something is making us sick, and common sense can help identify hazards, gathering evidence that will convince school management that the problems are real is almost always necessary. The best way to collect information is surveys, interviews and formal observations.

School Walkthrough – Conducting school walkthroughs will help you assess and pinpoint areas where building conditions and hazards might be causing adverse health effects or comfort issues. Like administering health and hazard surveys, this strategy will assist you in gathering the data that is needed to convince school management that problems exist.

Become the Educated Advocate – Becoming the educated advocate is an important organizing strategy when trying to identify, prevent or resolve health and safety issues. It is important that the local association health and safety committee, joint labor-management committee, or other health or wellness committee explore legal options and remedies, and arm themselves with information that may already exist.

Recommend Solutions – Once health and safety issues are identified, it is important that the local association health and safety committee or the joint labor-management committee assess the findings, prioritize concerns and recommend solutions and preventative measures to the school district.

Teachers have stressors. Teachers suffer from mental illness. Teachers often suppress their own needs for those of their students. IT is up to principals, colleagues, and organized systems within a school to recognize and support the emotional needs of the teachers.


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