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October 1, 2019

The Elephant in the Classroom

Teacher mental health is vital to safe and healthy schools. But it often gets neglected.

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School Culture

Teachers are attuned to the social-emotional well-being of our students and trained to monitor for signs such as trauma, anxiety, bullying, or micro-aggressions. Yet we are still just learning how to discuss a huge, lurking threat to our work: our own mental health.

In urban settings like mine, many schools churn through a quarter or more of their teachers annually, and roughly half of teachers leave within five years (Ingersoll et al., 2018). And chronic stress for teachers is steadily rising. In an American Federation of Teachers (2017) study, more than 60 percent of teachers described their work as always or often stressful—a 15 percent increase from a similar survey just three years prior.

Yet this isn't a new problem. I started teaching a decade ago, amidst an exciting new iteration of urban education reform captured by documentaries like Waiting for Superman. The culture among new teachers was to avoid talking about their own struggles. We kept our heads down. Didn't complain. Urban teaching was supposed to own our existence. Especially in the newer charters, we basically worked in start-up cultures. We expected a blurring of work-life boundaries.

Part of this ideology was fostered by new urban charter networks that spoke about idealistic young 20-somethings as though they were gears you could burn through and then replace. Teach for America seemed to endorse the idea of high-poverty teaching as an intense but brief stepping stone on the way to other—implicitly more prestigious—careers like medicine, law, and business. But we also created much of this workaholic culture ourselves as young college graduates. We became locked in competition with one another to see who arrived earliest, stayed latest, and showed up at the most weekend sports games.

We wondered silently to ourselves if we were up to the challenge. We quietly congratulated ourselves on every school year we completed, as if we had just survived the Hunger Games. We maybe even secretly took pride that we weren't the colleague regularly in tears in the staff room. We became numb to other people's stress.

Today, the culture in schools is changing—slightly. Some new teachers are not only more sensitive to issues of race and gender, but also more open about mental health issues—courageously speaking, for example, about leaving early for a therapy appointment. Most of us, though, are still struggling to speak about our own mental health, this lingering elephant in the classroom. It is OK to talk about the other ways you cope—your CrossFit and spin classes, your yoga and meditation sessions, even how hard you hit the caffeine or alcohol—but mentioning a therapy session is usually seen as a sign of weakness, an awkward overshare, keeping it too real. I have learned many helpful task-management strategies from books like Maia Heyck-Merlin's The Together Teacher (Jossey-Bass, 2012); at the same time, the subtext of our work as educators—especially urban educators—still seems to be that if you can't keep it together, it is your fault for not being better organized and better disciplined.

When Tragedy Strikes

When I taught high school humanities and led a department of 12 people at my previous job, I, too, kept silent about the stress I was feeling. Summer vacations helped me recharge, but I soon found the burn-out symptoms starting earlier and earlier each school year. As someone who loves working with teenagers, I was caught off-guard and frightened to find myself suddenly struggling to get out of bed in the morning even after plenty of sleep, feeling uninterested in the world around me, eager to stay under my blankets in a fetal position all day. And though I did find a therapist to help me learn strategies to reduce my burn-out symptoms and recharge, I still struggled to speak out openly about my mental health challenges to colleagues.

That changed when my wife and I suddenly lost our daughter Vera in May 2017, a month before her expected due date. Miscarriages are more common in the first trimester and devastating in their own right, but the loss of a baby so late in a pregnancy is much less common. It was the week of our baby shower. We had just decided on her name. All of us were eagerly awaiting her arrival. Instead we ended up burying her in the plot her paternal grandparents had recently set aside as their own future resting place.

Even with a flood of support from family, friends, and colleagues, my wife and I were utterly flattened, traumatized, and incapacitated. We quickly realized that we were walking textbooks on the classic signs of depression—anxiety, guilt, sleeping and eating problems, and lack of energy or interest in life.

Through the support of colleagues and students, I made it through the rest of the school year, but my mind felt foggy from the trauma, my emotions all too fragile. I struggled more in one-on-one meetings with my team, lacking my usual emotional reservoir, eager to return to alone time in my office. Over the summer, I unraveled. I would have panic attacks while driving—the road swam in front of me until I pulled over. At night, I was unable to stop hyperventilating, and my wife would have to wrap me in a bear hug.

I had no choice but to pursue mental health resources as aggressively as I could. I began taking an anti-depressant and found a wonderfully supportive grief counselor. I participated in a transformative eight-week course at the Massachusetts General Hospital Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine that introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy, adaptive thinking, varied meditation techniques, and more.

And for the first time at work, I also found myself openly speaking up about my own mental health at school. Because my own trauma was so public, many people were sharing their own struggles with me. And as I realized how transformative the resources and strategies I'd found could be, I wanted to share them with colleagues struggling beside me. I stopped remaining silent, and more and more colleagues sought me out for guidance about their own mental health.

Supports for Struggling Teachers

As psychoanalyst and social worker David Rosenthal shared with me, teachers inevitably absorb the stresses and traumas of their students. And both staff and students become victims of acute secondary trauma when members of our community become victims of terrible incidents such as stabbings, shootings, sexual assault, fires, deportations—all events which have touched my students in recent years.

Elena Aguilar's book, Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators (Jossey-Bass, 2018), contains some phenomenal suggestions about how teachers can tend to their own well-being, but it is critical that school leaders make concrete structural moves as well. Schools often bring in mental health experts after a schoolwide trauma, but why not take proactive steps to address the everyday stresses and anxieties? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Create safe, confidential spaces to process work stress with well-trained facilitators. Teachers need supportive spaces to "empty the heart," to use the words of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Winfrey, 2010). Multiple templates exist for this, such as listening dyads and Schwartz Rounds, practices used around the world.

  2. Offer generous benefits to support the wellness of your staff. Do aggressive research up front to find health insurance plans that will actually cover the expense of mental health sessions for teachers—either entirely or with a minimal copay. Peg Baim, a clinical director at the Benson-Henry Institute, emphasizes the importance of offering a range of resilience-enhancement practices. For example, my previous school offers gym discounts as well as free on-site yoga and fitness classes. Teach for America has even given its corps members free subscriptions to the Headspace mindfulness app.

  3. Regularly gather and respond to teacher feedback about existing stress points in their practice. My previous administrators collected input through anonymous staff surveys and would respond quickly and publicly to concerning trends. We also had a two-year teacher sustainability committee—consisting of both administrators and teachers—that researched best practices on supporting teachers and developed several key recommendations. This led to a teacher-led quality of life committee to discuss concerns and strategize about solutions. Teachers can tolerate the daily demands of our work better when we know that our leaders are genuinely listening to us and actively working to make improvements.

  4. Model vulnerability and openly discuss issues of mental health. In my experience, it has usually been female teachers and teachers of color who have had the courage to speak up about mental health. Those with greater power and privilege—especially men, white people, and school administrators—need to speak more openly and vulnerably about this issue. Doing so will cultivate a culture where it is safe both to name mental health challenges and to work collaboratively to address them.

Learning Self-Compassion

Teaching is a taxing profession. As psychologist Robert Evans (2015) has written, many teachers mirror clergy in choosing a "life of complete sacrificial devotion," constantly counting their sins and the daily ways they have missed their mark. In high-poverty school settings, this self-flagellation increases often exponentially.

It is essential that we extend compassion to ourselves, our students, and our colleagues by addressing the elephant in the room of teacher mental health. Adult life, even in the absence of trauma, is a humbling and intimidating journey. As I embark upon a brand-new teaching position, I share my own journey here and will continue to speak up about mental health issues in the hope that it will provide other educators with strength and courage to speak up about their own journeys. Our students deserve mindful teachers, present teachers, and whole teachers who are able to hear and support them on their own difficult path to adulthood.

References

American Federation of Teachers. (2017). 2017 Educator quality of work life survey. Retrieved from: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf

Evans, R. (2015, Fall). Why a school doesn't run—or change—like a business. Independent School Magazine.

Ingersoll, R. M.; Merrill, E.; Stuckey, D.; & Collins, G. (2018). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force–Updated October 2018. CPRE Research Reports.

Winfrey, O. (2010, March). Oprah talks to Thich Nhat Hanh. O, The Oprah Magazine.

Henry Seton Headshot

Henry Seton is a humanities teacher-leader, writer, and presenter. He formerly chaired the humanities department at the Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts.

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