Teacher Wellness and Mental Health
Ask any teacher about health issues related to working in early learning centers and schools, and they’ll tell you tales of the coughs and colds they caught, being exposed to everything from chicken pox to impetigo, and that time there was an outbreak of apparently undefeatable head lice that had the custodian (and everyone else!) endlessly scrubbing and disinfecting classrooms. Ask them about the mental health issues that they face, and the answer may not be so direct. Increasingly, the profession faces the reality that teacher stress and burnout are leading to an exodus from teaching, which can cause staff shortages and more pressure.
Teachers and school leaders are more than twice as likely to be stressed as other working adults, more likely to suffer from burnout or depression than the general working population, and to state that they feel they are not coping well with job-related stress. Female and Hispanic/Latinx teachers and mid-career teachers with between six and twenty years of experience are more likely to report feeling stressed.
Teaching is a caring profession and one that requires almost constant interactions with children, families, and colleagues throughout the day. The constant pressure to put other people’s mental health and well-being needs ahead of their own can sometimes be overwhelming and erode teachers’ mental well-being, drip by drip, interaction by interaction. Even if the teacher decides to remain in their role, it can impact their ability to do their job effectively.
It’s vitally important that teachers take the time to prioritize their own mental health and wellbeing for their own benefit as well as that of the whole school community. Ongoing, holistic mental health, mental resilience, and well-being activities for teachers should become as much a part of a teacher’s life as lesson planning.
Practicing self-care activities such as physical activity, catching up with friends, and setting boundaries around work can support teachers to improve and maintain their personal well-being. There are many resources to help teachers build mental resilience. These include:
- Taking time to celebrate success
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a healthy diet
- Setting non-negotiable free time from work
- Engaging in a non-work hobby
- Connecting with friends
- Seeking help if feeling overwhelmed
It’s worth noting, however, that no matter how much mental resilience teachers may have, they are not superhuman. Schools and early learning centers are responsible for creating and maintaining systems that do not lead to chronic stress and potentially debilitating long-term physical and mental conditions for their employees.
It’s important for schools and early learning centers to create an environment where teacher well-being can flourish so that they feel supported, respected, and heard. To do this, it is imperative that leadership establish a consistency of speaking about teacher well-being. Staff meetings can be a perfect place to connect and share in practicing ways of self-care. A teacher breakroom can also be a place that allows staff to feel safe to take time for themselves, even if for a ½ hour lunch break, to breathe, nap, read, or whatever it might be that they need to get them successfully through the end of the day. When a leader invests in their teachers by continuously recognizing how hard their job is, watching for signs of burnout or fatigue, and stepping in to support them in the classroom or saying, ‘How can I help?’, teachers will begin to know that they can successfully invest in themselves because their leader is investing in them.