Prioritizing Teachers’ Mental Health In The Age Of COVID
We’re well into Year 2 of overhauling the public education system as we know it in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
While teachers did the best they could to transition to online learning in the 2020-2021 school year, 2021-2022 has brought forth more challenges that prove vexing (and often mind-boggling) to teachers.
The politicization of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in teachers fielding emails from angry, stressed, or confused parents; transitioning abruptly from in-person, to online, and back to in-person learning environments without much notice, taking on additional responsibilities by covering classes due to teacher absences, and feeling constant pressure to choose among a plethora of online learning tools and platforms. These challenges do not include what teachers may be dealing with outside of the school environment.
Many have left the teaching profession altogether because they feel burned out, unsupported, or unsafe. Any reassurance provided by empty platitudes like, “We’re all in this together” and trivial ‘rewards’ such as denim pants privileges on Friday now feels insulting. Each new email may feel like a trigger as many teachers have come to anticipate new forms of stress with each school day. With no end in sight, what used to feel like teaching can often feel like a never-ending performance in the theatre of the absurd.
All of this sounds…bleak. As teachers, we want to be supported by our administrations and communities. Many of us are, and that’s great. At TeachThought, we strive to view even the most defeating and complex problems through a growth mindset lens. When teachers cannot count on their administrations or communities to support them in the ways they need to be supported, what can they do — themselves — to prioritize their own self-preservation and mental health?
As it turns out, there are (at least) ten worthwhile, specific ways that real teachers out there are prioritizing themselves and their mental health, so that they can continue to center students in the learning environment. Some of these tips are as simple as removing one’s self from a tense environment, while others require teachers to re-evaluate habits that run them down (like not setting boundaries, over-apologizing, and taking on too many tasks).
We know that extremely talented teachers are out there trying their best, and we hope these tips can help them work smarter and healthier, so that future generations can continue to benefit from their talent, expertise, and guidance.
10 Thoughtful Ways To Improve Teacher Mental Health
Choose your battles and priorities
Teaching during COVID sometimes feels like playing that Whack-A-Mole game from the arcade. One problem pops up with all the enthusiasm of a prairie dog on steroids, and as soon as the teacher has squelched it, another two sprout in its place. When we, as teachers, get in a pattern of reacting to our circumstances (instead of anticipating them or considering how they are part of a larger problem), we are essentially quickening our journey to Burnout Town. Solving minor problems can, in a weird way, feel good, because we feel control in our ability to check the small things off of our list. However, if we do not choose our battles and priorities, and if we expend too much energy trying to control that which is out of our hands, we have less time to focus on the most important responsibility of all — our students and their learning.
For these pretty convincing reasons, we advise controlling what you can control and prioritizing what’s really important. To start, consider asking yourself, “What is the most important thing I can accomplish today that will make me feel good? That will help me know my students are learning and growing?” Once you have identified your own ‘thing,’ all other priorities can stem forth from your main goal.
Let’s set up an example. Say that your main priority is to give students more timely, authentic feedback. When it comes to prioritizing, many teachers feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading they ‘have’ to do. Let’s think about the phrase ‘have to do.’ Do we have to grade an assignment because our department policy stipulates it? Because we have x number of assignments in the Test/Project category but no assignments in the Quizzes category, and progress reports are coming out soon? Does your heart rate increase just by reading the last two sentences? Perhaps this is an indication that we are reacting when what we need to do is take a step back.
Does every student assignment need to be graded? The answer has to be a resounding ‘No.’ Particularly when it comes to formative assessments, meaningful feedback is much more valuable than receiving a number grade. If assessment and feedback is your priority, consider using an app like Ziplet to grade checks for understanding quickly, so that you can devote more time to providing substantial feedback. In addition to assessments, there are other areas where you can choose your battles wisely. Does that email really need an immediate response? Will the world end if you have to reschedule that meeting? When you prioritize based on your values, you come to realize that many of these items that fall under the ‘miscellaneous duties’ category of your contract aren’t as urgent as you previously perceived them to be.
Form a self-care collective
Part of the reason why teachers are tired of hearing statements like, “We’re all in this together” is because it doesn’t feel like a reality. Being part of a support group can help teachers keep each other positive and focused on what’s important. These groups can take multiple forms — within and/or outside of the school building and school hours, open to all who wish to join or limited to a few colleagues whom you can trust not to bring you down with negativity (or toxic positivity). You can talk openly about your challenges at work or refrain from mentioning work at all, instead of focusing on the other people and activities that bring joy to your lives.
For many teachers, these groups can grant a sort of permission–a permission to feel what they are feeling without feeling like they are complaining or burdening. They can be a space to develop and propose ideas to an administration, which can be harder to do as an individual teacher. We know of one band of teachers that hosts a supper club at a different person’s house each month, where they each contribute an offering and engage in a fun activity, like karaoke, holiday decorating, or relaxing with at-home spa treatments.
There’s one thing we know for certain: keeping emotions and frustrations bottled up can impact your physical and mental health, and result in feelings of guilt or resentment. Find a way to talk about your challenges in a healthy, solution-oriented manner. It’s too easy to be an ‘island’ in a school building, and the challenges that come with going it alone may lead you to burn out more quickly or turn into the cynical educator you hoped you’d never become.
Remember that every behavior is a communication
It’s uncanny how when you’re under extreme stress, every little thing can feel like a trigger. After making transition after transition in a tense sociopolitical climate, there’s a real temptation to ‘tolerate less’ from our students. The things that annoyed us in the past — interruptions, distractions, disrespect — can come to feel like personal injustices. In the moments where your jaw is tensing up, you’re exhaling deeply (or forgetting to breathe entirely), and you’re biting your tongue to keep from making a hurtful remark to a student who isn’t on task, remember that every behavior is a communication. Meaning, behind every action is a need that a student does not know how to better articulate.
Students act out for many reasons. They may be seeking attention that they aren’t getting at home. They may feel insecure in an unfamiliar learning environment and shut down or act out. They may have a hard time focusing. It’s hard enough sitting in desks for 7 hours a day — now add staring at a screen to that.
When your patience is tried, do your best to get curious before making judgments. Approach with empathy rather than shame. Ask questions before issuing directives. This is a good policy across all learning environments, as asking questions like, “What are you doing?” and “What are you supposed to be doing?” and “How can I help you?” put the responsibility of changing a problematic behavior back on the student. And even though it seems like their actions are rebelling against structure and accountability, that may be exactly what they’re craving.
Endorphins have been proven to reduce emotional stress. Whether at school, at home, or both, there are many ways to get those endorphins flowing. Try walking the track during an available planning period — some days you might need time to yourself, while other days you might want to ask a co-worker to join.
Consider setting up a ‘meditation station’ in your room. Unroll a yoga mat, dim the lights, and take advantage of guided meditations from apps like HeadSpace and Insight Timer. Many of these apps offer weeks-long or months-long courses for all levels, from those just starting out with meditation to experienced people seeking to deepen their practice or focus on a particular intention.
Are there free community yoga classes nearby? Oftentimes, yoga teachers will host classes outdoors, whether in a park, on the beach, or in a peaceful setting.
Some teachers who are physically active on a regular basis might find empowerment in working towards a goal, like completing a 5K run or other community-based racing or walking event. Accomplishing and celebrating the incremental steps you make toward your larger goal can provide feelings of competence and confidence in an environment where you otherwise feel depleted, overwhelmed, or out of your element.
Regardless of how you get moving, we want to offer a friendly reminder that part of the reason you might do so is to feel like you have something for yourself. Many teachers feel tempted to continue working as soon as they get home — choosing to do physical activity may help you feel like you have control over how much work you allow into your home space, and help rejuvenate you before you sit back down to grade (if you choose to do so, that is).
Bring fun into the classroom
There’s a caveat we’d like to add with this idea — bring fun into the classroom without creating more work for yourself. We know that teachers are the experts in fun, but sometimes these well-intentioned efforts bring additional stress into their lives. Fun can be as simple as celebrating a theme of the day, week, or month. To make it easy, have students decide! Crazy hair day, silly socks day, and other dress-up themes are easy for students to participate in. Unlike the abominable Tik Tok challenges that are making their way around schools these days (like physically assaulting teachers or stealing and vandalizing school property), institute a theme of altruism by challenging students to perform random acts of kindness. Another easy idea is Secret Note Day, where students write positive, meaningful, and specific notes to each student and staff member.
Part of the reason why teachers (and students) may feel bored is because of the monotony of an online learning platform interface or a lack of novelty in online teaching. Consider inviting guest speakers to engage with your students, or take them on a virtual field trip to a place that has significance for your content area (and relevance to the students’ lives). Remember that there are plenty of adults in the school building that your students might like to hear from, as well. Principals, assistant principals, guidance counselors, resource officers, cafeteria workers, office staff, and other school-based staff can serve as guest judges or participants in discussion-based activities. And we all know they could stand to benefit from a little fun, as well!
Use available resources
Too often in education, we try to re-invent the wheel before searching for existing resources. This is understandable, as the pace of new technology and learning apps can feel overwhelming. Within this context, we’re talking about using the resources in your school building or community — people, places, and organizations that can provide you with different kinds of support, based on your needs.
Keep in mind that the guidance office, nurse’s office, and library are your spaces, too. If you’re feeling the anxiety well up, consider walking down to the infirmary to ask if there is a quiet, dark space for you to calm down and re-center. A school guidance counselor may be able to point you to different support groups or communities that can help you regain a sense of contentment and support. Taking your laptop into the library, or perusing the shelves for a YA book can prove to be the mini-break from your classroom that you didn’t know you needed.
Set boundaries between work and home
This tip might be the most important one, as well as the hardest for teachers to accomplish. Pandemic or not, the pressure to extend a teacher’s workday into the evening hours at home is constant, for many. With all the love, kindness, and empathy from having been in this position, we want to remind teachers that they can choose (see item #1).
There is no judgment in choosing not to work from home and to instead dedicate your time to your family, friends, and habits which bring you happiness.
There is no judgment in choosing to continue working outside of the school day. Many teachers voice that working in the evening allows them to feel better prepared as they go into a new school day.
Regardless of your choice, we want to emphasize the commonality between the two…they are choices, and viewing them as such can help you feel more agency in stressful times.
If you’re going to work from home outside of school hours, we do suggest creating a dedicated workspace so that your work life doesn’t spill into all the areas of your home life. Do you have a guest bedroom that can function as an office? A bistro table on an outside patio, where you can enjoy some sunlight and listen to the birds chirp? A basement? Garage? She-shed?
Despite how tempting it can be to work in bed, research shows that that’s not a good idea–for children or adults. Your bedroom is your space to quiet your mind and body before getting ready to sleep. Same with the kitchen, which is typically a place to engage with family. Compromising those boundaries may send a message you don’t intend to send to loved ones who want to spend time with you, apart from a screen. If you’re working on the weekends, consider relocating to a park or cafe.
Practicing asking for (and accepting) help from others
Did we say the last item was the most challenging to do? What is it about this profession that makes it so difficult to ask for help? And to accept help when it is offered? Likely, because we know that everyone else is going through the same thing we are, and we may feel guilty for putting our needs first.
Think about it this way, though. If your needs aren’t being met, how will that affect the way you’re able to perform your job? How will that impact your relationships with your students? Co-workers? Your own friends and family? Perhaps, in seeing you ask for what you need, and accept help in return, others around you will feel that they, too, have permission to be the healthy kind of selfish. We are all selves, after all, and we have to take care of ourselves before we can be there for others. Like the flight attendants say, we have to put our masks on first.
Another observation that falls into this category–we have to be better about removing “I’m sorry” from our vocabulary when an apology is not necessary. Just as we take ownership of our choice to work outside of school or not, we do not need to take ownership over what is beyond our control.
We cannot control the spread of a novel virus.
We cannot control policies that are passed down and altered on a seemingly arbitrary basis.
We cannot be responsible for our students’ well-being outside of the classroom.
We cannot control when stressed parents lash out, from time to time. Expressing that we are sorry for those things does not make it better; if anything, it gives people the wrong idea that we do have responsibility for those uncontrollable decisions. And it certainly does not make us feel more valued, competent, or hopeful.
Set realistic expectations
This tip is partly related to item #1, but it takes it further. Once we choose our priorities, we have to also remember to be realistic about our expectations.
As an example, let’s say your priority is parent-teacher communication. As a parent yourself, you empathize with parents who are trying to balance work and managing their child’s learning (particularly if they are learning from home or in quarantine). Setting parent-teacher communication (or any other part of your job) as a priority does not mean that you are indebted or obligated to that priority.
If parent-teacher communication is important to you, then how can you set up a system that allows you to fulfill that priority? Does it mean designing a template that you can reproduce in order to send out a weekly newsletter? Does it mean scheduling communications to parents in advance during a single planning period? Does it mean embedding a form on your class webpage where parents can sign up for a conference?
When we talk about setting up systems, we’re talking about anticipating scenarios instead of reacting to them. By putting yourself in the shoes of your students’ parents and imagining what might be difficult for them, you can create solutions that work for them and for your students and for you. Systems afford greater opportunity for structure and consistency and, ultimately, freedom, which many of us find ourselves craving in these uncertain times.
Practice how to say ‘No,’ and then do it
For some teachers, ‘No’ is the hardest word to say. We may feel pressure to be everything for everyone, but that’s simply not realistic, and not a best practice. Younger teachers may especially feel this kind of pressure to ‘carry the weight’ as other department members have done before them. This could mean agreeing, volunteering, or being volun-told to do things beyond the scope of teaching, like attending after-school events, hosting a booth at a career fair or new student orientation, leading a student club that is desperate for an adviser, or purchasing supplies for students who consistently show up to school without them.
Saying ‘No’ does not mean that you do not care. In fact, saying ‘No’ could mean just the opposite…that you care enough to focus on what you’re best at doing, that you care enough to afford someone else the opportunity to lead, that you care enough to model self-preservation for your students and colleagues.
‘No’ does not need to sound harsh, nor does it need to stand alone. And it definitely does not need to be juxtaposed with “I’m sorry.” Saying no does not even need to involve the literal word ‘No.’ Here are some alternatives that can get your message across in a way that feels empowering and professional:
- It means a lot to me that you think I would be an ideal person for this job, but now is not the best time for me. I’d love to be considered for a similar opportunity in the future.
- I’m not able to commit to this project right now, but I know someone who might be a great fit. Can I put you in touch with them?
- If I’m being honest, I think that if I took on extra responsibilities right now, I’d find myself spread too thin. And it’s really important for me, when I make a commitment, to give my best energy.
- I am really interested in being a part of this, but not in a leadership role. Here are some tasks you could delegate to me that I would feel comfortable working on.
- I love this idea, but I don’t think I could do it by myself. Would you like to do it with me? Or help form a group of people that could work together?
- Realistically, I have a tendency to take on more than I can handle, and I think saying ‘Yes’ would be taking on more than I can handle.
- I’d like some more time to think about whether or not I can commit to this — can I get back to you in __ days?
Here’s the thing — the pressure to have all the right answers, solve all our students’ problems, and maintain a bottomless reservoir of energy is a real force inside and outside of a pandemic. To feel more valued and capable in our roles, we have to believe in our own agency and importance to the teaching profession.
Just as we are capable of making evidence-based decisions that inform our curriculum and instruction, so must we extend that lens to how we view our self-preservation. By setting boundaries, forming partnerships, using available resources, and creating joy, we can set a positive example for our students and colleagues, stay in the profession if just for a little longer, and support more students who will ultimately grow up to make teaching and other professions more sustainable in the future.