“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I manage? I feel like a failure. I can’t go on like this.”
If only one teacher had said this to me – or even just a handful – I would not be writing this article. However, over the course of the past 12 months, and especially the last six, I have heard these statements from teachers so consistently and with such frequency that I cannot help but see a bigger pattern emerging.
As a psychotherapist, I have been privileged to support many educators in finding ways to maintain their mental health amid personal struggles, strikes, resource management issues, and changes in job expectations. Prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many reported feeling an understandable sense of burnout and frustration, but always present in each session was a very palpable love and devotion to their occupation as teacher.
Things are different now.
In the clients I see, the educators and administrators I speak with, and the articles I search through for a sign I might be wrong, the evidence is everywhere… teachers and school leaders are not OK.
This isn’t the kind of “not OK” that gets restored after a summer break. Nor is it the kind that is resolved by a politically stale “We appreciate all that you do.” This is the kind of not OK that does lasting and long-term damage to one’s view of the world and one’s self. This is the kind of not OK that results in trauma.
Educators, like other front-line workers, have been asked to face the challenges and changes brought on by the pandemic while helping others do the same. But at what cost? Is there more that can be done to shine a light on the potential risks for teachers? While the COVID-19 pandemic is a new obstacle for the world, research on the mental health impact on front-line workers during crisis situations is plentiful and clearly details the hazards of prolonged exposure to heightened stress. With such risks landing on the shoulders of those who care for our children, it is imperative that educators are provided with the information and supports needed to protect their mental well-being. Without a true understanding of the risks they face, educators cannot protect themselves against the long-term consequences of pandemic teaching.
Mental-health risks to teachers
My intention is not to encourage teachers to abandon their post, but instead to renew their commitment to their craft in a way that is informed and intentional. It is also to provide a look at the very real risks of continuing to ignore their mental health as they try to meet the ever-changing demands of pandemic learning.
Here are the top three psychological risks teachers currently face:
- Compassion fatigue If you ask anyone about a teacher they remember fondly, they tell you how they felt cared for. It is a hallmark of some of the world’s greatest teachers. The ability to connect with children, be present to their needs (not always academic in nature), and leave them feeling seen and valued every single day takes an incredible amount of patience and energy. Patience and energy come from a rested, well nourished (physically and emotionally), healthy human being.
The pandemic restricted access to many resilience-enhancing factors that help teachers stay healthy, such as social connection, supportive routines, and a sense of safety and security. As the demands on educators increased, the opportunities for reset and restoration quickly dried up. The result: compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a psychological response to existing in a continual state of burnout for an extended period. The act of caring and connecting is costly to a nervous system that is running out of energy, so to protect us, our brain creates emotional distance from those in our charge. This is well documented in health-care professions, but discussed less in reference to our educational system.
Compassion fatigue will not only compromise the connection between teacher and student, it will also compromise other connections, such as relationships with the teacher’s own child(ren), spouse, family members or friends. One of the most prevalent increases in my clinical practice after March 2020 was in front-line workers navigating relational conflict at home.
- Trauma Psychological trauma occurs when a threat to our safety and well-being overwhelms our capacity to cope. As educators faced the risk to their own health (amplified by a 24-hour news cycle of death and tragedy), worried about their children and families, and faced working in ways never before imagined, they became (and have remained) incredibly vulnerable to the risk of trauma and PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can result in an individual living in a constant state of alert known as hypervigilance. With a nervous system in overdrive, those with PTSD struggle with heightened and uncontrollable anxiety, depression, and difficulty managing emotional responses. They often develop distorted thinking, marked with a persistent worry about their own safety or the safety of their loved ones. Every problem becomes amplified and filtered through a constant sense of personal insecurity.
These symptoms, left untreated, can disrupt an individual’s ability to function in the long term, compromising their overall health, careers and relationships.
- Anxiety and depression Anxiety and depression are best understood as the brain’s natural responses to cope with being overwhelmed. Through this lens, we can understand how, as teachers become more and more overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic, we will see a correlated increase in anxiety and depression.
With limited ability to change the level of output (energy and focus required to navigate the demands of work and life), and restricted access to restorative inputs, it is understandable that an increasing number of teachers have reported struggles with anxiety and depression,1 with a significant portion seeking pharmaceutical or psychotherapeutic intervention for the first time. Left unresolved, anxiety and depression increase in intensity over time, putting educators at risk for panic attacks, persistent low mood, and many other harmful outcomes including self-harm and suicide.
To assume that all of the risks stated above are solely the result of this pandemic is to overlook the conditions that educators faced prior to March 2020. The demands on teachers to provide the best learning experience (often with limited or insufficient resources), manage the weight of public opinion (which is not always compassionate and appreciative), and provide for the intricate and diverse emotional, cultural and sociological needs of their students has grown steadily over time. For decades, some of the best minds have explored how the education system can better meet the needs of the students – but what of the needs of teachers? How can any model of improvement not include those who are on the front lines for any change we wish to make?
I do not presume to know what a system needs to look to like support both students and teachers alike, but I do know that the risks educators face during these challenging times are real. I also know that these risks are not limited to a few months of disruption or challenge but, instead, have the ability to tragically impact their health, careers and relationships well into the future.
The first step toward change is informed consent. Teachers, and all front-line workers, need to be aware of the risks of the work they do and the conditions in which they do them. Secondly, the mental health risks to educators need to be considered a primary occupational hazard and treated as such. Resources should be mobilized and allocated in a way that reflects the system’s commitment to protecting educators through and beyond the pandemic. Where time, funding or other resources are limited, the potential for community support should be considered. This might include inviting local mental-health professionals or community-based social organizations to partner in providing information or supports. Restructuring or re-allocating professional development opportunities may also be an option. Supporting teachers may require innovative new methods, but the pandemic has provided many examples of how communities can come together to meet the needs of our most vulnerable.
The care of our children – and those who support them – is not a government issue or a union issue. It is a public-health issue. Effectively supporting our educators as front-line workers is well within our capacity as a community and as a nation. To begin this important work we only need to acknowledge and accept that educators are facing a mental-health crisis and refuse to minimize the very real hazards of pandemic teaching any longer.
Survival Tips for Teachers
There are steps teachers can also take to build resilience and fortify their mental health. These include:
- Modify expectations: “Doing your best” will not look the same each day, and striving for perfect is the path to poor mental health. Each day, check in with yourself and consider what doing your best means to you, today. Your circumstances and stress levels can change day to day, so being able to recalibrate your own expectations will help you to work in a satisfying and sustainable way.
- Self-Advocate: It is important to consistently advocate for yourself and your mental health. The more educators share their experiences, the more information the education system has on which to develop and implement supports. You don’t have to disclose every aspect of your mental health experience or sacrifice your privacy. Just know that every voice added to the growing call for support can matter significantly.
- Practice Self-Care: Self-care isn’t spa visits and golf trips. Taking care of yourself can include daily steps such as taking your breaks diligently, eating well, sharing a laugh with a loved one, or disconnecting through engagement in the arts or time outside. Find a practice that is restorative for you and make it a priority and a non-negotiable part of each day.
- Reconnect with your Why: Do you remember why you decided to become a teacher? If not, take some time to reconnect with what you loved about being an educator. Consider ways you can recapture that love in the current climate. I have encouraged all of my teacher clients to start a daily “Win Diary” where they can capture at least one moment each day that felt positive and reconnected them with their craft. It can be a student’s breakthrough or a shared moment of laughter with your colleagues.
- Finally, understand that the public (including parents) may not always appreciate the selfless commitment you have to your work and to our children. Do not let this convince you that your work is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. You must set your own standard of excellence and let it – and the impact you will have on an entire generation of future adults – be your guiding light.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021