Mental Health in the Classroom Starts with the Teacher.
Let’s get one thing straight, teaching is not an easy job.
The media have been expounding upon an increased need for mental health in schools. I believe this begins with caring well for the first responders, our teachers. Having taught for over a decade, I can attest to the daily demands teachers take on. Each year they set up their classrooms and prepare their class roster in the hopes of changing each child’s life for the better. My goal in writing this article is to communicate to parents, administrators and community members what teachers experience and how we can support them as they lead our children. I end this article with practical ways we can support teachers and contribute to the incredible work they do.
You may know that each year teachers are required to undergo continuous professional development. What you may not know is how extensive this training is in addition to teaching students each day. Some topics include, but are not limited to, blood borne pathogens, first aid, CPR, anaphylaxis due to food borne allergens, mandatory reporting in response to abuse, neglect, or maltreatment of a child, school safety particular to lockdowns and active shooter drills, academic content related to lesson planning with curriculum and instruction, differentiated instruction for the many ways children learn in the classroom, understanding how trauma and adverse childhood experiences affect a child’s brain...and more.
When I sit down with teachers, I empathize with them over the difficulty they have in taking care of themselves. Teachers are the first responders in charge of teaching and taking care of their students, but they also have many responsibilities outside of teaching academic content. For example, their mornings and afternoons/evenings are spent responding to parents through emails or letters, returning phone calls, scheduling appointments and taking time for parent/student conferences. Depending on the state you live in, teachers are required to eat lunch with the class daily and attend open houses, curriculum nights, PTA meetings...the list goes on. All of these factors can make it difficult to find time in the day for teachers to calm their mind and recharge. When I was teaching, there were many times that my administration would schedule a meeting during my planning period. This left me no time in the day to care for myself while caring for my students. I see how this often leaves teachers irritable and unable to manage their personal life. They even forego their bathroom breaks. So, what about summer? During the summer most teachers work other jobs to help compensate for the salary they receive as a full time teacher. Some have second jobs year round and others pick up shifts during the holiday season. Some teachers tutor or wait tables to do what they can to contribute financially to their family.
Yes, teaching can be exhausting, especially with the demand of serving the many needs of students throughout the day. Keep in mind, we haven’t even addressed the daily classroom schedule and the actual teaching that takes place. A teacher needs impeccable time management, organizational skills, adaptability to the needs of their students, classroom management and, most importantly, to establish healthy relationships with students and families.
Teachers: Take Care of Yourselves
Your health is important. You are reminded of that every summer and during school breaks. You likely have memorized the school calendar and when your next break arrives. You must advocate for your needs. Students have the very same needs. I encourage you to share and model, in an age appropriate way, what you do to take care of yourself and what has helped you overcome difficulty. It's not a lecture, it's part of your story and it can likely benefit your students. Keep in mind that recognition, evaluation and reflection are great critical thinking skills. Have appropriate boundaries with parents and your schedule. Be assertive when parents intimidate or aggressively push you. Have your administration support you and document communication regularly. Know your rights as a teacher to take care of yourself throughout the day, and protect your planning period at all costs. If asserting and protecting your values is difficult, consider reading The Power of a Positive No by William Ury or seeking out a counselor or coach in your area. Set yourself a goal to leave at a certain time each day so you’re not at school all night long. Have a personal life and be active in the community outside of your work. Don’t let the demands of the day take you away from caring well for your own family. If you sense that this is happening, consider seeing a professional counselor. Schedule home-life activities and take a mental health day when you need it. Think of yourself as a consultant and the class as your clients. This can be helpful when you feel like you owe them something or when you’ve taken something personally. If you’re teaching, it’s because you want to help children and make a difference in the world.
Calling All School Administrators
A teacher’s self-care is a key factor in student wellbeing. Respect their space and don’t bombard them with communication, rather make yourself available with an open schedule. If they seem stressed they probably are. Take note and ask how you can specifically help them in the classroom. If you’re going to be critical, start with praise and show appreciation! This is the number one way teachers feel valued in what often feels like a thankless job. I challenge administrators to write a card of appreciation to each member of their staff twice in a school year. Make this a priority and they will value your feedback. Give the gift of affirmation to your staff. If you lack in this area, find someone who expresses gratitude and appreciation of others well, and ask for their help. Learn your staff including birthdays, life events and what’s important to them. Be sure parents and all stakeholders have access to teacher preferences, including what they like in the form of favorites and gifts. Providing parents with these details can give them direction in ways to support teachers.
Calling All Parents and Families
Many of the above rules for administrators apply to parents, including giving teachers room to do their job with professionalism and supporting teachers as they care for students. After 11 years in teaching and 15 years in schools, here’s what I suggest parents do. After you meet the teacher and attend open house/orientation, make the first contact and establish an open and healthy start. Parents can do this in the form of a handwritten card, email or in person. The goal is to say “thank you” specifically for the time teachers take each day to care for the lives of others, including your child/children. Give gifts freely and without expecting something in return. If the teacher has an assistant, be sure to include them. Ask your child’s teacher specifically, “If our family could surprise you and treat you with something very special for use inside or outside of the classroom what would it be?” Gifts can include gift cards to local coffee shops/restaurants or tickets to events in the area that meet their interests such as concerts or sporting events. This is a great way for teachers to get out for a day or evening with their spouse, family or friends. If you have a second home in the mountains or the beach, consider providing an invitation for the teacher to use the property for a vacation. October and February are two surprisingly long months for a teacher. This would be a good time to deliver food to a teacher work room, choosing healthy options that give them energy to finish the day strong. Consider repeating these gestures in the fall, around the holidays, for teacher birthdays and at the end of the school year. Involve your child in the process and let them be an active part of showing gratitude and expressing appreciation. These are life skills that can improve their mental health and wellbeing. Another way to show appreciation is through time. When possible, volunteer to watch students during lunch or another time in the day, allowing the teacher time to sit, eat and breathe for a moment. Keep in mind, there’s nothing more rewarding than a kind gesture that arrives unexpectedly.
Teachers are pouring out to students and families daily. Taking care of themselves is a crucial component, something that is not taught in their schooling or in most professional development. Administrators and parents can help support our real life superheroes through showing appreciation in words, gifts and time. Remember, mental health in the classroom starts with the teacher!
Murray, Corey, and Google. “How Many Hours Do Educators Actually Work?” Technology Solutions That Drive Education, 5 Aug. 2013, edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2013/08/how-many-hours-do-educators-actually-work.
Josh Neuer is a Licensed Professional Counselor who speaks worldwide about how individuals, families, and businesses can rewrite their story and ignite tangible and lasting results. Josh is passionate about empowering change in communities. He is the founder of Joshua Neuer, LLC, a counseling and consulting business; a certified educator, husband, father, and is absolutely crazy about relationships. To learn more or see a list of services provided visit JoshNeuer.com.
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