Why So Many Teachers Struggle With Mental Health
More and more teachers report poor mental health than ever before. Here’s a look at why so many teachers struggle with mental health.
I used to be a teacher: 5 years as a 2nd grade teacher in a district with >50% poverty, and 2 years as a reading interventionist in a school with >90% poverty.
Not one minute of it was easy. Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching, all 7 years of it. But not one minute of it was easy.
In fact, it was hard, in more ways than I expected. I expected the low pay. I expected the lack of resources. And I even expected the long hours and overwhelming work amount.
What I did not expect was the toll that teaching would take on my mental health. To be honest, until I stepped away from teaching, I didn’t realize the toll it took.
Note: This isn’t meant to be a debate on whether teaching is a tough job. It is meant to bring awareness to a growing issue and to provide some insight on ways to start making a change.
I’m also not arguing that other jobs may have similar stresses and effects on mental health. I am simply focusing on teachers and education because it is something I am passionate about.
I’ve been a stay-at-home/work-from-home mom for a little over a year now (minus the 3 weeks I went back to work at the end of the school year). And, let me tell you, being a SAHM to a newborn-baby-turned-toddler is not easy. It’s exhausting in the very best way, and overwhelming in so many ways.
But, honestly, it is nothing compared to teaching 25+ 7- and 8-year-old kids in a classroom every day.
A few months ago, I realized how different I felt after not teaching for almost 9 months. When I was teaching, I had stress like you wouldn’t believe. I had anxiety that was almost so unmanageable that my husband (boyfriend and fiance at the time) wasn’t sure our relationship would survive it. Panic attacks were common at night. My last year as a 2nd grade teacher, I had migraines all. the. time. Before that, I’d never had a migraine in my life – barely even had headaches. I literally had “fun” learn in the dark days with the kids every once in a while because the light was making me so sick. I was cranky, irritable and angry all of the time. I couldn’t let go of the emotional overload from my students day-in and day-out.
And I know that I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Many, many teachers struggle even more than I did. I had strong classroom management – a teacher who struggled with managing the classroom but received no support was likely to suffer poorer mental health than mine.
And now? The headaches are gone – I haven’t had a migraine in months. I’m generally happy and my anxiety is completely manageable.
So What Changed?
I quit teaching. Which, at the time, was a really hard decision to make, because I love the actual teaching. I love seeing kids have a lightbulb moment, and sharing in their pride and celebration of learning. I love cracking the puzzle of a kiddo who is just struggling with reading.
But, I didn’t love all the other. I was overwhelmed with the amount of work that I was expected to do. I had to plan every day’s lessons, plus centers and stations for the subjects. There had to be morning work and early finisher activities and classroom management plans and rewards and celebrations for meeting goals. Every subject had to be differentiated to meet every student’s learning needs. That is all great – that’s what teaching is.
But then – I also had to grade papers and record grades and do report cards. Everything had to be documented – it wasn’t enough to just teach a kid to read; I had to show evidence that they could read at that level. Every subject had daily/monthly/quarterly assessments: reading, writing, math, word study, science, etc. I had to respond to multiple parent emails and phone calls every day. There were the professional development requirements to renew my license. I’m not even articulating everything that teachers are expected to do in their day. And it all had to be done outside of the school day, because I was teaching all day long.
And on top of that, I had to manage student behaviors, emotions and mental health. More students than ever are suffering from poor mental health or from trauma in their home lives, and all that baggage comes to school. And as a teacher of 30 students, I had to support and manage every student’s problems and emotions. There were students with real mental illnesses, or who had parents doing drugs, or who had horrible home lives, or who had lost parents, or who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.
And on top of the “big” issues, there were the every day little issues: a pet died, a friend moved away, a parent yelled that morning, etc. Trying to manage all of those issues and help students work through them or manage them and still be successful in the classroom was more stressful and impossible than you can imagine if you’ve never been a teacher.
I Didn’t Realize
I came home exhausted every day. I felt like I was never successful, because I couldn’t do it all. It could pretty much be expected that I let one kid or parent down that day, because I just couldn’t get to everyone. That felt overwhelming – because everything I did mattered so much. These weren’t just papers and emails and such – they were children, the next generation, the future.
And I had anxiety – I just thought I was an anxious person. I had nightmares all the times – my mind just couldn’t settle.
But I never realized that there was a root cause of it all.
After being out of teaching for almost a year, I feel like a different person. I don’t feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed out – I can’t even explain the difference. I stand taller. And I smile more.
I’m Not the Only One
Google it. More and more teachers are reporting mental health struggles every year. It doesn’t mean that they’re suicidal or at their breaking point. It means that so many teachers are living with functional (or barely functional) anxiety or stress or depression every day.
I need more than all of my fingers and toes to count the teachers I worked with that would tell you they are in the same boat.
And the trend is not going to change any time soon, especially if we don’t start speaking up and doing something about it.
Similarly, more and more teachers are leaving the profession. And similarly, that’s not going to change without some real change either.
Teachers struggle with mental health because the expectations from everyone are unreachable and unreasonable. They are provided so few resources that they often cannot be successful, or must spend their own money to teach what needs to be taught. Between spending their own money and an excess of time outside of the school day working on school work, there is often not time to take care of themselves and their mental health.
Okay, I Believe You. What Can We Do?
Be informed. Vote for bills that reduce teacher workload, or provide more teacher support.
Help the teachers in your lives. If they are your kids’ teachers, ask what you can do to help them. If they’re friends, ask them if they’re okay. Gift them some self-care ideas.
And no matter who you are – you could volunteer. Help out in classrooms or volunteer to grade some simple papers or to clean their classroom or cut lamination. Check out this post on ways parents can help improve teachers’ mental health.
Ask your local schools what they are doing to support teachers’ mental health. Help make administrators aware that teachers need that support.
And if you’re a parent, please check out this list of ideas to help teachers reduce their mental stress load and improve their mental health.
I miss teaching and I would love to go back to it someday. But it will have to look different, because I don’t want to feel the way I did previously.
I know really great, amazing teachers who have walked away from the profession because all the mental b.s. was too much, especially when coupled with teacher evaluations, and lack of resources, respect and/or money.
Awareness is the first step to change. Hopefully you read this, clicked through some links for more info, and feel like you understand the issue.
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