Four Ways to Support Educator Mental Health
Educators often report feelings of stress and anxiety regarding the nature of their job and the impact of outside pressure. Given the disruption and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever for teachers to receive mental health support. In a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in March 2021, eighty-four percent of teachers indicated their job has become more stressful as a result of the pandemic. A new guidebook from the U.S. Department of Education emphasizes the importance of providing mental health support for educators.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health can be defined as one’s emotional and social well-being; it impacts how someone thinks, acts, and how they feel about themselves and others. It also helps determine how an individual manages stress, relates to others, and makes choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, including adulthood.
Why is being Mentally Healthy Important for Educators?
Positive mental health allows individuals to be the best versions of themselves, capable of realizing their full potential. It provides people with coping mechanisms to manage life’s stressors and allows them to work productively and make meaningful contributions to their communities.
As educators, having the ability to be productive in the workplace and make meaningful contributions is vital not only to one’s own success and well-being, but also to that of each and every student. It is often said that one cannot pour from an empty cup, meaning it is critical for teachers to maintain their own positive mental health in order to then positively impact the lives of their students.
What Factors Affect an Educator’s Mental Health?
Many factors can affect mental health. Biological factors, including genes and brain chemistry, can yield a powerful impact on one’s overall well-being. Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, can contribute to mental health problems. A family history of mental illness is also a risk-factor.
For educators, learning to establish clear boundaries between work and home life is essential in promoting mental health.
What are the Warning Signs for Educators?
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between expected behaviors in response to stressors and signs of mental health problems. Actions and thoughts related to mental health problems can sometimes also be related to, or the result of, a physical illness, further complicating matters.
These are some common warning signs administrators can look for that may indicate a stressed or distressed educator:
- Resistance or refusal to take breaks during the work day
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating
- Extreme mood changes
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding colleagues and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Feeling tired and having low energy
- Feeling numb or like nothing matters
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior, or personality
- Substance abuse
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Inability to carry out daily tasks
4 Ways to Support an Educator's Mental Health
- Make mental health visible. Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, emphasizes that it is crucial for leaders to talk openly about mental health issues, including their own. Administrators should seek out opportunities to discuss situations that may impact educators’ mental health including the pandemic and racial injustice. It’s also important for leaders to show their own vulnerability, sharing personal strifes and self-care practices as it sends a powerful message that mental health struggles are normal and accepted.
- Provide mental health training and related personal/professional development opportunities. Experts increasingly suggest providing training to a group of willing employees to serve as mental health ambassadors, building awareness and connecting colleagues to resources. It is vital that administrators take this training as well. Additionally, providing personal/professional development opportunities regarding self-care such as yoga or meditation classes can not only serve as a bonding experience for educators, but can also help them feel calm and grounded.
- Provide mental health support and benefits. Create support groups for educators. These groups may be facilitated by a counselor, a community mental health partner, or some other qualified mental health professional. The goal is to “provide an opportunity to exhale, to meet with people who get it, and not to worry about something they share in confidence.” Helping teachers connect with support resources or providing employee benefits that provide access to mental health professionals is also crucial. Ensuring teachers are provided mental health days and are encouraged to use them can also be very beneficial.
- Build a peaceful culture that includes check-ins. Dedicating time during each faculty meeting to allow educators to ground and re-center themselves by engaging in peaceful practices such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness sends another powerful message about the importance of self-care and allows educators to find a place of peace and calm. Building time into the meeting agendas for emotional check-ins can also help facilitate mental health.
Each of the strategies above are helpful in maintaining happy, healthy relationships with educators and in supporting their overall mental health. However, as long time teacher and department head, Henry Seton proposes, “The most important thing we can do for each other is just to listen. If we have the bandwidth and time to just stop and listen to a colleague, that’s just such an important first step towards healing and wholeness.”
It is important to note that if any of the aforementioned warning signs are present, administrators should provide additional individualized support to educators. They should communicate openly and honestly about their observations in a compassionate, empathetic manner, guiding and empowering teachers to seek out mental health professionals in the community who can provide them with the necessary support services. After all, given the importance Maria Montessori placed on the significance of the spiritual transformation of the teacher, it is critical that administrators provide the support necessary for guides to follow this transformative journey, empowering them to be the best versions of themselves and to adequately meet the needs of their students.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.