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Mental Health and The Teaching Profession

Posted on: February 11th, 2011 by Stephen Hurley  12 Comments »

I’m going to come right out and say it: I don’t think schools are the happiest, healthiest places to hang out these days. I don’t have any solid statistical evidence to back me up, just a gut feeling and a truckload of anecdotal support.

And given what I’ve heard from others–teachers, administrators, parents and even students, I don’t think I’m alone in that sense.

Now before you draw the conclusion that I’m just an old burned-out  has beenwho needs to step aside and make room for younger, more positive and energetic blood, let me assure you that I still get out of bed early each morning, scan the newspapers and blogosphere for the latest on education-related news, and have a full library of recently published books on teaching and learning. As a matter of fact, if I didn’t love this work so much, I probably wouldn’t even notice the gradual erosion of life and joy that has taken place within many schools over the past twenty years.

But my sense is that something has definitely changed in terms of the working conditions of teachers in the year 2011, and I fear that it is slowly, but surely, affecting the mental health of many educators. Perhaps the same can be said about many professions and work environments, but I would argue that, because a big part of what we do each day involves nurturing of a sense of a well-being among a whole new generation of young people, it is an issue that needs serious study and consideration. We cannot help children towards wholeness if we are in a state of dis-integration.

Many of the students I teach already come to school each day burdened and deeply wounded. The stress and confusion caused by volatile family situations, unstable relationships, financial worries, settlement issues, and health concerns isn’t left in backpacks and lockers outside the classroom door. It is  carried deep inside the developing minds and souls of children, affecting behaviour, interaction with others, and the ability to learn.

Many of the teachers that I know face similar levels of stress and anxiety, sometimes for similar reasons. Like children, it’s not always possible to check these emotions and concerns at the door when you enter the workplace.

Those of us who have hung around the profession for a while have realized that, while teaching and learning is our core business, the central driver in what we do is relationship. And that brings me to my main point:

If we want to truly and authentically address the issue of mental health among educational professionals–and I think we ignore it at our peril–then we have to bring to light some of the reality around working conditions that exist as part of what we do.  It is not sufficient that they are inscribed as well-intentioned clauses buried in the language of collective agreements and teacher contracts. Instead, they need to be acknowledged, talked about openly and freely, and then addressed through positive changes to the way schools are built, operated and evaluated.

So, here is a starting point. You may agree with the three areas of consideration that I have included here; you may wish to challenge these, agree with them, or add your own. Feel free. Or perhaps, you would like to challenge my central contention altogether. That’s fine too. But, let’s talk about it!

Teacher Isolation: Despite the talk of collegiality, collaboration and professional learning communities, there is a sense in which the life of the classroom teacher is still fairly isolated and somewhat solitary. Although a building with 600+ students may be home to nearly 50 staff members, the amount of time afforded to actually meet, talk and socialize has been diminished greatly. This, I believe, is due, in part, to the fact that the tempo of the classroom has been accelerated significantly in the past number of years. There is more curriculum to fit into the available time. Collective agreements often have something to say about the number of staff meetings and in-school professional activities that principals are allowed to require teachers to attend. In many cases, this has led to a decrease in the amount of actual facetime that teachers have with each other. This means that students often represent a teacher’s primary set of relationships during much of their work day. For certain, teachers commit to a life of working with people much younger than themselves, but the development of supportive (and enjoyable) adult relationships within the context of daily work is important for mental and emotional health.

A sense of self-efficacy: A second area that concerns me a great deal is a decrease in the level of self-efficacy, especially in the area in which I teach: elementary education. Increased focus on (and obsession with) large-scale test results as indicators of school success has led to a battery of “best practices” being promoted. And not only are they being promoted as suggested strategies, but their implementation is being monitored and, in some cases, even scripted into the lives of teachers. District and government level consultants are appointed to go and assist with the implementation of what has proven to work elsewhere–all with the goal of improving test scores.

We need to get back to a place where the opinions, experiences and ideas of school level practitioners are valued, respected and, actually sought out by districts. There is a wealth of knowledge hiding behind classroom doors these days, but as it stands, there is an increasing sense that all expertise must come from the outside. This serves to devalue individual teacher knowledge, discourage creative response at the school level, and put everyone on edge around their own practice. Teachers want to be doing a good job. There is no doubt that classroom practice needs to be grounded in effective strategies and approaches. But the creative minds of those who are working with students everyday needs to be encouraged, attended to, and supported. For me, that is a big part of mental health.

A reduced sense of community outside school hours: When I began teaching, the final bell at the end of day often meant it was time to rush off to a basketball practice, band rehearsal, or club activity. Extra-curricular life in schools was rich and robust. This is where we often had the opportunity to work with students in a positive way, help to nurture their skills and attitudes beyond the classroom, and develop a sense of school pride.

Beyond the work we used to do with students, many teachers got in their cars to drive to teacher workshops, sit on curriculum writing teams, go to the District resource center to preview films, create classroom resources, or borrow materials from a central library.

On Friday nights, it wasn’t unusual to head off to a local pub for a beverage, or plan to attend a teacher organized dance, social or games night.

And while pockets of this type of activity may still be found in many districts, I believe that a sense of community beyond the school day, and the school walls for that matter, has decreased. I believe that some of this has to do with a general shift in the way that people approach their work life–a greater separation between work and home can be observed in many areas of employment. Some of it is, no doubt, owing to the stricter parameters that are inscribed in collective agreements.

But a great deal of it, I believe, comes from an increased sense that the schoolhouse is the central locus of professional activity. Schools now have their own professional libraries (!) and order their own media materials. Most professional development is done at the school level, and more and more extra-curricular activity that occurs between schools is done during the school hours. In a sense, the professional world of the teacher has become compacted to include what can fit within the bounds of the school day, and what can be fit within the physical space of the school building.

To be sure, the central focus of teacher work still remains the school and the classroom, but that work needs to be placed within the context of a larger educational community. I believe that an important part of creating healthy work environments for teachers has to do with promoting the ability to contribute to and participate in something bigger than themselves and something bigger than their local school context.

So, there you have my opening contributions to the conversation. I would love to hear about your own views on this. Perhaps your own working environment is completely different. Perhaps your district or school community has sought to address these factors in creative ways. Perhaps you have an alternative take on this.

I have loved doing this work for the past 27 years, and I would love to know that the profession I leave behind in a few years is vibrant, life-giving and healthy.

Let’s talk! 

12 Responses to “Mental Health and The Teaching Profession”

  1. David says:

    I have to say that at my previous school in Thailand, what you say would be true. Most of my social interaction happened outside of school and I did often feel isolated inside the school. It wasn’t quite so bad for we math teachers though, since we had common office space, and so we were “forced” to chat fairly often. I know that the English department was fairly dysfunctional though and only met for their required staff meetings.

    My current school has a terrific staff culture. No question about it, I love working there, and this is due in no small part to my colleagues. So I can assure you, there are schools which are working well.

    • Thanks David. And I guess, from an appreciative inquiry perspective, its important to look at why they are working well, under what conditions, and what we can learn from those schools that are “getting it right”.

      Thanks for jumping in on this!

  2. Kimba Green says:

    Your 3 areas of consideration can be applied to many profession. This is happening and we must participate in reaching out!

  3. Pam Franklin says:

    Excellent post! I believe everything you have written is very true.

  4. Nathan Ogle says:

    I read this post and it spoke directly to what I’m currently going through as a third year teacher. I love my job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I also find myself wondering how long I can make it. I think the sense of isolation is a big factor. My department, and a handful of teachers from other departments, eats lunch together pretty much every day, and that helps, but outside of that, we are all fairly isolated from other teachers in the building and even each other for most of the day.

    The idea of how compacted our schedules are is another big contributor, in my opinion. As teachers, we tend to be seen by the budget masters as a necessary expense, and like most necessary operating expenses, they want to juice as much out of us as possible, meaning that we are begrudgingly given our one prep period and scheduled with students for every available second outside of that. Any professional growth that I do, an overwhelming majority of my grading, and a fair amount of planning is all done on my own time, which makes me feel like I have to choose between my family and my job. I know this can be an issue with many other jobs, but for someone who goes into the teaching profession, it is fair to assume that relationships are important to them, and being faced with this balancing act is very difficult.

    I would love to have more time built into my daily schedule to work on collaborating with my colleagues, making contact with parents, scheduling extra time with students, etc. because all of those things are so critical to being good at what we do. In the current environment, though, this will not happen. If anything we will have our prep periods cut, class sizes increased, and days extended because to those on the outside, they see us as having a sweet eight to three job with weekends and summers off. What they fail to realize is that what happens between eight and three is just a part of what we do.

    Another aspect that you may consider is the role that the education reform debate plays on teacher moral. I know that I struggle a lot with working as hard as I do to provide a quality education to my students only to hear politicians, pundits, and activists rallying about the poor quality of teachers. It is demoralizing.

    I think I’ve rambled on long enough. I look forward to watching this thread grow.

    • Thanks for the honest and open comments Nathan. I think that it’s really important that we begin listening intently to voices of people like you who are just entering a profession that needs the level of commitment and passion that your comments reflect. Although the general public is not usually sympathetic to the claims that, as teachers, we do a lot of work outside of school time, I think that its imperative that we become very vocal with our union leadership about what it is that we need to effectively do our jobs.

      Your comments about collegiality resonated with me. Just giving teachers more prep time isn’t enough. This time needs to be coordinated in such a way that it allows for regular meeting with our colleagues. Interestingly enough, the charter schools that claim to be successful often have this type of opportunity for collegial planning and conversation as one of the pillars of their success.

      I’m thrilled to have your comments here. You’re not alone in your frustration; we need to have more conversations like this!

  5. Ruby says:

    I would like to address the comment that you made about our “wounded” students!!! Although the needs in our schools have gone up, we seem to have the same support systems we had many, many years ago! In fact, I think that we’ve even lost some support staff in the last few years, due to cutbacks! (i.e., CYW and ESL support.) This creates added responsibilty and stress to an already busy day! It is extremely difficult to wear all of the extra hats we do….therefore leaving less energy to do all of the things we once did! Especially…..wing night!!!

    • Hi Ruby,

      Thanks for the comments. I agree that staffing support, especially that geared to helping students who are most “at risk” seems to have decreased. And the support that does exist isn’t always distributed equitably…according to real need.

      Your comment about cutbacks, I suspect, requires a little more attention. I’m not sure whether, as members of the “rank-and-file” we are given enough information about how collective agreements are negotiated. In particular, I’m wondering what we may have, in fact, negotiated away in order to get things like increased planning time, less supervision, etc.


  6. Marnie says:

    I am very interested in your post Stephen. I am a human resources professional and have recently joined the K-12 sector, after having spend 15 years in the post secondary education system.

    What you describe is a trend touching so many different professions, but I feel in particular the educator sector. I done some research around what makes for a happy work environment for teachers, and for everyone working in the education environment (TA’s, custodians, clerical staff). There are many things we could do to make a difference.

    I would like to know more about what can be done to lower stress during the working day.

    Thanks for your insights.

  7. [...] school. But I woke up this morning thinking about an issue that I tackled last week around mental health and the teaching profession. It has to do with teacher isolation–a long-standing challenge for teachers and administrators [...]

  8. [...] woke up this morning thinking about an issue that I tackled last week around mental health and the teaching profession. It has to do with teacher isolation–a long-standing challenge for teachers and administrators [...]

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