Importance of mental well-being for teachers

The pandemic’s effects on the mental health of teachers also has repurcussions for students, not all of them negative.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there was an uptick in mental health issues, according to the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 response team. Teachers were also negatively impacted, many of whom were struggling to adapt to online teaching.

In general, the pandemic led to forced large-scale isolation periods that affected everyone. As the population of the world was stuck at home, many felt alone and needed a way to cope with their loneliness and boredom. Although many increased their social media usage and felt more connected to a community, the effect was temporary. Eventually, the pandemic took hold and many felt more isolated and faced more mental health problems than before.

“As [the COVID-19 pandemic] continued, I found it harder to take care of my mental health,” FHS Literature teacher Monica Dery said. “As I started the school year online, I found myself feeling more isolated than ever, a sense of hopelessness growing with each week we spent online.”

Many students failed to consider the mental health of their teachers. Not only did teachers have to teach online classes that contained row after row of black boxes — no cameras and muted microphones — but teachers had to figure out entire new teaching methods through foreign technology. A lot was new for teachers and many felt overwhelmed. Stress and anxiety levels were through the roof while morale was low.

“Not only are we navigating how to support our own families, we are also trying to help students’ emotional wellbeing to a capacity that many of us haven’t done before,” Dery said. “Additionally, many educators are now questioning the education system, what it means to assess students, and what our ultimate goal is in educating students.”

At Fremont High School, multiple teachers have decided to go on long term breaks for the purpose of their mental health. And although it is uncertain exactly what affected their mental health, the pandemic and teaching in general seem to be the most prevalent. Dery says it is not much of a choice when it comes to mental health — many try to take care of themselves in minimal ways, ignoring the larger issues at play. She found that the only solution was stepping back from teaching.

Constant change requires a lot from teachers and quite often generates stress and anxiety. In the setting of a classroom, there is a lot more that is required of a teacher. This naturally piles on top of external and personal pressures, and can sometimes be too much to handle.

“Teaching is so much more than just interacting with awesome human beings,” Dery said. “It involves attending to paperwork, the needs of administration and the district, responding to dozens of emails a day, creating curriculum, assessing students, providing feedback.”

The effects of teachers going on long term breaks for their mental health are not to be dismissed either. Schools and teachers have the task of finding a long term replacement substitute, and sometimes classes fail to learn effectively as not all substitute teachers are experts on the subject they are told to teach. A potential positive however, could be students learning the importance of mental health.

“I hope that my students see me attending to my mental health and know that it is good and it is important to take care of their brains as much as the rest of their bodies,” said Dery. “I hope that students are making more decisions with their mental wellbeing in mind. I hope that students feel more encouraged and emboldened to talk to their loved ones about how they are actually doing, asking for the help they need, and taking the time and space they deserve.”

Dery suggests that administrators could be more helpful to staff attending to mental illness.

“I think it is important that they genuinely connect with staff and, since this is our first year back fully in person since the start of the pandemic,” Dery said. “They need to make it extremely clear what the expectations are when it comes to curriculum and assessment. I also believe it is the administration’s responsibility to communicate […] the absolute crisis we have going on this year in relation to mental health. […] Therapists are overloaded with cases. Teachers are encouraged not to take time off because of the shortage of substitutes. Students are navigating how to balance school, life, friends, all while still being in a global pandemic.”