Teacher Mental Health

I’ve written before about maintaining physical health while teaching and teaching online. It’s important, especially when teaching from a computer, remotely. However, it is just as important to maintain your mental health as a teacher. It will benefit you as well as improve teaching and student outcomes.

Teaching is such a hugely stressful occupation. We all know about the analogy that teachers make more decisions per minute than air traffic controllers. A teacher is constantly “on” and the energy of the students and people suck at one’s soul. Most teachers come home wasted, and not energized. Not exhausted physically but drained mentally. Over time, this will cause a person to break down, change and mentally “die” – and this will definitely spill over outside your teaching too.

The solution isn’t as simple as “taking a break” – to maintain proper mental health at your teaching gig, your job. Sure, that will help but only temporarily at most. What’s fundamental is to align your own emotional comportment with what you do, day in and day out. Make sure your beliefs align with what you are doing and your teaching in general. So much emotional stress and pain comes from the simple fact, many who are teaching are pulling out their hair because they have beliefs about teaching and learning that don’t match up with their teaching environment.

Teaching stress isn’t just a problem of overwork, too many classes, and little or no prep time. Again, sure, more time to plan, and prepare will help but it isn’t a permanent solution most often, to teachers mental issues. Nor, is the problem of teacher mental health caused by disobedience, and unruly students. That isn’t the source of the problem, but a symptom of something else.

Over my career teaching, I’ve come up with 3 principles that guide me towards proper mental comportment towards the act of teaching, caring for others, and mentoring others. They are developed from Carl Roger‘s humanistic psychology and the beliefs espoused in his book – On Becoming A Person. Get a copy and read it, if you can. It isn’t about teaching but indirectly you’ll benefit from his approach and explanation of why so often we are so stressed, not ourselves, out of kilter in life, in our jobs.

Rogers did much work and writing on the process and conditions of learning. But here, I’d like to relate what I’ve pulled from his work, in support of mental health and well-being as related to his core principles.

Carl Rogers and his 3 core conditions for therapeutic change

My 3 principles to support basic teacher mental health are;

  1. Forgiveness of self.
  2. Positive Self-Regard. Acceptance.
  3. Personalizing your teaching. Self-actualization.

1. It’s about forgiveness. Do you remember that old song by Don Henley and the Eagles? It says a lot – how you can’t keep going on, unless you learn to forgive. And the most important person to forgive is yourself.

Teachers take so, so much onto their shoulders. They put so much pressure on their own hearts and actions. And that will build unless there is a deep ability to forgive oneself, each day.

At the end of each day, forgive yourself for what didn’t go right. How much you didn’t accomplish. Wipe away what’s on your own inner blackboard and scoresheet. Go home. Forget in that forgiveness. Then start the next day anew.

Make a concerted effort to pause at the end of each day and forgive yourself. You’ll be a happier, healthier teacher for it!

2. Being Positive. Creating conditions for positivity

You won’t feel good about yourself as a teacher unless you are in a positive environment. Too many teachers are stuck in a workplace and in work conditions that just pull them down into the dreary, dispirited underworld of professional life. It might be the bloody paperwork, it might be stullying colleagues, it might be a class of students you just can’t get a handle on. It might be so much. But it won’t do you any good if you aren’t positive about it.

Beyond, working in a school that espouses your beliefs about teaching and learning (and so many teachers are mismatched in that regard), teachers need to explicitly create positive conditions in their workplace. There are several important ways to promote positivity.

*Communication. Keep it open, and honest. Don’t keep things within, bottled up.
*Learn to let go (see the point above) and don’t let little stuff fester.
*Ask and reflect on why you are doing what you are doing. Draw on your beliefs and take solace in them, bringing meaning and purpose into your work.
*Create activities in class and foster relationships that make you feel good. You aren’t alone.
*Empathy. See things from the other side, don’t be so oppositional. Lean towards understanding.

3. Self-actualization. Put yourself into your teaching.
Teaching is a transactional and personal profession. The act of teaching is about “being” and YOU the teacher are the instrument of value in the transaction – if you don’t value your work, why should others? Most at work suffer because they don’t realize their full potential, they don’t feel like their worth is being respected or allowed to shine.

One way to allay this is to put some of yourself into your teaching. Design lessons sharing the personal aspects of your life. Open up. Show who you are as a human and design lessons you enjoy teaching. Sure, the admin might not like that but there are ways you can be subversive and still teach the book while also teaching in a human, personal fashion.

These are 3 conditions I’ve experienced as a teacher. What’s important in all this, is to recognize your own mental vulnerability – to not let yourself slide and slide and slide into solipsism and indifference regarding your own mental health as a teacher. That step and then taking some others. First things first.

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