Teacher morale and mental health are suffering as school board meetings intensify and the pandemic rages on. A high school teacher explains why it's crucial that we find ways to support our educators.
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As we approach the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should come as no surprise that the collective mental health of Americans is reaching an all time low. Educators like myself have risen to the many challenges of teaching during a deadly pandemic even while some parents are pushing back against the various scientifically-proven safety measures, including mask-wearing and vaccinations, to keep everyone safe. Meanwhile, us teachers are facing renewed attacks on the very content that we teach while school shootings are becoming more frequent again after a respite during the pandemic.

It should come as no surprise that teacher morale and mental health are suffering as a result. In fact, we are seeing a growing teacher shortage in America, bordering on a national crisis. It is crucial that we find ways to support teachers, especially as student mental health is also suffering as a result of the pandemic.

The Stats Confirm Teachers Are In Crisis

"The statistics about mental health issues for children, adolescents, and adults reflect a growing crisis in America," says Gary Rosenberg, M.D., a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. Dr. Rosenberg helped found the New Jersey Primary Care Child Psychiatry Collaboration, a state-funded program that pairs psychiatrists with pediatricians to help reach the one-in-five youngsters who also suffer from mental health issues.

A study from Rand Corp. researchers from early 2021 found that 27 percent of teachers have experienced symptoms consistent with depression, while 37 percent have experienced symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety. Perhaps connected to these mental health concerns, in other surveys, 53 percent of teachers reported thinking of leaving the profession more now than prior to the pandemic and 60 percent of teachers surveyed said they enjoy their jobs less during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic.

These mental health statistics for teachers are consistent with the overall trends for adults in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an increase the number of in adults over the age of 18 who expressed experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2021 compared to 2020. That number is expected to rise as we anticipate yet another long COVID winter with a possibly more contagious variant coming our way. The United States Surgeon General recently issued a public health advisory acknowledging symptoms of depression and anxiety among youth have doubled during the pandemic.

In order for teachers to identify and help their struggling students, it is key that we both help our educators mind their mental health while also educating them about the warning signs in their students.

The Tweets Back-Up The Stats

Teachers have taken to Twitter throughout the pandemic to share their successes and struggles. Here is a sample of recent tweets that illustrate the way teachers are feeling this school year.

In addition, I wrote an article for PBS Newshour Classroom about how teachers and school staff were feeling after last year's school year. The overall consensus was that their experiences were rarely accurately depicted by news outlets. This made them feel as though their efforts and struggles were being overlooked and ignored by society, further contributing to poor mental health. So, for a start, we need to start highlighting the voices of educators in America. Listening to their concerns and taking actions to make them feel safer and supported so that our kids can feel the same way when they go to school.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Many argue that teacher burnout and mental health issues could be mitigated if teachers had smaller class sizes, more prep time, increased support from administrators, and higher pay so they do not have to take second or third jobs to make ends meet. It is quite possible that if those major problems were fixed, teachers would face less burnout and experience less job-related anxiety and depression.

While we might not get all those solutions overnight, there are some helpful resources and practices that can empower teachers and their students so they can successfully get through this challenging time.

Team Project RISE: One Helpful Solution

For the past ten years, Regine Muradian, Psy. D. a clinical psychologist has been doing a lot of advocacy for students. As the pandemic descended upon us, she noticed how many teachers were struggling with their mental health and also missing warning signs in students. So she decided that it would be helpful to provide some educational resources to support teachers. Along with a team of amazing women (Corky O'Rourke, an educator and mental health advocate, Eve Goldstein, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, Danielle Matthew, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and Anna Siddiqui, a legislative advocate and attorney) she created Team Project RISE, a community resource on mental health to assist educators with recognizing and responding to the needs of their students in the post-COVID classroom. The training, in its entirety, is under an hour long and it includes short modules that explain post-COVID stress and offer helpful information related to anxiety, depression, and inattention and disruptive behaviors. The video modules are both helpful for teachers to become more educated about their own mental health and detect problems experienced by their students. You can watch the training videos for free here.

Dr. Muradian acknowledges that a teacher's primary role is not providing mental health services. "We know that they are not trained to be mental health clinicians," she says. "However, due to these unprecedented times and what teachers are facing, I consider this extra education that is imperative for teachers to have."

Mental Health Tips for Teachers

In terms of minding the mental health of students, Dr. Muradine suggests teachers "really step back and trust their intuition." This is something that most teachers do all the time, but Dr. Muradine suggests that teachers remain mindful that a student's state of mind might be affecting their grades, not the lack of a desire to excel in class.

Dr. Rosenberg believes that "teachers are an underutilized resource who spend their day not only teaching but counseling and supporting their students." He offers four helpful tips for teachers to look out for their own mental health as the school year continues:

  1. Make time to reflect by focusing on positive experiences, not just the negative ones.
  2. Do not underestimate yourself and your abilities as an educator.
  3. Recognize your emotions. Use mindfulness practices like yoga and deep breathing when you are feeling stressed.
  4. Reach out to others. Find a therapist or another licensed professional to speak to if you are feeling overwhelmed and suffering.

Helping get a handle on the mental health of all Americans is crucial as we already see the ways it is hurting a society already torn apart by COVID-19. Living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has unfortunately not brought us together as a society. In fact, it has exposed and worsened many pre-existing problems and divisions in America. However, we can't accept the current disorder because we owe a safer, healthier, and more unified nation to our children. Picking up the pieces and mending our fractured society starts in the schoolhouse. Therefore, we must better support our teachers so they can be their strongest selves to support students get back on track.

Sari Beth Rosenberg has been teaching U.S. History and AP U.S. History at a New York City public high school, the High School for Environmental Studies, for the past two decades and she currently hosts the PBS NewsHour Extra Educator Zoom Series. Rosenberg is a Senior Advisor for Voters of Tomorrow and One Million of Us.