Students are hurting, but so are our teachers
We keep hearing about students’ mental health being affected by the pandemic, but America’s teachers are also going through a Covid crisis. Every day I see stories of teachers quitting their jobs because they are burned out, overstressed, overtired, overworked, under-supported and underpaid. A theme I often see is that although the teacher loves their work and cares deeply about students, they just had to do what was best for their own mental health.
As someone who wants to become a teacher, I do not want this to be a glimpse into my future. While there is recognition that the mental health of teachers is suffering, actions that provide real help need to be taken. Failing to do so will have devastating effects for our kids.
The CDC Foundation published a report in May on “Mental Health Outcomes Among K-12 Students & Teachers During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” based on data from 1,842 teachers. Of those, 27 percent were experiencing symptoms consistent with clinical depression and 37 percent had symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder. Nineteen percent reported that they had started drinking or increased their use of alcohol as a coping method for workplace stress.
Furthermore, studies last year showed more than half of teachers reported giving increasing consideration to quitting or retiring early compared with before the pandemic. “Teaching during the pandemic has been the most difficult thing I have had to do in my 30-year teaching career,” researchers were told by Cathy Bullington, an elementary school art teacher in Bedford, Indiana, who retired early because of the pandemic. “Teachers are leaving because they are exhausted, stressed and underpaid. We have had a lot more demands put on us.”
Teaching is stressful enough. One thing teachers will always tell you is that striking even a reasonable work-life balance is one of the hardest things about the field, and the pandemic has made it even harder. When classrooms became remote, the work-life boundary was absolutely demolished. For one teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools quoted in a 2021 study, losing this boundary was too much to bear: “I was suicidal … the pandemic just broke me.” While this teacher still felt rewarded by teaching, the emotional toll had become too much.
While there may be agreement that teachers need support in addressing their own mental health, real solutions lack. The “Mental and Behavioral Health” tab on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website includes information on how teachers and schools can support students, but no mental health resources for teachers. Teachers often have a difficult time finding mental health care. In the October “Teacher Burnout: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention,” Leah Rockwell provides eight tips for preventing burnout, but all are essentially self-help strategies. Self-help tips are not enough; school districts need to start helping teachers.
Even providing employee assistance programs, while helpful, does not guarantee that teachers who need mental health services will use them. One way to address this is to allow teachers to get mental health care on campus, during school hours. Jessica DiVento, Google’s mental health program manager, explained her company’s perspective in 2019: “Having therapists onsite is much more convenient for employees, saving them valuable time, as they don’t have to travel to an appointment. It also means they are more likely to engage in therapy, as we’re making it as simple as possible to access.” Teachers should be able to take time during their workday to get mental health services. If teachers use their prep time, they should be paid for the prep time that they need to make up. As Google found: “Companies need to make sure employees have explicit and implicit permission to take time to support their mental health.”
There’s a saying: “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” America’s teachers are in crisis, and failing to address this crisis will ultimately affect our kids.
Cambridge native Sarah Whiteman is a student of psychology and politics at Northeastern University.