Because of my upcoming book The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I am asked a lot about social-emotional learning and support for students. I’m not sure my answer ever goes where people expect it to go. While I believe that we need to focus on the students and their needs, I do believe that there is a place where teachers need to be emotionally healthy in order to help our students the best they can. By taking care of ourselves we are ultimately helping our students. By the district supporting teachers’ emotional and mental health, we are in turn supporting students. While students certainly are our main focus for everything we do, they cannot be our only focus. Mentally and emotionally strong teachers (even if that strength comes from working through their challenges) is necessary to really know and understand what our students need.
We are beginning to recognize the mental health challenges and issues that our students are experiencing. For the last few years, we have implemented brain breaks and mindfulness techniques. Lately, I’ve seen a rise in the recommendations for teachers to practice mindfulness as well. In general, I’ve found that districts recognize the need for mindfulness and balance, but because the workload never changes, many educators feel like the idea of mindfulness is just one more thing to do.
While I do believe that everyone should learn mindfulness techniques and choose strategies that work for them, I maintain that these strategies are not going to be enough for people who suffer from a mental health issues, nor is it going to give the co-workers of these people a support structure to help when those people are struggling. Sometimes, both knowing to ask for help and knowing how to give it are not inherent qualities. Sometimes, knowing these things needs to be taught and practiced.
Awareness and Advocacy One of the most important steps to take when beginning the journey of being the best teacher you can be is growing your self-awareness and advocating for yourself and others (think destigmatizing mental health issues). Knowing how your feeling and monitoring your stress levels, especially if you do suffer from a mental illness, is going to be the difference between being able to be proactive and reactive to an increase in the intense feelings that can come on sometimes unexpectedly. Testing strategies of what works for you when you begin to feel overwhelmed and keeping those in your back pocket will allow you to take control of the stress. For example, I have anxiety and I suffer from panic attacks. When I feel one beginning, I know I need someone to talk to me about anything silly and innocuous because it helps calm me. That is my strategy number one. My second strategy is to read a book. Altogether, I have about five strategies that I can pull out at any given time to help me work through my anxiety, however, I needed to develop a deep self-awareness to know what I needed and when I might need to deploy them. Strategies are specific to the person. I have friends who prefer to be alone to process, and that’s okay too if that’s working for them.
I am a strong advocate for districts to implement programs to provide better support for teachers. Teaching how to balance life, work smarter not harder, deal with trauma in both their own lives and their students, are issues that districts need to address. However, realistically, we need to take control of our own stories and focus on what we can do for ourselves as well. We are the holders of our own feelings, and only we can be the ones to make the decision to grow from what we learn about ourselves. If we wait around for the support to come to us, we may be waiting too long. Also, it’s important that when I’m finally offered support, I know what it is that I need. I need to know what to ask for.
Secondary Traumatic Stress In writing my book, I’ve learned about Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) which is another issue that, as educators, we need to be aware of. STS is when a professional works with people (in our case, students) who suffer from trauma. The professionals can develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including (taken from Secondary Trauma):
intrusive thoughts chronic fatigue sadness anger poor concentration second guessing detachment emotional exhaustion fearfulness shame physical illness absenteeism
Secondary Traumatic Stress needs to be addressed and dealt with. Sometimes, it’s necessary to see a counselor to work through the feelings and have strategies going forward. This is another area where both teachers need to be self-aware and districts need to provide additional support. If you already suffer from PTSD, developing STS can exacerbate your own issues depending on where you are in your own healing process, which is just another reason to be reflective and self-aware enough to recognize when there are changes in your emotions.
Most importantly, the more we acknowledge these challenges and support each other instead of holding it in and feeling alone, the quicker we will destigmatize the mental health issues that everyone either has or know someone who has. Recently, my counselor (yes, I see one because sometimes I need help with my feelings and I’m not embarrassed by it) said to me, “Putting a voice to something that others keep in their heads is called bravery.” And when we are brave, we gift the others around us the courage to do the same.