There are few other professions or systems that need to be more closely aligned than education in order to function. Administration impacts our teachers and students. Teachers affect their students and the culture that the leader is creating. The school board impacts administrators and teachers which ultimately impacts students. The community impacts their children and sends them to school, and their attitude toward education affects staff and sways school board decisions. Much like the analogy of the flap of a butterfly's wing, our ecosystem is connected and we are reliant on each other. When this is working well, it is awesome. People are happy and emotionally engaged in their work, connected to each other, and the culture is strong. But, when it's not going well it's the responsibility of everyone to find what they can do to meet people where they are at and make adjustments. The topic of educator mental health and wellness is no exception.
So, if this is true, what are everyone's responsibilities? How do people know where their responsibility to educator mental health begins and ends?
Within Our Control
There will always be parts of our ecosystem that we, as educators (including administrators) have more control over than others.
One thing I've found to be consistently true in my work is that the quality of the connection between district administration (DA) and teachers in the classroom will determine the culture in the district. The larger the disconnect between DA and teachers, the less they understand what is happening in classrooms and the more decisions they make that seem counterintuitive to what people actually need. I've worked in districts where the directors or superintendent tell me that everything in the district is going remarkably well and they were ready for the pandemic and then I walk into classrooms where teachers are crying. I've noticed that it tends to be more apparent in larger districts, but that just means that the connection needs to be made a priority and purposeful, not that it's impossible. DA can take steps to support educator wellness from their place in the district office.
Review employee wellness initiatives and insurance
I've spoken about this ad nauseam and is the most concrete suggestion I can give: review what is available for employee support for mental health through insurance. How long does it take for a teacher to get mental health support? How many numbers do they have to call? What is the deductible to pay for support? Can they choose their counselor or are they forced to speak to whoever answers the phone? Do they have options for text or virtual mental health support if they are not able to make it into an office? Is there a community counselor that could come in and support teachers for free? The question of access needs to be answered by teachers, not the HR department, and never assume the answers. The human resources department is accustomed to working with insurance because it is their job. Teachers will have a more difficult time navigating this space.
Common issues I see in districts in regards to insurance/district policy are:
people need to look through 108-page document or a 42-slide presentation to find the necessary information to call insurance - employ a design thinking challenge in your HR department and consider the end-user when disseminating information
people are forced to speak to any counselor who answers a phone for free mental health support (this would not be advisable for anything but emergency care - people need to find a counselor that they're comfortable with and who works for them)
high deductibles for insurance leave families with thousands of dollars in mental health bills that continue to increase until their deductible is met
insurance companies don't keep up their databases of mental health professionals that are accepting new patients (and yes, this is a district problem because it is a question that could be asked when purchasing new insurance)
employees are not encouraged to take mental health days (or worse - not allowed)
Complete an Initiative Audit
The function of an initiative audit is to take work off from teachers' (and other administrators') plates. Oftentimes, I will notice that a teacher has to, for example, put their reading scores in three different places for three different departments instead of the district streamlining their data systems so this doesn't need to be done - usually because a few people "prefer" the data in a different way. An initiative audit lays out all the initiatives from every department in the district. Then, every responsibility or task is listed with the initiative. It works even better if teachers from all levels can be brought in and list tasks that they have as a result of an initiative that the district administration might be missing. Then, the information is reviewed and opportunities for reducing teacher workload are discovered. When I facilitate this process districts are always shocked at the number of tasks that are necessary for any given initiative and there are always opportunities to streamline making everyone's job easier.
Spend Time in Classrooms
One of my most frustrating experiences in being at the district level was the number of meetings I had where nothing ever got accomplished. It was incredible, really. So many meetings where we would talk about an issue but nothing was ever determined or followed up on. When I think back to all that time and how I could have been spending it doing something else, I feel the same frustration I did back then. My suggestion? Start canceling unnecessary meetings. Have direct and actionable agendas for the ones that are necessary. Then, take the extra time you save and spend it in classrooms. Many times, I see DA visiting schools and speaking with the principal. That's great, but spend time in classrooms. Not just a five-minute stop but walk in with the intention that you're spending enough time to learn at least half the class's names. Spend five minutes and you'll see the best of the class. Spend 15 and you'll start to see some behaviors. 45-minutes and you'll start to get into the thick of it. I have had to, as a consultant, step in to teach in classrooms where the teacher was too upset to continue in the same districts where district administration has told me that everything is great. This is the kind of disconnect that doesn't support a positive climate. However, creating that connection by spending this time increases the empathy and understanding (understanding as in truly knowing what is happening in classrooms), and not only will there be a more positive culture established but also the decisions being made at the district level will be made through a lens that includes teacher wellness.
Principals, as the leaders of a building, have an incredible influence on climate and culture which impacts educator wellness. This can be seen in the leader's communication, support, visibility, and follow-through.
Leadership Support Language
A leadership support language is similar to the idea of the Five Love Languages. A very simplified description of the love languages is that in relationships people give and receive love in certain ways. If their partner does not receive and give love in the same way, it can lead to people feeling underappreciated and unloved just because they show love with different actions. This idea can be replicated in leadership support. If I feel supported by leadership telling me I'm doing well, but a colleague feels supported by the actions of a leader those are two different types of support. If we both have a leader who is amazing at telling people how well they are doing but not necessarily good with actions, I may feel supported while my colleague might not. Having a direct discussion about this with staff is important. It will include asking teachers to determine actions, words, or processes that bring a feeling of support. Then the leadership does those things. It sounds simple, but it's rare that teachers are asked what makes them feel supported. They might not even really know at first, and often it turns out that the leader can make some tweaks to their style in order to help everyone feel like their leadership has their back.
Modeling the Wellness
Principals (and district leaders) are tired, too. That means that they also need to be taking care of themselves. It sends a powerful message to staff when the principal takes a mental health day. It says, "This is something I am so okay with that I'm going to do it as well." Modeling healthy ways to deal with mental health issues and self-care is an important part of normalizing those conversations and actions. If staff is asked to set a boundary around sending emails, it's difficult to take it seriously when admins are sending them over the weekend. Model the behavior you want to see, and yes, that means taking care of yourself as well.
Set Educators Up for Success
Create structures for student behavior and stick to them. If a teacher is complaining about behavior in their classroom, spend time in the classroom to see it happening in order to bring the right professionals into the classroom to help along with the structures that are already in place. I'm not saying things that principals don't already know, but if your teachers are still complaining about student behavior impacting their mental health, then whatever you're doing isn't working. This is the number two complaint (second only to teacher workload) that I hear as impacting educator and principal mental health and one of the catalysts to attrition. [Read more on this blog How do we support traumatized students while still supporting those who aren't?]
Healing. Nearly everyone was impacted negatively by the pandemic in some way. For some people, they are in the healing stages. For others, they are not near that space yet. They are still tired, angry, and feeling demoralized and dejected. Wherever you are on your mental health journey, healing is going to be a part of it in some way either through yourself or the people around you.
All the Human Things
One of the reasons that mental health is so difficult to talk to about is the healing process is very personal. That means that the coping mechanisms and the resilience strategies that you may need and use will be different. Nobody can tell you exactly what to do because we all come into our professions with our individual backgrounds that have caused wounds, and then we are in the profession and feel triggers and additional adversity or trauma. No amount of professional development is going to heal you. And if you suffered any kind of adversity, demoralization, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, teacher trauma, or discrimination over the course of your professional, you probably have healing to do.
One of the more unpopular quotes I have is, "It may not have been your fault, but it is your responsibility to heal." What I mean by this is that the responsibility is to you because you deserve to be a happy human. Not because you owe the school more energy, but because you deserve to be happy. Committing to finding ways to help yourself heal through counseling, resilience strategies like gratitude, mindfulness, and yes, self-care, deep reflection, taking time to rest and recover, spending time doing the things that ground you and fulfill you - those are all responsibilities to your human to help yourself feel whole again. Unfortunately, nobody can do this for you.
So, an educator's part in healing is to find the healing things and do them. Learn about resilience strategies and things that cause educators to emotionally disengage. Figure out what your triggers are and discover boundary setting. Inspire and influence change in workload and policies with administration, but also take care of your human [read more about that here]. This is the most difficult point on this page, but it is also necessary for you (not because of your loyalty to the profession - although ultimately it will help that, too).
Understand the Leadership Role
I believe that one of the reasons that we have such an issue between leadership and teachers when it comes to mental health is because there is a misunderstanding of what exactly can and should be done when it comes to talking about mental health issues. There are many things that a leader cannot do because it goes against privacy laws. For example, even if a teacher says to their principal that they have a counseling appointment, that principal cannot later ask what you went for or how it went. Some people are going to understand this and say, "Well, yeah. I wouldn't want them asking." But, others are going to interpret them as not caring. However, they actually should not be asking you those questions.
If you feel like there are changes needed in the school in order to support educators' mental health, ask for the topic to be put on an agenda for a staff meeting and offer solutions-based approaches to the issues. I understand this doesn't always work with every leader. Mental health issues are still a very stigmatized topic and we still have adults that believe they don't belong being brought up in schools. However, seeing something and saying something is the first step to create change. Even if the change doesn't happen right away, there's power in planting a seed.
Outside Our Control
Of course, there are issues outside of our control, and unfortunately, they are part of our ecosystem. It's never easy to have such an integral part of our work dictated by people who have never actually done our work. Recognizing that we don't have control over this is a healthy way to let go of some of the negative emotions that might be caught up in this particular area.
Society and Community
Of course, our jobs and passions revolve around taking the children that the community sends us and helping them discover how they can be happy humans and contribute to a global society. We have zero control over what happens outside of our walls. We may have influence over how the school is perceived through community outreach and branding, but we do not have control over the students and families that grace our schools. And right now, society has not been very kind to schools and they have not taken responsibility for their part in what happens in schools.
When society disparages the people who help raise their children, they are wrong. Anytime we are made to feel stupid, like babysitters, like we are not professionals or caring, they are wrong and impacting our mental health. Whenever we are trying our best to do really good work and people in grocery stores or even loved ones speak poorly about our profession it is hurtful, and they are wrong. We cannot take responsibility for what happens in homes, the students that come to us hungry, in need of clothes or hygiene, who haven't gotten a hug in weeks, and have never been told they are smart or kind or loved. But, we do it anyway. In spite of the students' behavior, conditions they have at home, and things parents do and say. Society has a hand in educator mental health. The things they do and say on social media all play into our well-being. They also have the choice to be supportive. To advocate for schools and teachers. To help by substituting if they are able or being another person in a classroom. They could say kind words and stick up to people who say unkind things. Their choices impact our mental health every day. Unfortunately, we have no control over this, and part of what is going to need to happen right now is for us to ride it out until there is a social movement to support school districts. I hope that comes soon.
Because we are reliant upon each other there is no one entity or person who can take responsibility for educator mental health. Everybody has a role to play. An educator cannot take sole responsibility for educator mental health by practicing self-care, and yet educators taking care of themselves is really important. Districts cannot only change the workload without educators taking time to heal from the hurt that has already been caused, and yet the district changing initiatives and workload is a big part of beginning that healing process. When all pieces of the ecosystem start to take responsibility for their part, then real change can begin to take place.