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Safeguarding the Mental Health of Teachers

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Teachers tell their students that mindset matters. Yet teachers do not always allow themselves space to receive those same messages of reflection and self-care.

Henry Seton, a longtime high school teacher and department head, learned that firsthand. In a courageous and insightful essay in Educational Leadership, Seton explored the hurdles that teachers face — especially those who work in schools in high-poverty settings — in safeguarding their mental health. He also revealed the challenges he’d faced in his own life.

“Teachers are attuned to the social-emotional wellbeing of our students and trained to monitor for signs such as trauma, anxiety, bullying, or microaggressions,” he wrote. “Yet we are still just learning how to discuss a huge, lurking threat to our work: our own mental health.”

Usable Knowledge sat down with Seton, who earned his master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last May, to talk about the ways in which school communities can both hinder and support the wellbeing of their members.

Where do you think the silence around teacher mental health originates from?

I think so many educators, especially in high-poverty settings, are barely holding on as is. To acknowledge, head on, where we are in terms of our mental health might not be something we feel like we can bear. High-poverty schools also often attract a certain type of intensity junkie who loves the intensity of that work — a person who, previously, has always been able to get through it. Talking about issues of mental health can be seen as a weakness and there’s this mentality of “I just need to be tougher. I just need to work harder and work smarter.”

How have you seen that mindset translate into a school culture? Did you feel equipped, at an early stage in your career, to handle it?

I worked for a decade at a young charter school that, like many young start-up organizations, had a blurring of work-life boundaries. It was predominately young people in their twenties, and we were all super mission-oriented, very energetic, very committed. I think we came into the work with a lot of unprocessed insecurities, whether it was our desire to be a savior or issues of our own guilt, that we were never doing enough. Just like open offices today, you see who gets there earliest, you see who stays there latest.

And there’s always this feeling that you could be doing more. Instead of the neighbor’s grass being greener, it’s the classroom next door that’s always operating at a higher level than yours. We all loved each other and worked hard to support each other but intimidated each other to death. It drove us to wonderful growth and phenomenal outcomes for students. Also, at times, it burnt through our emotional resilience and destabilized our emotional constancy with one another and with students. It affected our mental health. As the school transitioned, it did learn how to support teachers over time, but that transition is difficult for all sorts of schools and organizations.

How do schools perpetuate the silence around teacher wellbeing — and how might schools break that silence?

It’s not uncommon to have school leaders who sometimes sleep in their offices because they’re so busy, who don’t take a single break during the day. I want to name school leaders, in particular, as people who can steer the conversation. They often model, I think unintentionally, that we can’t take breaks, we can’t ease up, we need to always be going full throttle. That trickles down in organizations to the point where we feel we can’t attend to ourselves.

What do you see as the first step toward making teaching more sustainable?

Technology makes it so easy to stay connected with the work, but this can also make it hard to find balance. If we could double the amount of time teachers stay in high-poverty settings, we would change the education sector so much. In order to stay in this game — which is something I want to do for my whole life — teachers need to have boundaries. Veteran teachers, in order to survive, inevitably learn how to erect boundaries. But young teachers in younger schools don’t always have the model of boundary setting. There are not as many older teacher colleagues with children who, by necessity, set stricter boundaries.

You mentioned school leaders as being a group that had a lot of influence over how issues around teacher mental health and wellbeing are talked about in a school community. What else might leaders do?

I believe the number one step is leaders talking about these issues more vulnerably. I was really impressed by Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy Charter Schools. She has a reputation for being very hard-driving in terms of how she leads her organization, but she spoke in her memoir about the importance of therapists for teachers to be able to process this work, which I thought was phenomenal. It’s just so rare in the high-performing charter space and high-poverty settings that school leaders talk about seeing therapists or the importance of mindfulness practices, let alone practice vulnerability in front of their staff. And I think that’s so critical because it gives everybody else that permission to discuss this…. Leaders need to regularly gather input around the stress points for teachers and respond to it. Healthcare plans for teachers should allow access to free or minimal copay mental health services. And there needs to be a space for teachers to process the intensity of their work.

How could that space be created?

The most important thing we can do for each other is just to listen. If we have the bandwidth and time to just stop and listen to a colleague, that’s just such an important first step towards healing and wholeness. Listening dyads are connected to the Buddhist tradition. You just listen and you don’t need to say anything or even respond. Then, if colleagues are open to it, you can talk towards some action steps.

Where might people begin to find resources, supports, and answers to questions?

I see more colleagues starting to talk about issues related to mental health. I feel like terms like mindfulness, vulnerability, and self-compassion are coming up more in teacher spaces. The number one place I’d start is Elena Aguilar’s work on cultivating resilience in educators. It is the best introduction to a myriad of practices that support teacher mental health — everything from mindfulness, to compassion, gratitude. Authors like Brené Brown have appeared in TED Talks that have helped bring attention to it. But I think there’s still more we can do — we’re still not discussing it enough.

This post originally appeared in Usable Knowledge, which translates education research and well-tested practices so they're accessible to practitioners, policymakers, and parents. Usable Knowledge is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.