November 2023 | Classroom Commentary
Student Mental Health Matters... and so Does Yours!
By James Caleb Evans
The national conversation around mental and emotional health has steadily become more prominent. This discussion has carried over to school districts, where administrators and educators have worked diligently to understand the role mental health plays in the classroom.1
The result has been generally positive, with a greater focus on and understanding of the importance of student mental health. Unfortunately, however, this focus all too often begins and ends with students, with far less recognition of the importance of mental health for teachers themselves. Whether this disconnect is caused by administrators providing insufficient support to teachers, or by teachers declining to apply this insight toward themselves, the effect can be the same.
In many instances, teachers can be their own worst enemies as they seek a healthy work-life balance. With an often immense workload, it can seem a foregone conclusion that work will have to be completed at home (unpaid). This problem has been amplified since COVID-19, as more aspects of the classroom are moved online, causing many teachers to feel pressured to be accessible at all hours of the day, as noted in a recent journal article.2
When certain teachers are unable (or unwilling) to maintain a healthy balance, it can work against all of us and our fight for better teaching conditions, as these self-sacrificing teachers are typically lauded by administrators, parents, and even colleagues. In fact, the same article mentioned earlier highlights this phenomenon, pointing out that peer pressure was one of the principal reasons teachers were working during evenings and weekends.
The pressure we put on ourselves (and/or feel from others) exists due to the incorrect assumption that those teachers who pour the most hours into their work are the ones who care most about their students. However, a recent study3 found that students are generally aware when their teacher is feeling stressed or in a bad mood, even if teachers were trying to hide it. Unfortunately, students do not merely notice such differences; it actually impacts the classroom as well.
A teacher who focuses on their own wellbeing, in contrast, may find that doing so can improve student wellbeing, reduce students’ psychological distress, enhance their presence as a teacher, and nurture student relationships.4 My personal experience, although anecdotal, has mimicked the results in these studies. Even so, the change in approach that I needed to make (and eventually made) was not easy.
An unhealthy obsession
If the claim that we can be our own worst enemy seems an overstatement, allow me to introduce you to my former self. Certainly, the focus on mental health today is greater than when I grew up in the ‘90s (or as some of my students would say, the late 1900s) and early 2000s. My own unfamiliarity with the issue was exacerbated by a conservative upbringing that was extremely common in rural Ohio. The result for me was a mindset that my success and results were directly tied to my work ethic and, in a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps way, my job was to outwork everyone. I was known for having this personality trait growing up, and it followed me into my career in education.
When I began teaching in 2015, it did not take me long to become completely immersed in my work. Some of this was bound to happen as a first-year teacher but, looking back, many of my habits were extremely unhealthy. I was consistently arriving to work at 6 am (two hours before the first bell) and often staying past 5 pm due to my commitments to coach and monitor study tables. By my second year, I had agreed to coach cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track in the spring. I was also working with administrators in roles related to coaching and leading my peers.
It did not take long for me to burn myself out — though I didn’t realize it at the time. This syndrome is not uncommon, as revealed in a 2020 survey commissioned by the National Education Association.5 NEA’s data indicated that 55% of teachers intended to leave the profession earlier than they’d intended, with 90% of these educators referencing burnout as a serious issue.
To alleviate my sense of burnout, I doubled down, focusing on gaining greater efficiency. If I could just get a week ahead, I thought, I could take some time away from work. To accomplish this, I sacrificed many of my other hobbies. I had not touched a book in over a year, had quit playing tennis, and even cut short my runs (the single most important hobby to me) in order to get back to work. In fact, I moved my running inside so I could run on the treadmill while grading papers. And I almost always worked through lunch, rarely making it to the teachers’ lounge.
Unfortunately, as we all know, there is always some additional teaching task that could be done. For me, the result was a version of myself that was hardly present at any given moment. Despite being in good physical condition, I was always feeling tired and sick. When I was at work, I was exhausted and struggled to be present with students; while at home, I struggled to get my mind off work.
Battling for a healthy me
Unfortunately, it took a couple of major life events to force me to reevaluate and change my habits. Only after I hit near-rock-bottom in January 2022 was my wife able to finally convince me (after years of trying) to see a mental health professional. It was not easy, and I found myself practically unable to speak during our first session, but I left with some techniques I would try in order to improve my stress and anxiety levels. It required a few months of trying different things and forcing myself well outside of my comfort zone, but by the end of the year I had improved significantly.
As a morning person, I’ve found the time before the start of school to be extremely valuable and productive. So these days, I continue to arrive at work early — but only one hour early, instead of the two hours I previously aimed for. I also now leave school just a few minutes after my final class, and refuse to take work home with me. What’s more, I’ve decided to spend my lunches with students, often playing board games or ping pong, tutoring, or just listening to them talk about their lives. These changes may not be absolutely necessary, but they have made me feel more justified in my choice to walk out the door immediately at the end of the day. I also moved my runs back outside, started hosting yoga sessions for fellow staff twice a week, and take mental health days when needed.
To quit bringing work home without falling behind, I had to make some changes to my classroom. These started with completing my transition to a flipped classroom, a process I’d begun a couple of years ago. I also completed my lecture videos, so that students could now watch my lectures at home, and spend their time in the classroom completing assignments, engaging in group work, and doing hands-on activities. I set up most of my formatives so that they self-grade, allowing me to not only greatly reduce the time I spend grading, but also to accomplish all my planning, grading, and emailing during my time before school and during planning periods.
I am not just healthier as a result, but my classroom has improved, I have better relationships with students, and feel much more present at work and home.
Techniques for managing mental health
Keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, and that it takes time for one to go from workaholic to not taking work home and hosting yoga sessions! To put your mental health and wellbeing first, you don’t need to do what I’ve done, or even get it right the first time.
Rather, start by taking steps you feel comfortable with. For example, you may recognize you should do less (or no) work at home, but feel such a change would be too drastic. Instead of going “all in,” you could choose one night during the week that you will not take work home with you. As noted in the article by Harding, et. al., doing so does not diminish how much you care about students, yet it will improve your capacity to form meaningful relationships with them.
In July 2023, I hosted a session on mental health at the
Chemistry Education Conference at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. Many
educators attended and shared their own personal stories of what they have
tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to improve their mental health. Included
below are excerpts from their stories combined with techniques I have tried, or
seen others try:
- Mental Health Days: Although there is no set rule for this, if you find yourself dreading work due to stress and/or anxiety, it is probably safe to say you could use a day off. There was a consensus that taking a few days off a year for mental health was a good idea. Mental health is health and, as a result, certainly falls under proper use of sick leave. Keep in mind that when taking sick leave, you only need to indicate that you are sick, and that further information or explanation is not required.
- Walking: Several peers mentioned taking short walks during their planning period or lunch. Some even set a timer on their phone to ensure they spent enough time walking to truly relax and regroup.
- Leaving Work at Work: Many of us, including myself, discussed leaving our laptops at work. This could also mean leaving at work one’s bookbag, papers in need of grading, or plans for next week that need completing.
- Reengaging in a Favorite Activity: Several teachers discussed how much fun it was to get back into a passion they had earlier in their life. For me, it was reading; but for others it was playing an instrument, running, biking, joining a book club (one member even started their own book club), yoga, or walking their dog(s). Whatever it is for you, give yourself a reasonable goal (even if only once a week) and set out to accomplish it. For many people, writing their goal down or sharing it with others helps them feel accountable for accomplishing it.
- Emphasizing Mental Health with Students: Some teachers revealed that appropriately discussing mental health issues helped them foster better communication and healthier relationships with students. It also helped students recognize and appreciate the boundaries being set between student and teacher. Although I would caution you against oversharing, emphasizing the need for all of us to put our health first, and discussing how you go about doing that, is a healthy dialog to have with anyone.
- Delete that App: I ultimately decided to delete the email app from my phone. It had always been too tempting to open it and start replying to emails, or see that a new meeting had been scheduled and stress about it. If you can relate to this, it may be another option to consider.
- Just Say No: Many of us felt the need to take something off our plate. Beyond our actual teaching duties, there was no requirement to coach, host clubs, volunteer, or fill in for other roles. We need to prioritize what we care about, and say no to the rest. For myself, this insight led me to decide to continue coaching cross country and overseeing the Model UN program, but stepping away from robotics, and turning down the chance to coach track.
Although all of our group members had our own ways of focusing on our mental health, one theme rang through: we had all felt guilty — at first — about putting ourselves before our work or our students. On the other hand, once we had overcome the sense of guilt and adopted some of these practices, no one felt remorse about having done so, and all felt that they and their students were better off for it.
You should not feel guilty for taking care of yourself. As educators, we can be our own worst enemy — particularly when we’re willing to work ourselves to the extreme, as I once did. Some parents and administrators may, intentionally or not, tend to make teachers who strive for a better work-life balance feel guilty.
In the end, everyone at the Chemistry Education Conference agreed: they were better off having finally put themselves first. Those who had made it through the process were united in feeling that their students were better off. And those who had not yet gone through the process shared that they realized it was time to try. I encourage you to do the same!
1. Sapthiang, S.; Van Gordon, W.; Shonin, E. Mindfulness in Schools: A Health Promotion Approach to Improving Adolescent Mental Health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 2017, 17, 112-119.
2. Bauwens, R.; Jolien, M.; Clarisse, E.; Audenaert, M.; Decramer, A. Teachers’ acceptance and use of digital learning environments after hours: Implications for work-life balance and the role of integration preference. Computers in Human Behavior. 2020, 112, article 106479, 1-9.
3. Glazzard, J.; Rose, A. The impact of teacher well-being and mental health on pupil progress in primary schools. Journal of Public Mental Health. 2020, 19(4), 349-357.
4. Harding, S.; Morris, R.; Gunnell, D.; Ford, T.; Hollingworth, W.; Tilling, K.; Bell, S.; Grey, J.; Brockman, R.; Campbell, R.; Araya, R.; Murphy, S.; Kidger, J. Is teachers’ mental health and wellbeing associated with students’ mental health and wellbeing? Journal of Affective Disorders. 2019, 242, 180-187.
5. National Education Association. Overview of member opinion survey conducted January 2022. Available at https://www.nea.org/about-nea/media-center/press-releases/nea-survey-massive-staff-shortages-schools-leading-educator-burnout-alarming-number-educators (accessed Oct 12, 2023).