Updated: Sep 11, 2018
How often do you go home from work stressed, tired or anxious?
How often do you come back to school the next day stressed, tired and anxious?
Almost every teacher answers yes to the above two questions. Without a single doubt in my mind, I know there are many of you reading this right now nodding your head and think ah-huh that’s me to a tee!
It is sad really... and it is a huge driving force as to why I want to make the Smile Teachers Community the most powerful of it's kind in the Universe!
Almost nearing the end of Term 3 2018, the pedal is to the metal. You are most likely a headless chicken most days, trying to get a plethora of things, while you dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge… athletics, cross country, inter school sport, book week and reports.
I may have never met you. You may not even know my face. But, I hear you loud and clear teachers. I hear you loud and clear, the need for better support and psychological safety in our schools really is a matter of now, not when.
This may seem harsh to link but it really is a matter of life or death in this problem we are all facing. The truth is teacher well being has never been more important.
We all agree with a resounding yes that teaching is stressful!
But teacher stress is not only a problem for teachers, it can be a problem for students. A stressful teacher impacts student stress levels through a contagious like virus, you can feel the energy in a classroom, the teacher sets the tone and controls the environment, and since student stress impacts on learning, this can really affect the quality of education in the classroom.
Stress puts people in the hospital, stress puts your relationships under strain, stress can become a serious health risk when it is not managed effectively.
As teachers we all understand that students learn best in a positive, safe and less stressful environment, and many studies have shown a clear relationship between positive classrooms and important academic outcomes.
With youth mental illness on the rise in Australia since 2008, we need better equipped teachers who can effectively handle stress and difficult situations in schools. Teachers who can better respond to stress, results in better school environments for students.
This is a no brainer, but with the current state of our education system and not to mention our ridiculous government, we need to start taking our own action to better support teachers.
We are all under no illusions that teachers are faced with a whole range of challenges while working in education. None quite as serious as mental illness. It is not something you read a rule book on while studying education or learning your craft. Unfortunately, mental health is becoming the biggest challenge faced in education today, for students and teachers.
How many teachers are actually prepared, self-aware and resilient enough to manage such stressful situations?
If you are a lucky one, you may have experienced some professional development through your school to help combat mental illness and provide the best support to students.
Let’s explore what we are up against and why it’s super important that teachers learn to better cope with stress and their own mental health.
Why do you teach?
If you answered money, holidays, free coffee or I don’t know, please pick up the phone and call me because we need to discuss a career change.
Most likely, because you are passionate about changing lives and empowering students to achieve success and grow as positive young people.
But the following is happening to our young people...
The number of deaths by suicide in young Australians is the highest it has been in 10 years
Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents
Around one in 35 young Australians aged 4-17 experience a depressive disorder.
One in seven young Australians experience a mental health condition.
One in fourteen young Australians (6.9%) aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to approximately 278,000 young people.
These statistics are reported in a Beyond Blue study conducted in 2015.
The statistics are shocking. They quantify the problems that we are all facing in our country. Stress leads to mental illness when left alone or ignored. Stress is not good for our health and is a leading factor contributing to disease, illness and ultimately death.
I acknowledge that there are many factors that contribute to mental illness, but being able to support young people to better manage their emotional well being and health is everyone’s responsibility. Having a positive, supportive and prepared teacher is proven to have a huge difference on student lives.
We all want to good and be good. To be the positive role model our students need, but that is difficult if your are struggling yourself.
Therefore, it should be an immediate priority for schools, universities and the education system to better support school teachers to manage their own well being to effectively fulfill their role as a teacher and perform at their peak.
It makes me so determined and driven to change the way we educate, by empowering our teachers to be resilient, mindful and better supported to do the job we love so much.
Now as a teacher we are paid to do this job we love.
We are not paid to be babysitters. We are not paid to be entertainers. We are not paid to be counsellors. We are not paid to be parental incompetency advisers. We are not paid to be a lot of things we are expected to be. Yet somehow, we end up wearing all the hats available in the education world.
Why? Because we are passionate, we are caring, we want to change lives, make a difference and help instill confidence and love into the lives of our young people.
We have a direct responsibility to care for our young ones and educate them. To teach, mentor, support and accompany them as they develop and grow. We are there to respond to students needs and cater for them to learn in a safe emotional environment. We work our asses of to provide the very best we can for our kids and we rarely get recognition for what we do so well. We don’t ask for accolades, we are paid a limited wage. We work overtime, take it home with us and keep on pushing through, with a glimmer of hope and trust that it is all worth it.
We are expected to just get on with it. Do our best with what we have got and continue to respond to demands, requests, complaints, concerns and administration that more often than not, serves no real purpose in providing better outcomes for our students. When we signed the dotted line, we wanted the ability to nurture student lives and have the freedom to find the joy in education.
We are under pressure, scrutiny, criticism and high expectations at all times. Quite often if we make the smallest little mistake we are left feeling guilty, disheartened and doubting ourselves. The stress builds up, the time ticks down, the demands increase and we are sometimes left alone, expected to be “okay”.
I have spoken with many teachers in the past month, who have all outlined the struggles they have had with stress, mental illness and decreased self-worth.
Youth mental illness is becoming an epidemic, but what about teacher mental illness?
How is a teacher expected to respond to a struggling student in need of support when we rarely have the time or resources to manage our own well being?
Too be honest, we are all time poor. But, now is the time to stand up and start to be happy and teach well.
In a recent survey conducted by Smile Teachers, we found that 84% of teachers outlined “lack of time” as being the main reason for not managing their well being effectively, with 73% of those surveyed stating that they were “not satisfied” with the amount of support or time available to manage their health and well being.
We all start the teaching year with a clean classroom, new desks, pretty posters on the walls, with a promise to change lives and make a positive difference. “The new car” smell that encompasses our lives for the first term will of course fade and a smokey aroma of burning demands starts filling the room. From being certain that all students pass standardised tests to responding to changes in behaviour- it hangs over you like a dark cloud.
It make me always laugh when I hear the Billy Joel song “ We didn't start the fire”.
You could swear Billy was writing this ballad to teachers and education.
“We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it”
To me this song symbolises how burning the candle at both ends is not an effective way to teach. It is not a fire that was started by teachers, but it is a fire that we have constantly been fighting. Putting out spot fires here and there, to raging infernos with difficult parents or staff.
Last week, I spoke to the principal of a prominent inner city school who has worked in education for 32 years. He explained how not a day goes by where he doesn’t have a staff member in his office in tears because they are having a stressful day or emotional breakdown. He believes the key to better supporting this teachers is to develop their resilience through more mindful programs and effective staff well being plans in schools.
We have seen it all too much how all the stress and emotional strain from teaching can lead to burnout and mental illness.
1 in 5 Victorian teachers was reported to leave the profession in just their first 5 years of the career due to burnout and the demands of the job.
How much do you know about burnout?
Much of what we know and understand about burnout, especially teacher burnout, comes from the work of Christina Maslach and her colleagues, who have studied its mechanisms for more than 40 years, and whose theories have been, and continue to be the foundation of subsequent research into the topic.
The journey leading school teachers to emotional burnout is multifaceted and influenced by both how we deal with stress and how stress shows up in the classroom. Christina Maslach, a trailblazer for understanding professional stress that overwhelms teachers, defines burnout as a person having emotional exhaustion, feeling disconnected from others and our work and difficulty feeling accomplished in the job. Few antagonists to teachers’ mental wellness contribute to burnout as much as feeling incapable of successfully fulfilling teaching responsibilities — also known as low teacher self-efficacy.
Having difficulty connecting with your students, classroom behavior problems, perceptions of limited support from management and little time to recharge outside of work hours can derail the most resilient teachers’ mental health.
I have been there right in the gutter and much of what I do and say stemmed from my own personal experience with mental health.
Equally important, teachers’ who struggle to manage stress can unintentionally create tense classroom environments that model unhealthy stress-reduction strategies for student’s learning how to become socially and emotionally healthy people.
The cycle is vicious, like a snake eating its own tale. Stressed out teachers, create stressed classrooms, which creates stressed students, that contribute further to the teachers stress and the result, burnout and mental illness.
Building mentally healthy teachers, who can subsequently build emotionally healthy students, is a benefit that many in the education community have started to take seriously. While well being programs for schools and teachers that focus on social-emotional learning appear to be growing, the scattered approach to implementing these support systems brings into question how well teacher mental health and stress management is actually being addressed, particularly for teachers in classrooms with significant behavior management issues.
Integrating additional resources into already-packed professional development days and extra-curricular overloaded school years is a challenge for most schools, but an opportunity lies in plain sight with our targeted programs to build teacher self-efficacy, by improving happiness and health.
Better helping teachers to feel confident in managing student needs and establishing strong positive relationships in meaningful and authentic ways are two core aspects of Smile Teachers. We facilitate programs to develop healthy learning environments and provide rejuvenating experiences to empower teachers to press forward from the mentally draining work days.
Basic classroom management is already a part of a teachers professional development, but what if a more holistic approach was implemented that addressed how behaviour management and emotionally draining situations can be better managed to support teacher and student well being?
Our Mindset Manoeuvre program gives teachers the chance to better connect with students by modeling healthy ways of dealing with stress and extend the longevity of their mental wellbeing by helping them fully believe they are the dynamic teachers they are capable of becoming.
“If you’re a teacher, you can’t walk out while you’re teaching; and if you’re a student, you can’t walk out, either—it puts a level of pressure on teachers that I don’t think many people recognize,” says Patricia Jennings, the lead author of a study conducted by the University of Virginia.
The study found improvements in the emotional climate of the classroom and increased class organization for those teachers who’d been through a mindfulness based training program for teachers. Those trained behaved differently in the classroom—smiling more, asking more questions, remaining curious about student misbehavior rather than moving toward punishment, and taking deep breaths and slowing down encounters with students when annoyed rather than yelling.
But what’s most to Patricia Jennings is that these changes were accomplished by training teachers, not the students themselves.
“The intervention totally focused on the teacher—we didn’t do anything for the kids at all,” says Jennings. “While we may want our kids to be mindful, taking time out of the day to do mindfulness with kids without integrating it into the general curriculum is really hard.”
Jennings’s study is the largest study to date looking at how mindfulness training impacts teacher well-being and the emotional climate of their classrooms. It adds to a growing body of research suggesting that mindfulness affects not only teacher stress, but also interpersonal interactions that can have an important impact on learning.
“I had a very strong suspicion that emotional reactivity was interfering with a teacher’s ability to be their best, and that the solution wasn’t just a matter of teaching more skills, it was really a matter of teaching them to self-regulate so they could be their best,” says Jennings.
“I think it’s really important for people to recognize that teachers need all of the support they can get and that they need our help and not criticism,” says Jennings. “If we don’t turn the corner on how we’re helping our teachers, we’re not going to have enough teachers to do the job.”
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