BLOG POST BY 2020-2021 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Students, families, and teachers share the same goal. We want to safely return to school as soon as possible. In our Recommendations for the 2020-2021 School Year, we highlight many of our core beliefs to make this happen in effective ways. Whether this means safeguarding and supporting our students’ wellbeing, ensuring access to curriculum offerings with a foundation in the arts and humanities, or embracing those uncomfortable conversations that come along with embracing learning that is inclusive of marginalized groups, teachers are at the forefront of making these happen.
Now, we have all heard the joke. You know, the one that makes teachers cringe every single time. The one that is far from the truth about teachers’ three favorite months of the year. Summer months provide teachers with a time to learn, to refocus, to decompress, to reignite passions or to spark new ones to continue to be at our best for our students.
And, just as the summer months offer students a well-deserved mental health break, the same is true for teachers. Maybe your break includes attending a conference to learn from and connect with like-minded colleagues. Maybe you reconnect with friends and family. Perhaps you take an extended vacation. Maybe your “dog days of summer” are spent with your kids and neighbors at the community pool.
Regardless of how you have typically spent your summers in the past, you probably head back to school in August feeling refreshed, recharged and ready for the year ahead with a sense of growth of your craft and commitment to your students. At the end of the past several summers, I have been physically exhausted from trying to soak as much in professionally and personally as possible, but mentally inspired, grounded, and focused.
But this summer is different. Conferences, at least the in-person sort where you network with those who challenge you to be better, are cancelled. You’re probably visiting fewer friends. Vacation plans have likely been rearranged or postponed. The pools, museums, and parks that you used to frequent in the summer months? Those trips likely look different, too. As will the start of the 2020-2021 school year, as the traditional school year kick-off events may be placed on the back burner, too.
As schools prepare to welcome students and staff back into the buildings after five months of stay-at-home orders and distancing recommendations, administrators, principals, and counseling staff are preparing to respond to students’ mental, social, and emotional well-being - and rightly so. We live to better the lives of our students, to be there for them, to pick them up when they are down, to be a reason to smile on the rainy days of life, and to inspire them to find the greatness that already lies within themselves. It’s our identity to be more than “just a teacher” for our students; we are a foundation of support.
But, like any foundation, how much earth-shifting events can we withstand before small cracks begin to appear? How many small cracks can continue to be hidden under the surface of a seemingly strong exterior facade? Teachers’ mental health is an equally important piece of the return-to-school-puzzle and, in order for educators to be ready to resume “business as usual” in August, we need to provide and encourage access to quality mental health services that we advocate for our districts to provide to students and families. It’s why you are trained to put on your oxygen mask first on a plane before helping others.
Because mental health has been looked at as a “personal issue” and not a “personnel issue” for so long, many school districts may not know where to start when it comes to encouraging mental health services for employees. And it needs to go beyond the well-intended suggestions of taking a walk, reading a book, or sharpening your colored pencils to complete an adult coloring page. Those may be great in the short term, but we need to take a long, hard work at strengthening the mental health supports available for educators - and not just in 2020.
While I appreciate the efforts of schools to send daily minute minders and suggestions, these band-aid solutions actually made me question myself. If I do not have time for reading a new book, coloring, or learning a new recipe, I thought, “What am I doing wrong as a teacher?”.
Undoubtedly, our interactions with support systems in school, namely our colleagues in our building, will be limited. Personally, it’s my teacher friends “down the hall” that know when I am not having a great day or two and know how to bring a laugh, a moment of wisdom, or a nudge, and vice versa. That worries me, especially as we enter a school year that will most likely be the most challenging of our professional lives, with plans circulating of mixing in-person and virtual instruction, having long held school traditions altered, and preparing to teach in a world of staggered student days. Let’s add in days that will see a substitute teacher shortage, meaning teachers will be covering additional classes. It creates a cocktail of anxiety, guilt, and pressure that could cause any teacher to display mental health fatigue. For good measure, we can also add local budget cuts and ambiguity about supplying masks and sanitizing products for classrooms. Oh, and let’s mix in the worry that will come from doing our best to keep our students and our own families healthy during a once in a century pandemic.
So what can we do? Quick phone calls or texts from our administrators: “Hey, are you faring okay? Anything I can do to help out?” A good start. Altering whole group faculty meetings to small learning community groups to support, ask questions, and to share what’s going on between the ears? Better. But, there must be the opportunity for outside counseling during these tough times, and let’s drop the stigma of weakness at the door. Professional athletes seek the support of sports psychologists during rough or pressure-filled spots in their careers. Wall Street investment firms have mental health performance coaches on staff. It has been the last five months, though, that has shined a light on how vital personalized access to mental health professionals is for teachers.
A 2017 study by the American Federation of Teachers found that more than 60 percent of teachers found their work “always” or “often” stressful. 2017? Seems like forever ago. This is an alarming statistic under any circumstances, but must be taken seriously as we resume teaching in the era of COVID-19, when we’ll be working even harder to meet the needs of our students while balancing our families’ needs and, of course, our own personal needs. We cannot be a strong support system for our students if we are struggling ourselves. Let’s encourage conditions that fix that.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee