School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Can Teachers Overcome Depression and Strife?

By Anthony Cody — February 14, 2013 7 min read
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A message sent via Twitter tells the tale.

“My fellow teacher residents and I are going through deep strife and depression right now and I’m holding a healing session tomorrow evening. Any meditative or healing resources you can share? Anything will do!”

The pressures we are subjecting teachers to are taking a toll. When our leaders hold schools responsible for overcoming poverty, teachers sometimes feel as if their work is never enough. And in addition to meeting all the needs of their students, teachers are also expected to constantly monitor data, communicate with parents, and even act as security guards when violence invades the school. Many teachers have families of their own, and find themselves in a losing race to meet the competing demands for their time and energy.

But it’s not just the every day pressures that are getting to our teachers. Teaching is a highly interpersonal profession and constantly engaging in relationships means that teachers are always at the intersection of two or more histories of positive and negative experiences coloring each individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Negotiating these interpersonal dynamics can put a drain on anyone. But for teachers, every moment is all about relationships. Whether interacting with a student, fellow teacher, parent, or administrator - it’s inescapable. And when we expect our teachers to be, not only instructional leaders, but sometimes counselors, parents, mentor-figures to students, it is no wonder they feel like they are drowning.

The plea for support above came via the folks at FuelEd, who have a project focused on the much neglected area of social and emotional work of educators in our schools. I wrote to them, and this post reflects their ideas and mine.

This plea for help should be a wake-up call to us all. I do not know the circumstances that have these teachers feeling such strife, but I thought perhaps we might summon our collective experience to offer them some guidance. In my years at Bret Harte Middle School, we went through some tough times together as a staff. Here are some of the things we did that helped us stay right side up:

  • We behaved as if we were family members. We had a social committee, supported by voluntary dues. This group organized casual get togethers, seasonal events, and bought flowers when someone experienced a death in the family. We talked about the “Bret Harte family.” This helped us feel as if we were not alone in our classrooms.
  • Celebrate successes together. Make sure you find ways to highlight the good things happening in the school, and help people witness the impact you are having on children’s lives.
  • We got a huge morale boost in the science department when we decided to focus on retaining all our teachers. Our experienced teachers took responsibility for giving support to the new teachers, and met with them regularly. The new teachers felt more powerful, and we reinforced our team spirit.
  • Any sort of collective effort, where you take on a challenge and work together builds a sense of solidarity and accomplishment.
  • This week I heard Jesse Hagopian, one of the teachers from Garfield High School in Seattle describe how they were able to bring the entire staff together to take a stand against the MAP test. He said they had formed study groups to become more aware of the issues they were confronting in their school. He reported they were studying Pencils Down, from Rethinking Schools, and Unequal by Design, by Wayne Au, to better understand standardized testing. They are also working to develop their own ideas for better ways to assess their students, so they can move ahead in a positive direction. This whole process is helping them feel empowered, rather than victimized.
  • It is important to reach out to allies. Although it sometimes feels as if we are alone, there are people out there willing to help. We have to ask our parents, and members of the community.
  • Look for inspiration from wherever you can find it. Jesse Hagopian said the teachers at Garfield High had been inspired by the collective action their students took last year, when they walked out to protest terrible budget cuts. Seeing those students stand together was a reminder of the strength we have when we support one another.

Hayley Stulmaker, a FuelEd Coach, suggests:

  • Start leaving encouraging notes for other teachers in their boxes anonymously. include messages that focus on the teachers’ effort such as “you worked hard to plan that great math lesson yesterday.” Hopefully it will catch on as a trend and will continue to build moral and be something unexpected. Even statements such as “you are appreciated,” can go a long way.
  • Do something to get the emotions out in a shared way such as painting or drawing together. Clay is another good medium for this too.
  • Have a bubble wrap popping fest, use each bubble to get out a new frustration- having sensory things really helps with releasing especially when in the presence of others
  • Do something in school that is fun. For example, go to the gym and do a 3-legged race, that will association more positive memories and re-create joy within the work environment
  • Try to find a quiet space (even possibly in a janitor’s closet or the staff bathroom) where you can keep a container of sand (or rice if you are worried about it spilling) to run your hands through, this creates a soothing sensation kind of like a zen garden and is easy to access if you need a quick break
  • For me, my greatest source of encouragement has always been the communities of people I find myself in. I seek them out, and work to strengthen them.

Alex Rosenberg, who teaches in a turnaround school in Richmond, California, and also works with FuelEd, offered this advice:

From my perspective as a classroom teacher of 140 students and analyzing these issues wth FuelEd, I have found that the best resource teachers have are their allies who are already supporting them. Be that teachers, administrators who truly know your struggles, students who motivate you, community workers. After a day of teaching I feel like I need therapy. My favorite part of the end of school day is unwinding and coping with the struggles of teaching by venting with co-workers and allies. Finding common ground and working through these issues with those who understand you is amazing. Honestly, a simple group discussion about how and why my day is exhausting and unlike any other job is how I gain perspective.

So many of these suggestions have to do with relationships.
Most teachers have noticed that the best learning happens when students are provided with nurturing relationships where they are supported and encouraged to confront challenges. Many teachers have probablyalso have noticed that the same holds true for them as well. School environments where relationships are strong and supportive enable teachers to be happier, healthier, and more sustainable. And ultimately, better able to stay in a profession where they can do what they love. That is because human beings are social creatures. So, not only do healthy, positive relationships allow us thrive, we actually need them to survive. Therefore, it seems that while the burden of challenging relationships may be the problem- the relief of healthy, supportive relationships are also the solution.

My hope in posting this is to share a bit of what I have seen help people get through tough times. I would really like to hear from other people their ideas regarding how to overcome that sense of being overwhelmed that sometimes catches up with all of us.

What works for you? What has worked for those at your school?

Here is some more information about FuelEd:

FuelEd’s program combines concepts from developmental and counseling psychology, social neuroscience, and education to develop six core competencies in teachers: Self Awareness, Self-Care, Inner Strength, Emotional Expression, Openness to Learning and Other Awareness. To facilitate the development of these competencies, FuelEd uses both an intellectual and experiential, relationship-based approach. First, teachers are introduced to concepts in an instructional workshop. Then, they break off into small groups of 6-12 and are also given the opportunity to engage in one-on-ones with FuelEd staff.

Small groups and one-on-ones are core elements of FuelEd’s relationship-based approach. In each of these environments, teachers are supported by a FuelEd facilitator who provides teachers the space, time, and guidance to explore the personal and interpersonal challenges that come with being a teacher. Challenging emotions such as anxiety or doubt are inherent to teaching and if they continue to go unadressed, they will continue to thwart student learning and teacher wellbeing. Alternatively, simply giving teachers permission to feel what they inevitably feel, to be heard without judgment or evaluation, enables them to accept their feelings and actually learn how to use them to their, and their school’s, advantage. For example, some benefits of FuelEd’s small groups include:

  • Catharsis. Sharing feelings and experiences can help participants relieve pain, guilt, or stress.
  • Group cohesiveness. Being part of a community enables group members to gain a sense of belonging, acceptance, and group cohesion.
  • Universality. Learning about others common experiences increases feelings of connectedness and hope and diminishes feelings of isolation.
  • Empowerment. The group experience enables group members to be more productive and empowered problem solvers in their communities.
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