For years K-12 teachers have called for more attention to be paid to their mental heath in the face of daily, job-related stresses. Over this past coronavirus pandemic-dominated year, that call from Houston-area educators has reached a fever pitch, with seemingly no administrative support in sight.
UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES
The teaching profession tends to attract individuals less motivated by monetary gains or personal accolades than by witnessing the fruits of their labor.
“Seeing the ‘lightbulb’ turn on for a child is extremely rewarding, no matter if they are finally understanding a concept or deciding their education is important,” said longtime educator and school leader Tori Cofield.
Tara Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at Fifth Ward’s Atherton Elementary concurs.
“The most joy in teaching is the ability to make a difference in students’ lives,” she said. “Seeing that light bulb moment when they get it is one of the most important things. That and watching their progression and the development.”
But with those great rewards come the great responsibility of bearing the stressors that come with the territory. According to Cofield, in “normal” (pre-COVID) times teachers identify the biggest stressors as producing daily lessons plans relevant to students’ lives and realities, managing their classrooms, analyzing data to be more effective in the classroom, creating and maintaining efficient classroom systems and routines and meeting administration expectations.
Then, there are the stresses that come with the savage inequalities typically faced by schools with predominantly Black and Latino populations.
“Schools that have a large population of students labeled ‘at risk’ yield a great deal of teachers that are stressed, primarily because they don’t have the resources or training to do ‘the work’ needed to make students successful. It is an endless cycle that almost always ends in teacher burnout,” stated Cofield, executive director of programming of Hope for Families, the non-profit arm of Good Hope Missionary Baptst Church that provides an array of wrap-around services for youth and adults.
Jones likens teacher stress to that experienced by airplane pilots
“Teachers have to make split-second decisions, much like an airplane pilot does, which impacts lives. And we don’t have air traffic controller, nobody to talk to about it. Sometimes you have that support, but other times you don’t. And when you have 25-plus kids in your classroom and you’re making decisions all the time, all day long, whew,” shared Jones, who stated that dealing with mentally-challenged children adds another layer of stress upon teachers.
“I just feel like those student mental health issues are outpacing what we can do as a school, as a classroom teacher, as a district. I don’t think that is being addressed.”
DURING THE PANDEMIC
Regarding additional pandemic-induced stresses stacked on top of the normal issues, Cofield shared, “Getting sick is the primary stressor. Managing the expectations regarding technology has, by far, been the second most stressful issue facing teachers and colleagues.”
Jones attested to the technology stress.
“Learning a new platform, learning a new way to teach virtually was difficult. I’m one of the lucky ones. My daughter is well-versed in Microsoft Teams, the platform that HISD is using. So, she just took me under her wing this past summer and just, you know, got me through it.”
Jones and Cofield said they each experienced how the pandemic-induced stresses wore on their peers.
Cofield shared, “Every teacher I have consulted with has been stressed by the ‘world’ as we all have been. But what folks don’t realize is after dealing with their own ‘stuff,’ getting sick, child care, finances, sick family members, etc., teachers are literally taking on the ‘stuff’ of every household their students come from.”
Cofield contends an under-reported aspect of coronavirus pandemic has been the rampant rise in child and domestic abuse, along with juvenile crime rates, all of which eventually bring more strains on the mental health of all involved in these students’ lives.
“Parents are too stressed to worry about whether their child is ‘logging in’ so they certainly aren’t concerned about whether or not they are paying attention,” she added.
As a result, teachers are asking not to be left on a island fending for themselves.
“The world is in chaos and teachers are expected to go on with the daily task of teaching as if nothing is wrong. I have yet to hear about a district that has taken the initiative to provide some type of service for teachers that are struggling with stress or anxiety.
“A great number of the families (students) know this year most likely will not count against them but teachers are still expected to ‘push’ students as if it will.”
ACTIONS TO MAINTAIN MENTAL HEALTH
For Cofield, pre-pandemic self-care meant taking full advantage of mental health days, moments she labeled her “sacred time” practicing yoga, journaling and meditation.
Jones’ pre-COVID mental health maintenance plan included participation in GirlTrek, a health movement for African-American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles through walking campaigns, community leadership, and health advocacy (www.girltrek.org).
“We make a commitment to walk at least 30 minutes every day. It costs nothing to be a member of the group, but that’s the commitment I made to myself,” said Jones, whose additional self-care hobby includes conducting ancestral research.
Both Jones and Cofield have continued their mental health self-care activities through the pandemic. Jones, however, added a few additional supports.
“I learned how to meditate. I love meditation now. And I burned sage. Only good vibes allowed in my house,” she said.
Still, Jones and Cofield assert that their self-care activities are helpful, teachers need way more administrative support than they are currently receiving.
Jones says tackling testing would be a great start.
“The support that the state of Texas could provide is to cancel the STAAR Test, the state mandated tests that we (fourth graders) are up against in a couple of weeks. It’s inappropriate with a global pandemic.”
Jones believes the state could help teachers’ well-being by stopping the promotion of the narrative that students are falling behind and thus “need to catch up.”
“Scientifically, you can’t catch up on sleep that you lost the day before. The same thing with trying to catch up on learning. You can’t catch up,” she said.
Jones, however, doesn’t believe students are lost causes because of pandemic-impacted learning.
“In the big picture, the kids will be fine if we just keep doing.” She believes the same about teachers’ mental health, especially if they receive state and administrative support.
Cofield is looking for those same supports, but she’s not holding her breath.
“Acknowledgement from the folks making decisions about educating children would be a great place to start. If teacher mental health is addressed by them, change will happen. The chances of it being acknowledged are slim, as those of us who have dedicated our lives to the ‘at risk’ population are still waiting on the calvary.”
LET THE PEOPLE BE HEARD
Teachers are under a lot of pressure to make school “normal” and are still being evaluated on student performance. Teaching virtually is HARD and more work.Kiarra C. Ambrose, teacher
Alternatives for state testing (noting how other states use a gap year to transition from standardized testing as a reference), neighborhood learning pods, mental health of teachers, administrators and students, these are all-important issues that go hand-in-hand.Alieshia Baisy, teacher
I believe teachers are stressed because of the many different ways they now have to teach: hybrid, in person and virtual. They are also stressed at the educational gaps the students are showing from being out the previous year. To put the cherry on top, you have some parents that are not entirely on board with helping. Everyone in education is at an all-time stress level.Maria Carlos, school administrator