The Elephant in the Classroom – Teacher Mental Health

Our institutions are only as healthy as the people who work in them.

“My teacher is always yelling at us.”

Imagine spending six hours of your day under the gaze of an adult with mental health problems. Unfortunately, this is more common than we think.

Children can be greatly affected by the mood of their teacher even if they are not the target of the teacher’s anger or yelling. Children pick up on the moods of adults and can either absorb or mirror those moods. They might try to make the adult happy with compliant behavior or react with disruptive behaviour.

A Deeper Look at Teacher Stress

Teacher stress is directly related to the dysfunction of school. An estimated 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. They see the excessive work load, the behaviour issues, the lack of support from a rigid institutional culture and cannot, in good conscience, participate. This is a reasonable response.

Unfortunately, it does nothing to help school culture or the climate of classrooms. Many of these teachers may have had the fresh perspective schools need. Those who remain may not even see the dysfunction, or, if they do, are willing to live with it and thereby become active contributors to it.

Most teachers go straight from university to teaching – from one side of the desk to the other. They have spent their whole lives in school, and whatever the dysfunctions are, those are a teacher’s normal.

Teachers suffer from social isolation as they spend most of their day with children and only have brief interactions with other adults who are living the same way. They can end up living in a closed world where reality becomes whatever they determine it to be. This is the environment we send our children into. It can become very toxic.

What is the solution?

We need to make school more human and more humane. We create institutions to serve our needs, and when they no longer do this they have become dysfunctional. Teachers suffer and students suffer.

Schools have become top-down, closed environments that are very resistant to any kind of critique – much less any kind of change. Schools need to learn and practice compassion and mindfulness.

We have standardized testing for literacy and numeracy, but we never test for happiness or mental well-being. If kids feel happy, safe and relaxed, they will learn better. When they feel depressed, threatened and stressed, they cannot learn.

We need to create schools where children are happy to go – where teachers are happy to see them and have the emotional energy to meet their needs.

What can parents do?

  • Connect to teachers about more than your child’s issues. Get to know them as people. Ask them how it’s going, what their stresses are, compliment them on the things they do well. Teachers need more adult conversations.
  • Speak up if you feel your child is being affected by your teacher’s mental health.
  • Advocate for anonymous wellness surveys in your school, and see that the results are taken seriously.
  • Suggest mindfulness training for administrators, teachers and students.

This is not about bashing or criticizing teachers. They are victims of the system too. They are suffering human beings who are not working to their full potential. Many would describe themselves as “just getting by” or “surviving.” This is not a healthy situation for kids to be spending their day in, and teachers don’t want it to be this way either.

As we become more open about mental health, one of the places we need to look is our institutions and the ways we ignore the elephant in the classroom.