The current school system and the data which drives it, pose a potent mix of challenges for teachers working today.
Many educators suffer from physical and mental exhaustion because of unrealistic workload expectations and the pressure to get their students to ‘perform’.
To complicate this, management is guilty of encouraging a culture of silence in many schools – forcing staff to hide or ignore the problems they have.
As a direct result of these working conditions, teaching has a high rate of burnout in the job (both in the USA and worldwide) – with thousands of teachers leaving the classroom each year to protect their own wellbeing.
It is not uncommon for teaching staff to develop serious mental health issues, which can affect educators many years after they have left the classroom.
If you are working in a school which cares little for your wellbeing, it is important that you're aware of the characteristics of positive mental health …
… and know how to monitor your state of mind as you work in a demanding job.
In this post I will share the characteristics of a mentally healthy teacher, and explain how to monitor and protect your own mental health at work.
What Causes Teachers Mental Health Problems?
Management expectation of staff in many schools is unrealistic, and they are guilty of making this situation worse with policies and procedures designed to exert pressure on teaching staff to reach them.
This often feels all-consuming and can have a genuine impact on teachers’ ability to function healthily.
But it is important to realise that our own mental health is a result of the external pressure exerted on us - and then the way we react to this, internally.
It is useful to distinguish between the two when assessing how you feel. Because while you might have zero say in the expectations of you at work – you can choose how you respond to them.
The Buddha spoke of the physical pain you would feel if an arrow was fired into your chest.
He then compared this to the second arrow you fire at yourself immediately afterwards:
.. your worry about pulling it out, your fear of the person who fired it at you, the possibility of infection, the things you will not be able to do because of your injury, what other people might think of you. etc.
In our lives, often we cannot do anything about the first arrow that hits us.
The second arrow however, is within our control.
How to Measure Your Own Mental Health
Mental health problems are much more likely in people whose internal reactions become extreme and uncontrolled.
The habitual way we react to situations in the classroom and at home, can give us a window into our own level of mental health.
Using the Mental Health Continuum (below), measure your own reactions to the pressure you work under regularly.
- On your best day – which category would you place yourself within?
- How might this change on your worst day?
- If you measure yourself using this scale regularly - which segment are you most often in?
If you find yourself in the 'injured' or 'ill' categories regularly then you need to change either the external pressure on you, or your reaction to it, to avoid a future mental health problem.
Knowing you are at risk of developing a mental health problem is helpful, but it is equally important to recognise the characteristics of a mentally healthy teacher.
When you do, you can foster and encourage the things which will protect your mental health - and be better prepared for times when external pressures overwhelm you.
What Are the Characteristics of a Mentally Healthy Teacher?
What does a mentally healthy teacher look like? .. and what simple things can we do to create the conditions for good mental health in our own lives?
A mentally healthy teacher ..
1. Avoids peaks and troughs in mood.
A healthy teacher can maintain a stable perspective at their lowest and most excitable moments. A life lived at the extremes of emotion can be a turbulent one. Keep talking to other people to help you manage how you feel, especially at your low moments.
2. Can re-energize themselves.
Teaching can be exhausting! A mentally healthy teacher knows when they need a break and can manage their energy levels to meet the demands of the job. Identify what makes you happy and feel at peace with yourself, and use this to refill your tank.
3. Takes action to solve their problems.
When we stop trying to solve the problems in front of us, we are more likely to be made a victim of them. Be flexible and keep coming up with solutions to the problems in front of you – and recognise when you stop wanting to.
4. Are physically healthy (eating, sleep, exercise).
Our physical and mental health are to a large degree dependent on each other. Maintaining your physical health gives teachers more of a chance to manage other problems. Make time to look after your physical self - eat and sleep well and find opportunities to exercise.
5. Limits self-medication.
There is a difference between a few glasses of wine after a hard day and a dependency on doing so. Dependence only complicates a difficult situation. Monitor your own use of alcohol and other substances and recognise how you feel without them.
6. Understands how they feel and questions why.
Teaching young people can be stressful and emotionally draining. Mentally healthy teachers use their emotional intelligence to monitor and understand how they feel. Regularly question how you feel and recognise why you might be feeling low.
7. Engages in hobbies and interests outside of work.
Many ‘modern’ schools have unrealistic expectations of teaching staff, and it is necessary to take work home to keep up. However busy your job might be, it's important you have a life outside of work too. What hobbies and interests did you have before you started teaching - and do you still make time for them?
8. Creates time for themselves.
An all-consuming job can be manageable for short periods of time, however mental health suffers over the long term if you sacrifice everything you have for the job. Practise saying “no”, and moderate any unrealistic expectations managers have of you.
9. Has positive relationships.
It is said that who we are is the product of the 5 people we spend most time with. Recognise who is influencing you and question the kind of relationships you need to feel good about yourself.
10. Has an outlet for their creativity.
For some teachers, the job provides this. Increasingly however, teachers are being micro-managed and creativity is discouraged as an enemy of consistency and measurement. Find an outlet for your own creativity if your job doesn’t provide you with one.
So, what can you do to develop these characteristics and protect your own mental health?
>> Start with these 5 suggestions ...
5 Actions Teachers Can Take to Protect their Health and Wellbeing in a Stressful Job ..
There are things you can DO to create a life where the characteristics of a mentally healthy teacher come naturally.
By doing these simple things you can protect yourself from the external pressures of work, and grow an ability to manage difficult moments in your life.
1. Monitor Your own Health and Workload
In teaching jobs where more is often asked of us than it is possible to give .. it is important that you take it upon yourself to monitor your health, and control your workload.
Don’t make the mistake of accepting without question the workload expectation of your employer.
Many schools have entirely unrealistic expectations and put staff under enormous pressure to meet ridiculous workload targets.
It is not normal (or healthy) for you to work every hour you are awake.
Test how close to burnout you might be with my Teacher Burnout Self-Assessment tool .. developed in consultation with my doctor.
Your results - and the Burnout Prevention Report I can send you afterwards - recommends action to take if you are at risk of burning out.
If you know you are burning the candle at both ends, take your own workload reduction measures – even if they remain a secret between us on this page.
It is usually possible to prioritise elements of the job which are being focused on each term - and let some of the other things slide a little.
No one will thank you for burning yourself out – and the students you teach need a happy healthy teacher to lead them.
2. Keep Talking to Other People About How You Feel
One of the most damaging aspects of many teaching jobs is the enforced silence teachers feel they have to work under.
If we are having problems, it often feels difficult to share this with school management.
I know many teachers who would rather just stay silent about the problems they are having – for fear of making things worse by sharing how they feel.
It is important that you find someone who can let you voice your concerns, so the burden of managing a difficult job doesn’t fall 100% on your shoulders.
This doesn’t have to be someone at work – it might be a friend or family member – but it’s important you have someone.
Failing to talk about how you feel, is a seed which can grow into a larger mental health problem over time.
For teachers who know they need to talk, I have created a private Facebook Group where you can be honest about how you feel – and gain support from others in a similar position.
3. Make Time for Yourself and the Things you Love
Teaching is a career where the lines between work and home can get blurred. This can result in a job which takes over your life.
Many teaching jobs today have been effectively broken by unrealistic workload expectations, and the pressure to live up to ridiculous performance standards.
It is important to realise this – and take account for it in the efforts you make professionally.
In practise, this means accepting that you will never be able to do everything, and prioritising your work to let the least important parts of your job slide, to give you space for your life.
No good ever comes from a job which takes over your life completely – your family and relationships will suffer, and your mental health can follow soon after.Be very protective of your time – it is important to protect who you are from the threat posed by a broken job.
Whatever the pressures of work, make sure to take moments out of each day for you – and plan time at weekends when you completely unplug yourself from the pressure of your job.
4. Set Your Own Expectations
A key factor causing health problems in teaching staff is unrealistic workload expectations from school management.
If you know what you are doing is unsustainable, then set your own workload expectations - particularly in terms of the work you bring home.
Set an amount of time you will spend working outside of school hours, and protect your family time after that.
It is simply not worth working so hard you don't see your children - or feeling that you are letting them down as a parent.
If school leaders challenge you, explain the hours you work and politely ask if they can pair you up with a staff member who is managing to meet all their targets.
When I started asking this, management questions soon disappeared. Funnily enough I never got paired with a staff member who was managing.
I wonder why that was?!
5. Keep a Sense of Perspective
The worst that can happen, usually doesn’t.
In fact, we often spend more energy worrying about imaginary future nightmares, than we do in creating solutions to the problems we have.
This matters because every day we wake up with a finite amount of mental energy. We use this as we live each day - and then get refreshed overnight, to go again the next day.
Most people use a large percentage of their daily mental energy worrying about the future, or reliving the past.
- We might replay a moment which offended us, rehearsing what we would say if we lived it again ..
- Or imagine a situation in the future where we would let that person know exactly what we really think.
- We think repeatedly about all the things that could go wrong in our lives
- And rehearse the things we will do and say when they do.
In these moments we expend mental and emotional energy, living them in our minds as if they were real.
This leaves us with much less patience or resolve to meet the challenges of the classroom - or enjoy a happy life.
Keeping a sense of perspective becomes SO much easier when all you are thinking about, is what is happening now.
Because the only moment we ever live in is this 'present moment' right now.
The past is simply 'present moments' that are now gone - and the future is 'present moments' to come. We experience both in the present.
And yet our minds are drawn into filling the present with regrets about the past and fears of the future.
Our minds fire the second arrow at our own chests every day!
Recognising this is the first step to changing it. The second is to train your brain to think differently ..
.. and there is a mental exercise designed for exactly that purpose.
The Magic Bullet - Meditation
Most people misunderstand what meditation is, and how it works.
It is not simply about finding a quiet space in your day to relax - it is a way to train your brain to serve you the thoughts you want.
The easiest way to think about this is to relate meditation to exercise.
When we exercise, we choose our training type to suit what we want to achieve. We might choose aerobic exercise to burn calories and lose weight - or a specific weights routine to build muscle mass.
Through repeated training of our body, we achieve a physical result. Meditation is training in exactly the same way - but for your mind.
When we meditate, we train our brain to notice the thoughts it presents us with.
This is powerful because as you do this in meditation, you influence the way your brain works when not meditating.
Outside of meditation, you begin to notice the thoughts you have - and you create the mental space to decide either to follow them, or to choose not to.
After a little practise, your brain sends you many less of the thoughts you routinely reject - leaving you with more mental energy to spend thinking and living positively.
The biggest piece of advice I can give you to protect your mental health, is to find out how easy it can be to gain the benefits of meditation - in as little as 5 minutes a day.
It is the best thing I have ever done for my own mental health. It has improved me as a teacher, a partner and as a father too.
>> I have prepared a short guide for teachers who want to know more, which is available here:
5 Days to Change Your Mind - a Free Guide for Teachers
- Discover a simple 3 minute mental exercise which changes the way you think
- Quickly rid yourself of negative thought patterns and dramatically improve your self image
- Create more mental space for a HAPPIER life!
Whatever your situation, please be proactive in protecting your mental health.
You are, after all, an important person in your life 🙂