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The mental health of teachers

The mental health of teachers

I am grateful my life has brought me the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools and meet thousands of teachers. As a local Member of Parliament, I was always in and out of schools. 

Then, as a member of the parliamentary committee that dealt with education, I started to visit schools around the country. That continued as Education Minister and Prime Minister.

Today, I still get to visit schools in Australia with Beyond Blue, and I also have the privilege of visiting schools in some of the poorest places in the world as Chair of the Global Partnership for Education.

Every visit has renewed my admiration for teachers. But I have had enough frank conversations to know that some days teachers feel more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop wrangling students and declaring their headache ‘is not a tumour’ than Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society inspiring students with famous prose.

The reality is, teaching can be really tough, and teachers, more concerned with the health and wellbeing of their students, can often put their own wellbeing last.

The stress of teaching

Stress and emotional exhaustion levels in classrooms are high as teachers grapple with growing workloads and difficult behaviour from students and parents.

By some estimates, about 25 per cent of teachers will leave the profession within five years of starting, although this figure could be as high as 50 per cent (AITSL, 2016).

Data tells us principals experience emotional demands at levels 1.7 times higher than the general population, and burnout 1.6 times higher (Riley, 2018).

Principals are also naming mental health issues among staff and students as a growing source of stress (Riley, 2018).

Be You – designed for teachers and students

Beyond Blue, with headspace and Early Childhood Australia, is now rolling out an initiative that aims to create mentally healthy learning communities around Australia, and it includes specific help for teachers. 

It is called Be You, and it is about equipping teachers, principals and educators with the skills they need to support the mental health of Australia’s next generation. 

Educators have told us they want this information, which is designed to make it easier for them to deal with the issues they are managing every day in their classrooms.

Among its other offerings, Be You includes examples of how teachers can build student resilience, fact sheets about signs of emerging mental health issues and advice about where to go for support.

But Be You isn’t all about the kids; we know that teachers cannot look after their students unless they are also looking after themselves.

Be You Staff Wellbeing includes resources about managing stress, and tips individual staff can take to protect their own mental health. It encourages staff to monitor their own stress levels by identifying situations they find difficult then getting in early to manage those feelings with guidance about evidence-based strategies.

Being aware of your thinking habits can also help – learning how to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts is a good way to manage your mental health. Of course, making time to do the things you enjoy away from work is another way to improve your overall wellbeing.

Like all of us, a teacher’s mental health will also benefit by getting the physical basics right – enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise and limiting alcohol intake.

Professional development

I can imagine many teachers reading this and thinking to themselves ‘that’s all very well but where am I ever going to find the time to work through all the Be You information about my and the student’s mental health’?  The good news is that the Be You online professional learning modules, which take about 13 hours to complete, can be counted towards professional development.

So yes, there is some effort involved but also rewards.  All of us want to work in a workplace where the risks to our mental health are managed and there are protective factors.

That takes leadership from the top – from the principal – and the engagement of all. 

Principals and other leaders in school communities are in a strong position to create protective environments.

They can shape a learning culture that is free from stigma and encourages staff to seek support when they need it, where staff talk about anxiety as openly as they would a sports injury.

Principals and school leaders can also arrange personal development opportunities for staff and recognise and acknowledge their work.

The point is, it takes effort from all of us working together to create learning communities where everyone – students, staff and parents – feel supported and have the chance to achieve their very best mental health.

You can learn more about Be You at www.beyou.edu.au. If you need support for a mental health issue, you can contact your GP, your mental health professional or visit www.beyondblue.org.au.

References

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2016). https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/research-evidence/spotlight/spotlights-attrition.pdf?sfvrsn=171aec3c_10

Riley, P. (2019). The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey: 2018 Data

Garima Darshan 30 April 2019

It is so nice to hear someone talking about mental health and well being of teachers, and also creating an environment where teachers can admit and discuss their anxieties freely.

Brett Youd 30 April 2019

A timely and well constructed article. Much to agree with and to think about. I do, however, have concerns re the quoted numbers of beginning teachers who are leaving the profession who are planning to leave the profession.I work in a low ses school that has large numbers of beginning teachers work here. None to my knowledge have left due to stress or work load. Those who have left the profession have done so for other reasons, they have left to travel OS. They are unable to gain a continuing contract. They cannot gain a contract in an area they wish to live. They have left to have a family. I know that workload and stress is a factor it in some teachers leaving the profession, and i do not wish to under play. However, i am dubious it is the sole reason for the numbers quoted in the article and that are regularly quoted in the educational media.

Sandra 22 May 2019

Great to see someone has finally recognised that mebtal health is an issue is schools. I’m one of the teachers who left because of a bullying environment at school from the principal down and there was no help to overcome it. Some schools just don’t have good leadership. It’s about time that was also addressed.

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