World Mental Health day from my perspective as a teacher

This week, I got a strong cold virus, so I had to stay home from work for some days. This gave me time to listen to morning radio emissions, and I learned that this Sunday is the World Mental Health day.

I think a lot about mental health. My own, my kids’, my students’. I am happy to observe that we are starting to take mental health more seriously in the world, and that people who struggle are feeling freer and safer to talk about it and seek help.

I know that mental health is complicated, there are many factors that affect it, but for a long while, I have been aware of the importance of doing what I can to take care of my mind. How do I do that? To begin with, I try to get to know it better. I observe myself, I reflect about my attitudes and actions, I try to understand where they come from. I try to change or let go of what I see doesn’t help me, I accept as much as I can my shortcomings, and keep reminding myself that I need to be patient. My thinking processes have been this way for over 40 years, so it takes time to change them.

I also do the usual recommendations: I sleep at least seven hours a night, I try to stay physically active – at least ride my bike to and from work every day and go for walks whenever I have time -, I practice yoga asana, breathing exercises and meditation on a daily basis, I keep remind myself to live mindfully, to be in the moment, I prioritise spending time with those who I love, but I also prioritise some time on my own to reset and restore.

This said, I want to write a bit about what I struggle the most with: my job. I don’t always notice it, but whenever I am forced to take a break – like this week because of the cold – I realise how much energy I spend in it and how little energy I have left when I come home.

Every time I talk about this with people around me, the same comes up : the work load. However, I don’t think this is what is draining me. I am getting better at doing what I can with the time I have and avoid feeling bad if there are things I can’t complete because I have to prioritise others. I am not saying that I have a perfect balance here, but I don’t think this is what sucks up my energy.

At this point, I have to specify that my goal is not to complain, I am just sharing my thoughts. I love my job and I feel lucky to do something that feels both meaningful and enriching. Every single day, I learn something new. Either about the subjects I teach, about the world, about my students, about my colleagues or about myself.

I wonder, however, if not the job of a teacher is becoming too demanding. On one side, I think it is good for students that we have their well-being as our number one priority, but on the other side, we also have the pressure to help them get through the school system and preferably with satisfying results (i.e. ‘good’ grades).

I often feel that I lack the knowledge and the tools to help everyone in the classroom to both thrive and succeed academically. When I took my teacher’s degree, the main focus was on how to teach my subjects. The expectation was that I knew my subjects well and that I am open-minded enough to keep exploring different ways to allow students to approach it. To find engaging ways to teach it and hopefully for my students to learn it. There was, of course some focus on pedagogy, classroom management, and social interactions, but not enough for me to become an expert in teenage psychology and special needs pedagogy.

In addition, challenges and needs keep increasing. We have students with clear diagnosis that are supported by the system with extra resources that allow for the school to have more adults in the classroom. This is good, but often not enough as none of the adults in the classroom are experts in the diagnosis and there is little time to gain enough knowledge about it. We have students with diagnosis that the system do not consider need extra resources because they do not struggle academically but they do have social and sometimes emotional or psychological struggles. We have students who struggle with motivation, socially or with behaviour, students with problems at home, students who have the usual struggles of being a teenager. We understand that all are individuals, and still, we are expected to push them through the same system.

On top of that is my general shape and/or mood of the day. There is little room for me to be tired, sad, angry, or even a bit under the weather. I spend a lot of energy, every day, to stay calm and poised. To allow at the same time as I set boundaries. I explain, I talk with students, at the same time as I make sure I show understanding and try to go through my lesson plan.

I think I talk for the majority of teachers if I say that we avoid as much as possible to take sick leaves because that represents more work for us. We then have to make plans for a substitute teacher and follow up with the students when we come back.

This said, this school year, I have been wondering if it is ‘allowed’ to stay home when being too tired physically or mentally to be on top of things, to avoid making a bad choice, or even worse, to avoid ending up burned out and unable to finish the school year. This keeps me thinking and asking myself some questions:

  1. Am I suitable for the job of a teacher? I don’t mean this in a dramatic way. I keep thinking that like in everything in life, not everyone is suitable for everything. I work with so many talented teachers, and it seems to me that they are in full control of themselves and every situation. Maybe my talent is elsewhere?
  2. Aren’t the expectations contradictory? We are expected to take care of the mental and social well-being of students, at the same time as we help them succeed academically. Do not misunderstand me, I think it is very important to help teenagers go through tough periods by showing understanding and care, but I find it difficult to push them into the box of the school system at the same time. The expectation from the parents, the students themselves and the world we live in is still that they have ‘good’ grades.
  3. Contradiction nr2.: adulthood can be tough, especially in the professional arena, and still, although with good intentions, we keep solving our kids’ problems, sweeping the way for them to walk through childhood and adolescence. How will they tackle adulthood if they don’t learn to sometimes just get through difficult times? Shouldn’t we be sharing with them more tools instead? Allow them to fail and reflect with them? Help them get up again?
  4. And another contradiction: we keep telling students that it is allowed to fail, and that failure is good because it is through mistakes that we learn. Still, we expect from them to be happy, motivated, and put their best effort in everything. If they loose motivation in school or have low levels of achievement, we push them to ‘do better’.
  5. What does it do to the mental health of a teenager to not have any other place in life to show their abilities than in the school system? Why do we keep believing that everyone has to go through the same system to succeed in life? Why haven’t we come up with real alternatives for those who would thrive doing something different than sitting in a classroom through one of the most challenging periods in life: adolescence?

Here in Norway, children and teenagers can join sports clubs, but here too, the pressure is quite high as they grow old. Some of them just want to be part of a club and do sports, not all of them aim higher than that, but in many cases, it seems that the goal of the clubs is to push the kids to become better and better, and this results in many teenagers dropping out. With training sessions several times a week, often late in the evening, and in addition the pressure of school, it becomes too much.

I keep wondering if we shouldn’t go back to a more traditional kind of society where young people can become apprentices without having to go through the school system or decide right away a career. I have a new student who lives in what we could call a ‘special’ community where several families live in a neighbourhood where they share common grounds and some buildings. They cultivate fruits and vegetables, have cows and chicken and the most beautiful part, two families share the responsibility to take care of one disabled person who lives with them. This student is so happy living there. She tells me she milks the cows first thing in the morning before coming to school and in the evenings. She has the opportunity to feel useful outside the school or succeed in any other ‘traditional’ arena.

  1. Should we have better systems in place to take care of the mental health of students AND teachers?

Traditionally, students would go to school to get their education. Education is now seen in a more holistic way than before. We understand that a student is not an ’empty’ brain to fill with information, they are individuals that need to be met where they are at. They also need to learn skills that help them continue learning in life, they need to learn social skills, the need to learn how to take care of themselves and those around them, they need to learn to take care of the environment. This is good, but it is a lot for the school to bear. Whenever I am in contact with instances outside the school such as the social services, and express my concern for a student’s well-being, the ball is thrown back to the school, and the question is asked: what is the school doing for this child?

Although I love my job, lately, I feel that I disagree more and more with the way we facilitate for students to learn and thrive. It is draining us and demotivating many of them. I am unsure that we are teaching to help them develop into mentally robust young people, and in the process, it often feels like the teachers’ mental health is being compromised.

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