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We Asked 5 Teachers How They Navigate Their Own Mental Health — In and Out of the Classroom

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with five teachers (and a deputy principal) from across the country to find out more about how the job affects their mental health — and how they manage it.  

As October approaches, so too does Mental Health Awareness Month in Australia. While any time is a good time to stop and take stock of your own mental health — and that of your friends, family and colleagues — the huge number of extra stressors this year makes Mental Health Month more important than ever.  

Although workers in many industries have been blindsided and forced to adapt to a new way of doing their jobs, few have had to pivot as much as teachers. The move from face-to-face to remote learning alone has been a massive hurdle for many, as has the stress of working with kids who are also struggling to adapt to a new way of living and learning. 

With that in mind, we decided to check in with five teachers across the country to learn more about how the job impacts their mental health, and what they do to keep it in check. Here’s what they had to say.

Astrid – Teacher, VIC 

How does teaching impact your mental health? 

Teaching has always demanded a lot of who I am. Being someone who loves showing up for the kids, choosing and developing purposeful lesson plans and approaches to learning, it takes a lot of my mental energy.  

Now more than ever, teachers are trying to find ways to connect with their students in a teaching space that feels so different from what it once was. Keeping children apart, limiting communication, communal movement, conversation and experiential activities does not feel normal.  

Trying to do the job that I once was able to do does impact on my mental health when it comes to my expectations of myself, setting boundaries and implementing more self-care than ever before to make sure I can show up for myself before I can show up for the students. 

You’ve worked as both a full-time and relief teacher. Has one had more of an impact on you mentally? 

They both come with their own set of responsibilities and challenges. Working back in CRT this year has been good when it comes to setting boundaries (I am allowed to leave right after the bell) and not taking on too much work. The down side can be that you don’t know when you will get work (especially with lockdowns) which can make things stressful.  

On the other hand, if I was full time teaching, I would need to navigate online teaching, trying to check-in with my students (when many of them don’t even have their cameras on) manage marking/lesson planning and the stress of meetings/PD and everything else that encompasses teaching. Unfortunately, teaching is a very hard job to do on a good day, so add in a worldwide pandemic where we cannot connect with our students in classroom and it becomes almost impossible to be done in the way most teachers like to.

Harry – Teacher, WA 

What aspects of relief teaching impact your mental health the most? 

It can be stressful moving between multiple schools with different ways of doing things. There is often an expectation for us to be familiar with all school’s policies and procedures, even if we have never taught there before. There’s also a huge variety in the type of handover we get from different teachers. Some leave little or no communication or instructions. Classrooms, too, can be disorganised and not clearly laid out. I find this extremely stressful. 

Gigi – Teacher, QLD  

You had a pretty major career change, from lawyer to teacher. Did you ever struggle with that transition?  

When I first began teaching as a second career, I found myself dealing with anxiety in a detrimental way for the first time in my adult life.  

The nature of the work is very personal. You interact with nearly a hundred different people in a working day and you have to be “on.” I have never had a job where you have to give so much of yourself mentally in a working day and especially at the beginning of your career it affects you more. Dealing with the expectations of yourself, the lesson, the students, parents and colleagues can be very overwhelming. 

What strategies do you use to manage this?  

I sketch out my week in advance in a spreadsheet and keep fairly comprehensive lists of tasks. Sounds simple but I always find writing down tasks prevents anxious thoughts from swimming around in your head. 

Try to set clear boundaries of what you do at work and what you do at home. For example, I don’t work at home if I can avoid it and do all prep at school in the hour or two after classes end.

Do you have any advice for a casual teacher on managing their own mental health?  

Don’t get drawn into talking misery with colleagues. Try to surround yourself with staff who are helpful and collegiate and uplifting. Avoid the ones who aren’t – schools can be full of them! 

Erin – Deputy Principal, NSW  

Before working as a principal, you were a teacher for a number of years. Can you tell us how each job has impacted your mental health? 

Teaching can be an all-consuming job, especially in recent times with the ability to be contactable 24/7. As expectations surrounding communication have increased, there are also frequent changes in curriculum with a consistently large workload. Working as a deputy, there are particular challenges, often around organising supervisions and maintaining coverage. You need to be able to drop everything to deal with emergent issues and make sure you are always supporting staff.  

What does your school do to support the mental health of your teachers? 

We have a dedicated committee that runs wellbeing activities for our staff. Aside from that, all full-time teachers have a coach they meet with regularly to touch base on their professional development. Similarly, relief teachers are given a point of contact to provide support where needed. They are also supplied with an iPad that holds all the information they need for their day, including lessons and roll marking.  

What advice would you give to casual teachers to help them manage their own mental health? 

The best thing I would say is to make sure you know the support channels that exist in each school you work at in case you need them. Personally, I manage my mental health by completing tasks according to priority level and leave work at school so when I’m at home I can really be present with my family. I also ensure I make the time to get out of my office to see students and staff in the classroom and playground and invest time to create and maintain relationships with members of the school community.  

Glenys – Teacher, QLD  

How does teaching impact your mental health? 

As relief teachers we sometimes find ourselves working with children living in trauma, which is exhausting as we can take that trauma and worry home. I also find adhering to admin requirements can contribute to burn out, especially when the tasks are just to tick a box and seem to conflict with the best interests of the students. 

Do you have any advice for other relief teachers? 

For me the most important thing is prioritising what I give my time to. I try to focus on the students as much as possible without spending too much time on other tasks.  

Nikki – Teacher, QLD  

Do any of the schools you work at observe R U OK? Day or Mental Health Month? 

Yes. This year, one school in particular held a whole-school picnic on the oval for R U OK? Day. They also have other initiatives to help teachers be mindful of mental wellbeing, like launching relevant PD courses. Other schools are less proactive with this and tend to give relief teachers extra work to do and more classes to cover.  

How does teaching impact your mental health? 

Difficult days take a toll on everyone’s mental health. Often it’s difficult students who aren’t interested in learning, disrupting others’ right to learn. I find the stress can sometimes make me less patient, snappier and annoyed more easily. 

What advice would you give other teachers to help manage their mental health? 

Take time for yourself every day, doing something that you enjoy. Stand up for yourself at work too — don’t be afraid to say no if you need to. 

Mental Health Awareness month in Australia runs from 1-31st October. Learn more about Mental Health Month or R U OK Day. 

We’ll also add that if you are struggling with your mental health, there are so many resources available to help. Here’s a few:

Beyond Blue

Lifeline 

Kids Help Line

 

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