We Need to Support the Mental Health and Wellness of Teachers
Seventy-eight percent of teachers express overwhelming levels of stress. Teachers who experience higher levels of stress are more likely to be burnt out, less effective in teaching and classroom management, less connected to their students, and less satisfied with their work. If a teacher is stressed out and unhappy, she or he will not be able to deliver the best possible instruction to students—regardless of whether the teacher has created a lesson that is differentiated, cross-curricular, and standards-aligned. Researchers have found that teacher anxiety, stress, and depression negatively affects student test results.
This isn't an epidemic—it's a pandemic. Teachers are stressed—whether they teach on the East Coast or the West Coast, in public or private, urban or rural schools; this issue is universal to all of us. And it is especially important in low-income communities like Baltimore, where I teach and where rates of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of gun violence are comparable to that of our American soldiers returning from combat. How do we support teachers who may have a classroom with children who have experienced trauma firsthand and who may be one of the very few stable, consistent adults in a child's life?
I started Happy Teacher Revolution, a teacher support group, because I am a proud survivor of mental illness, and my teachers in high school and college were the ones who saved my life. As an advocate for mental health awareness for the past seven years, fellow teachers were open with me about their personal struggles, and I began to notice a pattern. I realized teachers craved the opportunity to come together: to share, empathize, listen, and feel heard. When communities come together, we find strength in one another and the inspiration to continue to make positive change.
In HTR meetings, I see how readily teachers are willing to empathize and show vulnerability with one another. During meetings, there may be equal parts tears and deep belly laughs, but one recurring theme has been teachers hugging me after the meetings and expressing genuine gratitude and excitement about a wellness strategy. Whether Oliver is talking about his class' Pancake Fridays or Sarah is sharing how she transformed her office into a wellness space, I continue to be inspired by the educators whom I've sat beside at Happy Teacher Revolution meetings.
Social support has been identified by research as a resource that enables individuals to cope with stress. Support groups create genuine, natural community support systems and can be a viable, efficient method of supplementing and extending opportunities for teachers to seek help, receive help, and help others. School administrators can be supportive of the social-emotional learning of adults by creating this space for teachers as a professional-development opportunity. To quote one of the 12 wellness choices from HTR, administrators can "schedule and prioritize what really matters," which I believe is workplace wellness.
As a current kindergarten teacher who just finished a sixth year in the classroom, I still feel overwhelmed by the job and question my personal sustainability in the profession. I've realized that when I bring teachers together through the HTR structure, I feel inspired by the vulnerability, courage, and strength of my fellow educators and somehow feel lighter as I walk out of the room, refreshed and ready to show up on Monday. It has been the greatest gift to provide an opportunity for teachers to find strength in one another and to prioritize self-care, so that they can continue to change lives and inspire others through their talent in the classroom.
Danna Thomas is a kindergarten teacher at Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore and the founder of Happy Teacher Revolution. Danna has been proud to represent the Baltimore community as a former Miss Baltimore in the Miss America Organization, promoting her platform, "Stop the Stigma: Depression and Anxiety Awareness." Danna has also served as the national spokeswoman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and currently is the early-childhood content specialist for Teach For America and Johns Hopkins University.