Recently my board was privileged to sit in on the interviews for our district’s Teacher of the Year. We really enjoy learning what makes these teachers wonderful, and we are always impressed. I wish each of you could be there to listen in to the amazing stories of resilience, compassion and dedication we get to hear.
Typically, each year brings a set of expected answers to the question about issues facing Oklahoma teachers. You can predict that Oklahoma’s budget woes are cited by most everyone. This year’s answers had an unfamiliar refrain, and it was for the mental health of teachers. It’s our dirty secret, and we don’t want to share it, but for our staff’s sanity, I must.
If you can imagine the care you have for your own children for just a minute — how you worry that they are safe, how you wonder what they are doing when you are apart — then multiply that by 25 or more, you’ll understand the kind of mental stress that is on our teachers. That emotional overload alone explains why our teachers feel overwhelmed, but then add on a myriad of other mandates, and you won’t be surprised about our teacher shortage.
What can we as a community do to help our teachers? After all, this is a profession in which we need emotionally stable intelligent people. They are preparing our children to run our nation, so very few jobs have a bigger impact on our collective future.
To begin, parents can be patient with teachers. If he doesn’t respond to your email in one day, give him some grace. Consider having your child bring a healthy snack or small note to their teacher (I would have loved a desk full of apples, like in the old days). Respond to the teacher when she calls or emails. Likely she is genuinely concerned and needs your help to improve a situation with your child.
Others in the neighborhood — even those without children — can still volunteer at the schools. You can correct papers, run copies, or organize supplies for teachers. Volunteer to read to children so that the teacher can have a little break to sit down for a minute.
The state can continue its forward progress to providing a competitive salary to teachers. The financial stress of living paycheck to paycheck is all too common in Oklahoma. Our teachers have felt that too, along with the other demands of their jobs. Providing them pay at the regional average is one way that we can alleviate their anxiety.
The legislature can provide more money into the classrooms and schools in general. Even if teachers get to the regional average, having 26, 27, and even 30 kids in a classroom still takes its toll on the staff. We need to hire more trained teachers, more paraprofessionals, and offer more wrap-around services like counseling to support the entire school environment.
Finally, we need to find ways to connect our teachers to mental health resources. How can we provide them with the tools they need to find work-life balance and deal with the emotional baggage of children from all backgrounds? Please make your suggestions in the comments below.
Mental health has been stigmatized for too long in our state. You wouldn’t blame the person who gets ALS for their health struggles. Brain illness is no different, and with the right supports can be managed. We must be willing to open the discussion so our teachers can find ways to cope with a very rewarding, but at times very stressful job.