Teaching the Whole Teacher
Christine Zandstra, January 2018
Teachers know that some years are better than others. When we look back over our careers, we remember some years as “good,” maybe because of a particularly special cohort of students, or maybe because of a special event or project that we did that our kids knocked out of the park. Some years are recalled as challenging, perhaps because of an uncharted experience like a new teaching assignment, textbook, or curriculum. Some years are more difficult because of changes in our personal lives like a new baby, home renovations, or a loved one who is ill.
But some years are just plain cruel.
This year was a struggle virtually from the beginning. In October, what seems like an eternity ago now, a recently retired special education teacher lost her valiant battle with cancer. Those teachers closest to her watched as she deteriorated very rapidly in the last month of her life, catching us all off guard. Then, in early November, four of our students were involved in a serious car accident that left one student dead and one severely injured. For this tragedy, our school crisis team was activated. The day after the accident and for the remainder of that week, the library was closed for any students and staff to gather who needed someone to talk to. During those days, students talked to our mental health professionals (guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers), and they made cards and wrote about their feelings: but mostly, they just needed to be together – to feel a kinship with others who felt the loss of their friend, Josh. Adults were there as caregivers, even though many of us were in tears or on the verge all day as we struggled to come to terms with a young life cut so short. But school went on. We all thought that this was the tragedy that would mark our year.
We were wrong.
When another of our special education teachers died unexpectedly just one week before Christmas, the shock was palpable. We were all in disbelief and searched for corroboration of the story before we could accept the terrible news. Julia was a teacher, a coach and our school’s sports announcer. Outside of school, she was a volunteer firefighter and a loving wife and friend. She gave so much to our students and our community at large, that it felt like the whole town mourned her loss. After her funeral, fire trucks carrying her casket did a “tour” of her favorite places. They did a lap of our school’s parking lot with full lights and sirens so that Jules, as she was affectionately nicknamed, could get one last visit to the school she loved so dearly. Her death had dealt another blow to our school. The winter break, we all felt, would give us time to somewhat recover and we would all feel better when we returned on January 2nd.
We didn’t know that we weren’t done mourning.
On the morning of December 31st I received a call from my principal that another teacher, Greg, just 29 years old, had also died unexpectedly. My first thought, after the immediate shock had worn off was, “How, how, how will we be able to get over this?” Again, the crisis team was called. We reiterated to each other that we were a family and that we were here for each other and our students. There was crying and consoling. But then classes resumed, and we continued with the work of school.
Despite the unimaginable grief of the loss of a 16-year old student and two beloved teachers and friends who died without any warning, and the death of another friend after a long-fought battle with a relentless disease, we are expected to go on. On the one hand, we are charged with supporting the students who are mourning. The crisis team was on the front lines, but in every classroom, so were we. We talked about Josh and the teachers who had passed. We recognized that students needed to talk about their feelings and we all gave them the safe space to have those emotional conversations. On the other hand, we also were expected to continue with instruction. After all, midterms and January Regents exams were coming soon. This is our job, and we don’t have the luxury of breaking down no matter how much we may be hurting ourselves. So we internalize, we stifle, we cry alone in the restroom, or not, we push our stress and grief down to some place where it doesn’t get in the way of teaching. But after a while, that stress and grief won’t be ignored. These emotions manifest themselves in insidious ways. Sleeplessness, anxiety and depression are not foreign to many teachers.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I value high-quality professional development. I believe teachers should be lifelong learners who constantly seek out new and innovative ways to deliver instruction and support children. I also believe strongly in the obligation that districts have to provide this training. However, virtually all of the PD provided to teachers is instructional. Considering that teaching has been deemed as one of the most stressful professions, when taken together with the rate of teacher burnout, I believe districts should be required to offer programs that support teachers’ mental health. And I’m not talking about an employee assistance program with a toll-free number to call. My district has one of those. While it’s a generous service to offer, so many employees do not take advantage of it for fear that their confidentiality will somehow be in jeopardy since it is a program sanctioned and funded by their employer. We are not unappreciative of this; it is important, and needs to stay. I’m suggesting expanding these services by embedding ongoing offerings that help educators balance the stress of work and home.
Districts and schools do a pretty good job of meeting the social and emotional needs of our students. There are specific adults they can speak with who reside within their school. Additionally, most teachers act as surrogate providers for students’ mental health needs, albeit informally. Further, many schools have formal programs like advisory periods and mentoring relationships that help kids feel emotionally supported. Conversely, adults in education are tasked with taking care of the children often with little to no support. Any doctor will tell caretakers that they must take care of themselves first, lest they be unable to care for their loved ones.
While the tragic events that have struck my school this year are rare, teachers’ stress should not be diminished. First, there is the stress of the job with ever-changing mandates like standardized testing, teacher evaluation, and curriculum. Add the need to differentiate instruction, to motivate kids to read, and to bridge instructional gaps in reading and writing. Then there’s the interpersonal requirements of dealing with demanding parents and administrators on top of the ever-increasing demands for individualized attention to all students. Now add on personal stress. Not unlike other adults, most teachers have children and/or aging parents for whom they are responsible. The work environment is often such that teachers are conditioned to try to deal with everything alone, and so we are not much for admitting that we need help, and not much for reaching out to get it. Realistically, there’s so little time for it anyway. In this regard, we still, metaphorically, shut our classroom doors and try to cope. But this is not healthy. Just like struggling readers, we need strategies when it all seems to be too much to handle, and we need to admit that self-care is important in professions where the main role of the worker is caretaker of others.
The need for supporting the mental health of educators is beginning to gain some traction in professional literature. There is a website called The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek where teachers can pay for monthly webinar training sessions on how to balance their work and personal lives. Other programs that districts have utilized include CARE and smartEducation, which teach educators mindfulness techniques and self-calming strategies. Some schools have support groups where teachers come together to just talk, giving them a feeling that they are not alone. Teachers could also employ writing groups to give themselves a cathartic way to deal with their feelings. There are also physical methods a district could offer, such as yoga or meditation.
Supporting teachers’ mental and emotional health is just as important as providing them with traditional forms of professional development where the focus is on the students, not the teachers. The inclusion of these types of programs would help teachers to be better equipped to deal with the stresses of work and life, while helping them to be more productive, and ultimately, more at ease. Whatever method schools adopt is irrelevant. My hope is that they offer something. Something that teachers can rely on to feel supported, in control, and not alone.
Let’s all make 2018 the year we take steps to take care of our whole selves, too. Perhaps, ironically, our students would benefit the most from this effort. I wish you a peaceful and easeful 2018. May your year be rewarding and fulfilling in the most helpful and comforting ways.
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Christine, thank you for your courage in drawing attention to a neglected area. This is so important, and your last statement is so true: students benefit most when teachers are healthy. The longer I teach, the more I am convinced that the emotional connection we have with students is essential— and that can’t exist unless we are comfortable with our own emotions. Grief is not talked about and it sidelined so many of us. Isolation so prevalent in our profession, exacerbated by part-time or intenured status, makes it worse. I love the idea of supporting each other. I definitely want to talk more about this. And I am so sorry for the load you have had to bear this year.
– Mary McGlone
Well written. Your points are so valid. Too many times we as individuals forget that being healthy, happy, and stable is how we get through our days. If we have to much stress to deal with then we are of no use to our students. My father was a manager at IBM in Fishkill, NY over 30 years ago. He always told me that when his emails employees are happy, feel cared about, and respected, they perform better and work harder for you. Happy teachers makes for better performing students.
– Suzanne Cachon
What beautiful, heartfelt, passionate, and important words you have shared with us. We are lucky to have you in our building. You are a unit of force and empathy. In addition, you provide a valuable service to your students and colleagues. Well done and thank you for expressing what so many of us are experiencing.
– Debi Connelly
– Joanie Michalos
I wish you some peace in the months to come. Not an easy job in addition to your loss? Sounds to me, by reading this you are very strong and optimistically mindful. My daughter is a STEM educator in downtown Newport News.
Beautifully written and you hit the nail on the head! –