Teaching can be such a rewarding job but it can also be extremely stressful, hard and upsetting.
Jo FitzGerald from Tiny Sponges discusses what happens if ‘your cup runneth over’.
Every day we work hard to support our pupils academically, socially and emotionally. Many of us see our pupils go through diverse, and often very tough, circumstances and sometimes our pupil’s problems come home with us. We know about Emily, who sometimes comes into school hungry and tired. We know about Ali, whose mum has cancer and is very poorly. We know about Eli, usually full of smiles and now worryingly quiet, whose mum and dad are going through a very acrimonious split.
It’s not just the meetings, the marking, the paperwork and the preparation that comes with a teaching position that can add to the stress. Often it’s the stuff you can’t control for your pupils, the things you can’t do anything about once they’ve walked out of the school gate.
Added to this, many of us work in schools that have been underfunded for years, with all the ramifications that has on staff. It can also be dealing with everyday stress from our lives outside school – whether that’s financial, due to relationships, family, illness, bereavement…
We teach our pupils to communicate, collaborate and problem solve. We build relationships with them – to help them feel connected, valued, seen, understood. We invest in them, we know their likes and dislikes, their strengths and struggles, we anticipate what they’re going to say, we know that look on their face – and what it means. Often, we also know their pain.
As a society, we recognise those working on the front line – emergency workers who may sometimes need counselling after a difficult event. But mostly there’s no urgency around getting help for teachers and support workers, who are also on the front line of helping, aiding, caring – sometimes in time of crisis, for vulnerable children. Children they care for, and care about.
Our cups often ‘runneth over’ with the joy of teaching, the fun, the satisfaction of making a difference and being bloody brilliant at what we do! But they can also ‘runneth over’ with stress and emotional upset. At MHFA England, we teach about ‘stress containers’ – we all have them, some of us have bigger containers than others, meaning we can usually cope better and for longer. But we all have containers that can fill up and overflow when we reach overwhelm. That can be after a series of events, or just one – we all have different triggers, different stressors. As teachers, we are in danger of experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘secondary trauma’ – it’s a recognised condition. Some of us might get to a point where we can’t remember the ‘reason’, where the fun and passion has gone, where we feel numb or sad or angry, where we just go through the motions, where we struggle, where we need help.
Learning environments are great at recognising the importance of the wellbeing of students. That’s right; it’s how it should be – because an unhappy child can’t learn, can’t thrive. Some are wonderful at recognising that teachers also need to be supported – but many aren’t. So what can we do, especially in schools where there is chronic underfunding? What could be put into place easily and effectively to address the mental health of teachers and support staff?
I’ve been visiting many schools where great incentives have been put into place. One school had a ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ lunchtime meet up for staff where they made space for conversations that matter around stress, emotional upset and general wellbeing. They found that having those conversations helped dispel a lot of the stress and burden by simply sharing and being heard. Others found value in asking others for advice about situations and in sharing experiences that colleagues had been through themselves. One Deputy-Head set an alarm each day and took 5 minutes to write a short note to one of his teachers saying something encouraging, supportive and positive. He also put a box in the staffroom where people could write a quick note, explaining something they were struggling with, and asking for a meetup.
I’ve also had great feedback from schools who have had staff members get accredited as Mental Health First Aiders. They wear one of the green MHFA lanyards so that staff members know they are there to help. They’ve been trained to recognise signs and symptoms, to help identify stressors and help empty that stress container; they have been taught strategies to support. They are there to listen but they have the confidence to reach out and ask “Are you OK?”, “What do you need?” and the knowledge of appropriate intervention and support when necessary.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” is an overused expression and can often sound trite. But as an ex-teacher, having experienced a mental health disorder myself, I know that for educators in a caring profession, it also has an awful lot of truth in it. If teaching is your ‘cup of tea’ your wellbeing is a priority.