Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Defining Mindfulness and How It Relates to Mental Health

When I was a Director of Innovation and Technology, I was speaking to one of our teachers about mental health when she said, “I want to try mindfulness with my kids. I really do. It really does interest me. The problem is that I feel like I keep being told to try it but nobody has really discussed what it is or what activities I could do with my kids in order to practice it correctly. I literally have no idea what to do.” As I work with different districts around the country, I hear similar complaints when it comes to just about anything mental health or mindfulness related…we want to, we just don’t know how. And part of the issue is that many times people don’t even really understand what mindfulness is.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is more than quieting your mind. It’s more than meditating. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He goes on to say, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (as cited in Defining Mindfulness, 2017). Perhaps my favorite part of that definition is the use of the term “non-judgmentally” as it’s not often that we allow ourselves to think or feel without judging if it’s right or wrong, painful or not. It is an exercise in acceptance of ourselves and who we are in that moment.

There are two major elements of mindfulness: awareness and attention. Awareness is a broader sense of what’s occurring in your inner and outer experiences. In other words, what is going on in your environment and what is going on inside your body including your thoughts and emotions.  Being aware of emotions and thoughts can have a dramatic impact on shifting them towards being more positive. Attention is channeling your focus onto a particular object or idea and then holding your attention in place for a specific period of time. Meditations are made to do this.

Practicing mindfulness calms down your sympathetic nervous system, so you are less likely to be thrown into a survival strategy (flight/flee, freeze/collapse, or fight). It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Studies have also found that it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and can lead to changes in body awareness and fear, making it less likely to react to triggers (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Also, because mindfulness keeps us in the moment, we are less likely to ruminate about failures, obsess about mistakes, fear the future, and become overwhelmed emotionally, therefore increasing our resilience and ability to cope with adversity.

Three Potential Ways to Practice Mindfulness:

Mindful Intentions

Setting an intention activates your internal guidance system. Setting an intention involves knowing who you want to be and then setting a goal to get there. An intention can be chosen depending on a situation or goal. For example, if communication with a partner is an issue, an intention might be, “I will communicate and listen to my partner without judgment.” Then, throughout the day running any communication through that lens based on the intention and asking, “Am I showing up in this way right now?” If the answer is no, then you know there needs to be a change. Many times we have goals that we are working towards. Setting an intention is like setting micro-goals to help you get there. It is action-orientated. Instead of wishing and hoping that things change or the future gets better, you’re making it happen. In the absence of setting intentions, people will continue to operate in the same way.

Gratitude Stones

Gratitude stones are simply a trigger, used in a positive way, to remind us to show gratitude. Gratitude stones are literally stones that you put into your pocket. Every time you reach into your pocket you will feel the stone, and the idea is to think of something you’re grateful for during that time. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to write it down. 

While I think that the use of an actual stone is intriguing (I imagine a super shiny and smooth one like I used to make in my rock tumbler as a kid), I rarely reach into my pockets. For me, putting a reminder on my lock screen so I see it whenever I pick up my phone is more effective. 

Arts Therapy

Coloring has its place in the practice of mindfulness. Find a picture that has an intricate pattern. A Mandala has a spiritual meaning, but it’s the intricacy that is useful for this technique. Any image similar to that will do. The process should take about 10-20 minutes and should be meditative; your focus should be drawn to what you are doing. I have personally seen this practice work with students nearly immediately. Many times I get asked about the instructional time lost to coloring…but they would lose more instructional time being removed for negative behaviors from the classroom, so it still seems like a solid strategy to me.

One of the reasons I love mindfulness so much is because of the focus on the present and withholding judgements. For myself, I have seen a noticeable difference in some of my anxiety and any lingering negativity when I spent more time in the moment and less time trying to anticipate what was going to happen next. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be difficult, but many times it does need to be defined for people if we expect them to utilize it for their own mental health and for that of their students.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

It’s Past Time to Recognize the Supports We Desperately Need

I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.

But I did. I forgot.

I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).

But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.

My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.

But I see now what I may have been missing before.

A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.

Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?

Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.

We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.

What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.

The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.

And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.

I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.

I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.

I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.

We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.

The New Meaning of “Meeting Them Where They’re At”

When I first started teaching “meet them where they’re at” was becoming more and more of a common phrase as workshops and differentiation was becoming the norm. At that time, when the phrase was used it was in reference to making sure that in literacy, for example, you were teaching to the level of the student and adjusting to their needs academically. The idea that they will learn best inside the zone of proximal development but in our education world, always in the academics. So, we would adjust and create groups and workshops and flip/blend classes in order to work with students that needed more assistance and we tried projects and other strategies to challenge our high flyers.

When I became a technology integration coach and subsequently a Director of Innovation and Technology, the message was close to the same. “Meeting (teachers) where they’re at” meant determining their level of technology integration know-how and moving forward from there. We worked on providing a more personalized professional development experience and differentiated our professional learning in order to meet their needs. Sometimes that meant individual coaching cycles, sometimes that meant pushing their level in innovation teams. It meant meeting them at their technology level.

However, since developing the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking and in writing my book on educator engagement and mental health, I’ve determined that “meeting them where they’re at” doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation as it did before. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means social-emotional support.

When I work with districts and coach teachers or instructional coaches, inevitably I have an administrator who says, “How do I make my teachers think more innovatively?” My answer is that you don’t. You can’t make someone think innovatively anymore than you can force creativity. You can support them in that endeavor, but if you’re only focusing on technology and innovation, your focus might be off. Allow me to give an example.

In working with one technology coach she was frustrated because she was working her tail off trying to figure out how to connect with teachers who seemed completely uninterested in what she had to offer. I asked her to tell me about the school. She described the teachers as exhausted (common). When she described the makeup of the school, she said that it was in an area where violence was common and students would often hear gunshots at night. Meltdowns in the classroom were common and teachers were at a loss.

This is where, even as having positions with a technology focus, I would say that a new definition of “meeting them where they’re at” prevails. In this case, we can throw technology and innovative ideas at them all we want, but the reality is that they are in survival mode. And while this example is specifically geared towards technology coaches, I would say the same to any other instructional coach out there. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means helping them with exactly where they are no matter if it is content focused or emotionally focused. If they are dealing with this kind of professional adversity, they do not have the capacity to want to try something new. They might do it out of compliance, but they will not do it because they want to.

For this particular technology coach, we developed a goal of learning more about social-emotional learning. From there, they will be developing ways that technology could support, for example, the Calm or Headspace Apps and implementing some sort of meditation time in those classrooms. But the initial goal isn’t to push Google, it’s not to get them to try AR/VR or learn the new learning management system being implemented. It’s to help the teachers feel safe and supported in their classrooms so they can move out of survival and find the desire to try the new fangled ideas again.

There were many times when I was a technology coach or director that I would walk into a coaching session with a teacher and they would start to unload or cry. As uncomfortable as that was, sometimes that needed to be the focus as that’s where they were. Had I tried to force my intentions for coaching or my goals for that teacher upon them in that moment the only thing it would have accomplished was to make the teacher feel like they couldn’t do as I asked, made me feel like I wasn’t effective, and damaged the relationship.

Recently, I spoke with a technology integrator who was feeling demoralized. She felt like she wasn’t making a difference and was thinking about leaving the profession. My challenge to her was to really look at her teachers and to meet them where they’re at. They may not be ready to meet her goals, but in helping them get to a place where they are ready to do that, you’ve forged a much deeper bond that will allow you to fly through goals going forward.

In Reignite the Flames, my book coming out soon on educator engagement, I open with this and challenge anyone to do this with eyes wide open:

“Walk down the halls and look at your staff. Really see your colleagues. Look at their faces, the slump in their shoulders, their half-smile in greeting, their eyes…can you even see them? Or are they downcast? Look at them when they don’t think anyone is watching. What do you see? What is that perpetually grumpy fourth-grade teacher doing? The Calculus teacher who has had to be spoken to multiple times for the way they treat students? The instructional coach who spends professional learning time scrolling their personal social media accounts and complaining about the district? The principal with their forehead in their hands anxiously waiting for the next fire to start?  Look at them in their quiet moments. Study them.”

What do you see? If you see disengagement, do Google Apps really seem that important anymore?