For everyone The mental toll of teaching in a pandemic

iStock/Carla Castagno

Educators have been on the frontline throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and more needs to be done to protect their mental health and wellbeing.

Being an educator – whether teacher, principal or education support staff – can be emotionally exhausting at the best of times. But the extra pressures caused by COVID, with its rolling disruptions and uncertainty, has exposed a mental health crisis in our TAFEs, schools and kindergartens. Workload has rocketed, as has the emotional toll of caring for students and the difficulty of staying connected via a screen.

Following the initial switch to remote learning in 2020, teacher Ellie* went all out to make it work. “I created over 100 videos for my students, found innovative ways to assess VCE Methods via Google forms and scanned work, and I kept a smile on my face while staring at a screen of faces doing it tough at home. I was proud of the resources I was creating, the continued teamwork and solidarity through virtual meetings and sure that I was doing the best I could in the worst circumstances.”

But, as time wore on and the exhaustion intensified, Ellie found herself struggling to cope. “I’ve done so much reflection on my situation – and, while there are many factors that lead individuals to burnout, one huge factor for me is that teacher workload is too high. I couldn’t cope with it; it took over my life and I had to step away from the job that I love to recover. Six months on, I am still recovering.”

Anxious and overworked

Counsellor Benji Gersh is an AEU member and former teacher whose practice, Greater Space, specialises in the mental health of teachers and education professionals. He says he has seen an unsurprising spike in new clients over the past 18 months.

“Teachers, being a part of society, will struggle with mental health at the best of times,” Benji says. “But the transitions into and out of lockdown were really hard, because they involved extra work for teachers, and they’re already overworked.”

Benji’s clients include principals, youth workers, ES staff and teachers, all struggling with the anxiety and additional workload caused by the pandemic. As lockdowns dragged on, other issues began to arise. For some educators, strategies that had at first helped them cope no longer did the trick.

“But the more lockdown went on, the more difficult it was to come up with different ideas.”

Speaking as Victorian schools prepared to return to on-site learning, primary PE teacher Stuart Bracecamp says he was initially enthusiastic about the possibilities of remote teaching, but the novelty soon wore off.

“I was excited about making videos, maybe a yoga video, or a fast exercise routine the kids could learn along with the video,” Stuart says. “But the longer it went on, the more difficult it was to come up with different ideas.”

While he enjoyed the flexibility that remote learning allowed, there was a marked drop off in student engagement as lockdown wore on. “When we started, if I put up a video clip, I might get 200 kids out of 350 watching, whereas now I might get 20. When we’ve had a six or eight-week block where the kids are remote learning, I noticed at about week three or four that they were not as engaged.”

Managing student welfare

Stuart says he had to adapt his approach to keep students active, taking into account what resources each of them had available, rather than setting a simple, class-wide activity. Ellie says this constant adaptation has been one of the most taxing things about teaching in lockdown. But she has also felt the toll of managing student wellbeing.

“All teachers are flexible people, but there’s just been no break at all,” Ellie says. “And the kids are in a really vulnerable position. They’ve also gone through 200-odd days of remote learning, and they’ve been trying to work very independently at home. Now, as teachers, we have to facilitate the colossal amount of anxiety many are experiencing about returning to school.”

Student welfare – always a crucial and emotionally draining aspect of teacher and ES workload – has been complicated by not being in the same room as a student needing extra attention.

“It’s next to impossible to have a good rapport in a remote or online setting,” Ellie says. “Virtual classrooms make it hard to have a quick one-on-one check-in with a kid, which can do absolute wonders for their mental health. You don’t have that opportunity to create those good, supportive relationships that students need.”

iStock/Carla Castagno

Benji says this lack of real human interaction is particularly hard on educators, as it’s usually a core reason they were attracted to the profession in the first place. “Looking at a blank screen because students are exhausted and not turning on their cameras is really trying. Educators get into the profession because they want to spend time around the energy of a school.”

Ellie concurs. “I got into teaching to support and educate young people. Teaching remotely, there’s a big part of my job that I just haven’t been able to do properly.”

This has not been helped by the fact that school staff have been confronting the same unprecedented and worrying circumstances as their charges. “If you’ve got a vulnerable student that you’re trying to help, you draw on your own experience, and you offer guidance and support and suggestions for what we might be able to do,” she says. “Likewise, when you’re talking to other colleagues, we’re all trying to offer as much support as we can to one another. But, at the moment, we’re all just struggling and none of us really knows how to get through it.”

Normalising mental health issues

Benji says it can be difficult to show vulnerability in the school setting, for fear it might be weaponised either by colleagues or students. He experienced this firsthand while teaching at a juvenile detention centre.

“I had the same table flipped at me three days in a row,” Benji says. “I just couldn’t make sense of it. My only option was to speak to somebody within the school, which I didn’t want to do, because I didn’t want to be vulnerable with them. I didn’t want to tell them I was finding it hard to do my job, because they might think I didn’t have leadership potential within this environment.”

Showing vulnerability can be a particular challenge for those in leadership positions. When Benji was working as a trainer in trauma-informed practice within schools, he became aware that there was a serious lack of mental health support for principal class members working in government schools.

“I would sit down with principals and have a bit of a chat before I would go in and run the session with all their staff. I would ask the principal, often just because I was interested, how they were, and a lot of them ended up crying.”

While many schools have worked hard to support their staff – Ellie is grateful that her principal allowed her to go part time when the stress became too much – there is a sense that, across the board, something has to change.

“I’m very open with the fact that I was not doing well, emotionally and psychologically, when I was working as a teacher.”

Over the past few months, Stuart has developed staff mindfulness workshops. Having seen the difference the workshops have made to stress levels at his school, he is looking forward to presenting another at this year’s AEU CRT Conference.

He says these workshops fit well alongside the AEU’s mission to improve workplace conditions for its members. While lower workloads are essential to reducing the current levels of burnout, Stuart believes educators will always need specialised support for mental wellbeing.

“My belief is that, even if we had the best conditions ever as educators, most of us would still sometimes find things stressful. We need to fight for better conditions for our staff while also learning how to cope with the inherent challenges of this work.”

Benji agrees. Each of us can help normalise talking about mental health, he says, particularly if we sense a colleague might be struggling. “I’m very open with the fact that I was not doing well, emotionally and psychologically, when I was working as a teacher. It’s much better to say to somebody, ‘It looks like you’re struggling. Do you need some help?’ than it is to say, ‘You’re not coping – go sort it out!’”

Urging principals to lead the way

He urges principals to lead the way in talking about mental health and destigmatising access to support. “A regular check-in allows you to determine when things are slipping but it also works when things are great. Preventative medicine is the best kind.”

However, Benji is wary of placing the onus on individuals to manage their stress and anxiety without adequate professional support. He wants to see broader structural change to how mental health is addressed in Victoria’s educational settings, with all staff being granted access to meaningful external care and supervision.

“If you’re a counsellor, if you’re a psychologist, it’s mandatory to get supervision,” Benji says. “Usually that’s external, but they can talk about the way that your emotions interact with your work, because you’re in a helping profession. It strikes me that everyone involved in education is also working in a helping profession. You can choose to go to an Employee Assistance Program – and I think everyone should access their four sessions – but it’s not enough.”

Ellie was proud to reach the five-year mark and still be in the classroom. “I’ve been a teacher for seven years and I’ve always known it would be a high-stress job. When I was at uni, on day one they shared the statistic that in five years, more than half of us would not be teachers anymore. What a way to start a career!”

Now, she feels she owes it to her colleagues to speak out about “what would best help us all” stay in the profession long term. “A reduction in face-to-face teaching hours is the best way to start improving teaching conditions,” says Ellie. “Reducing my hours has had such a positive impact on my life and health. I feel like I have created a better work–life balance and I also feel accomplished in my work. But going part time should not be the only way to achieve that. I hope that my story can help with the ongoing fight for better conditions.”

*Not her real name

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