In my tenth year of teaching, I went through an extremely difficult period. I hit a pretty low point and finally decided to get counseling. The problem was, it was really hard to fit therapy into my busy teaching schedule. When I shared with my principal what I was going through and the challenges to getting help, he jumped right in. Whenever I had an appointment, he would cover the last 15 minutes of my class so I could get there on time.
You see, he understood something—that supporting his teachers’ mental health was the best thing for his school. He cared about me personally, yes, but taking care of me also helped ensure that I could take care of my students. For school leaders, prioritizing your teachers’ well-being is paramount, especially now. As you navigate supporting your teachers’ mental health, these are the mistakes you want to avoid:
Mistake #1: Requesting a meeting without explaining why.
No matter how benign the subject of the meeting, getting that “I need to talk to you” email causes teachers major anxiety. And believe me, we’re already anxious. If you do need us to come in, be upfront about why so we’re not up all night worrying about it. Even better, meet us on our own turf. It feels a lot less formal in our own classrooms, especially if you show up without a clipboard.
Yesterday I got an email to meet with my principal today. I’m only freaking out a little. I’m sure it will be fine, but even 30+ years of teaching doesn’t stop the stress when you’re called to the principal’s office. —K.F.
Mistake #2: Popping in unannounced.
I get that this is part of your job, but right now, it’s adding extra stress on top of an already stressful situation. If it threw us off to have you come into our classroom without warning, it’s ten times worse when you show up at our Zoom meeting. Do your teachers a favor and ping them 5-10 minutes before you plan to come on to reduce those feelings of panic.
Mistake #3: Using teacher workdays for professional development.
Repeat after me: teacher planning days are for teacher planning. There’s nothing more discouraging than having a day you were supposed to work in your classroom be co-opted for training. We have a lot more work than before (and that’s saying something). Feeling prepared is important to our overall well-being, especially in a situation in which we have so little control.
I’ve been on break and done literally nothing, and even with anxiety meds, I’m dreading going into in-service work day tomorrow. —J.B.
Mistake #4: Penalizing teachers for arriving late or leaving early.
We’re all doing the best we can right now. Consider the possible reasons—doctor’s appointments, household management, attending to our own kids—and you’ll see that we’re just trying to take care of ourselves and our families in the midst of a pandemic. Maybe I was late because I’m having trouble even getting out of bed. Maybe I left early to pick up my anti-depressants. Teachers deserve support, not punishment.
Mistake #5: Assuming bad intent.
Nothing is more upsetting for a teacher than when an angry parent comes after you. We understand that families are under just as much stress as we are. We just ask that you be a buffer for us. When you get a complaint about us, give us the benefit of the doubt. We feel bad enough already.
I’m sitting here having a panic attack. I’m in the teacher workroom crying. It’s all because a student took something I said wrong, and now I’m getting ready to be written up for it, and I don’t know what to do. —M.R.
Mistake #6: Prioritizing tasks over people.
Remember that nothing is more important in your work than the people. Not evaluations. Not curriculum. Not test scores. Listen to us when we say we’re overwhelmed, and take things off our plates whenever possible.
Mistake #7: Encouraging self-care without taking any of the above advice.
If you tell your teachers to rest and relax over the weekend, but you haven’t set up a work environment that allows them to do that, those comments can feel a bit flippant. You could give us all the scented candles in the world, and it won’t make a bit of difference in how we feel if we don’t have the time, space, and permission to take care of ourselves.
‘Practice self-care’ is the most disingenuous phrase in education right now. It’s performative if the demands placed upon teachers do not change. —J.E.
What mistakes do you see principals make in supporting teachers’ mental health? Come share in our Principal Life Facebook Group.