Combating Teacher Burnout With a Focus on Mental Wellness

Jan. 31, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

Teaching teachers the importance of mental wellness. (stock photo)

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More than 40% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years of teaching because of burnout, stress and anxiety. Those figures have risen considerably over the past 20 years. Often missed when discussing mental health is the mental wellness of teachers.

Jen McNally gives a presentation to students in the Teachers College Academy at UNL. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 40 students, including Katherine Schmidt at the Teacher Scholars Academy are taking part in a new project helping them learn about the importance of their future student’s mental health, but also their own personal mental wellness. Braden Foreman is the coordinator for the Teacher Scholars Academy at UNL.

Schmidt is a music education major at UNL. She said a majority of the focus of mental health in the classroom prioritizes students. Rightfully so, she said, but also important in the equation, is the mental well-being of teachers.

“The same thing applies to being a teacher. If you're not on your “A game” for yourself, how can you be that way for your students?” Schmidt said.

She said when she was younger, all of her teachers seemed like superheroes. She said she’s learning in this new program that even superheroes can have bad days.

“One thing that I thought was interesting (is) if you're having a really rough day and you need to have someone come in so you can step out and collect yourself, that was okay” Schmidt said.

Jen McNally, a mental health coordinator for ESU 5 in Nebraska and the program’s developer, works with public school students in Nebraska to teach the importance of understanding their mental health. She said it’s also important for teachers in the classroom.

“Yes, kids are an essential component of (the classroom), (they are) the pulse right, but our teachers are the heart,” McNally said.

Data from the Consortium For Policy Research In Education shows the amount of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. (Courtesy CPRE)

McNally said the attention has been on student’s mental health for decades. She said teachers need to be a priority as well.

“They have to be able to take care of themselves so they are not giving what's left to them,” McNally said. “They are giving what's best to them in their classroom and out of their classroom.”

She said the program works with teachers to look at their mental well-being and the mental wellness of the entire classroom. One part of the program is called “3, 2, 1.” Students and teachers emphasize three things they’re most proud of that they’ve done that day, two things they could’ve done better and one thing we can try to do better tomorrow.

"We can use these and call the social-emotional learning and then students are receiving them," McNally said. "This is fantastic for them, and then teachers are participating in it. So it's a win-win for everyone."

She said being forward-focused and filled with intent helps with overall mental well-being. More than 60% of teachers say they’re stressed, according to a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers. McNally said that a number of different factors have contributed to 40% of teachers leaving the profession in their first five years.

“They're leaving because they're extremely fatigued, burned out – teaching is different than it was 10-15 years ago,” McNally said.

Scott Foster used to be a teacher, but now he’s on the radio at KRVN in Lexington. He taught high school social studies and American Government, two topics he’s passionate about.

“I just sort of lost the passion (for) a lot of different reasons. I still loved what I taught and I love the kids that I taught. But it just wasn't enough,” Foster said.

Data from the Consortium For Policy Research In Education shows the reasons teachers leave the profession. (Courtesy CPRE)

He had lost creative control in the classroom and couldn’t deal with stricter regulation from administration that made him lose the love for teaching.

I don't think that you can be a good teacher if you don't love it, if you don't have the passion,” Foster said.

Rose Davidson taught physics and science at Millard South High School in Omaha in 2010. It was the same year of a deadly shooting by a student.

“It started like any other day. They came on the announcement and told us we were in Code Red,” Davidson said.

That meant locking the door and turning off the lights.

“Somebody came and rattled our door and half the class screamed, because you're still in a very heightened state,” Davidson said.

Davidson spent the next four hours in the dark with the students.

"We sat in silence until the students started getting texts from their parents going, Are you safe?" Davidson said. "That was the only way we got information and some of it proved to be wrong."

It was a traumatic experience for everyone and she said it became tougher to lead the classroom after that.

“The behavior management became an issue because I was starting to view students as people who could potentially kill me,” Davidson said.

Students at the Teachers College Academy at UNL give group presentations during class. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Before the shooting, Davidson said she struggled with getting students to behave in her classes.

“The principal, who was in charge of supervising me had been shot on the head,” Davidson said. “He was no longer in the school for the rest of the year. I just felt a lot of stress from a lot of different directions and just started to crumble.”

It was all too much and her teaching career ended soon after that. She’s now studying to become a dietician. Looking back now, Davidson realizes studying to become a teacher in college is much different than sitting in front of your own class.

“It's that whole experience of going from a setting where everyone wants you to succeed to your students are kind of actively cheering against you,” Davidson said.

She said counselors should be on site at schools for teachers, just like there are for students.

“It needs to be more acceptable for people to go to therapy,” Davidson said. “It needs to be more of a standard for teachers to be in therapy, because you are under so much stress and there are so few outlets.”

Jen McNally, the program’s creator, said she’s trying to avoid stories like Foster’s and Davidson’s. She said this program will help.

“I've had teachers that say, I feel like I'm re-energized being a teacher again,” McNally said. “I've lost my ‘why’ and now I've reconnected to how much influence and impact I can make for kids.”

McNally said the program seems to be working.

Students at UNL's Teachers College Academy work in groups before a class presentation. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

On top of training students in the teacher’s academy, researchers at UNL are studying McNally’s work for data driven research, Susan Swearer, Willa Cather Professor of Educational Psychology at UNL, is researching the program.

"We want to look at the impact on levels of depression, anxiety, well-being, the teacher’s sense of self,” Swearer said. “Does it de-stigmatize talking about mental health disorders? That is our ultimate goal.”

She wants to see if the program can be replicated on a larger scale across Nebraska and the country.

“If you have a classroom where teachers talk openly about mental health issues, then do those students feel like they can go to their teacher and talk openly about their mental health?” Swearer said.

Editor's note: Some of the audio in this story is courtesy of the Associated Press and KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska.