How do you take care of the mental and physical health of your teachers? This is the question that came to my mind after reading the blog post titled, “We’re Constantly Talking on Students, What about the Teachers?” This particular blog post is written based on a popular image going around about how a teacher checks in on the students. The teacher obviously cares greatly about the students, as we all should. We spend a great deal of time and money making sure students are physical and mentally well. Do we do the same for our teachers?
I would venture to guess that most schools and school groups are the same in their approach to teacher care. The teachers have a set number of sick or well leave and a few personal days. The teacher can take those when needed. However, when the teacher is gone, he or she must still write lesson plans, prepare assessments, provide detailed notes that anyone could follow, and have a high level of confidence that some or all of the plan will not be followed. For most of us, it is far easier to come is sick than it is to be out a day or two. If you are lucky, your principal or partner teachers will tell you to go home and they will cover your class.
What about the mental health and well being of teachers? If a teacher is sick, there are outward symptoms and a chance of infection which they can be sent home for. But those teachers quietly struggling with overwhelming stress, perhaps depression, feelings of inadequacy, lack of support for struggling students, or any number of other issues, they too often do not show any symptoms other than a tired teacher. What do we do to help our fellow teachers who are mentally struggling and don’t feel that they are sick? What can we as administrators do to support the staff we work with? Here are three ideas to get you started.
How well do you know your teachers? Building positive relationships with teachers is the first step towards a healthy staff environment. If you are seen as both the leader and someone that they know and can trust, the staff is more likely to be open and honest with you. This will require a bit of a tough skin on the administrators’ part, because you may get some difficult feedback, but in the long run, the community is stronger. Know the teachers you work with as more than names and subject areas. Listen to their challenges and do what you can to alleviate known stressors to the extent you are able. This is a good first step towards building a healthy school and caring for your staff.
Trust the staff if they say that the need a day for sickness or mental health. I have personally been told, when I said I needed a sick day, “I hope we can find a substitute for you.” This made me questions whether I really needed to take a day as it would put stress on my fellow teachers. They would have to cover my class. This only adds to the teachers’ stress. On the other hand, I was also told by a principal, “Take a mental health day and take care of yourself.” That little bit of trust allowed me to care for myself to do my job better. If you are willing to step into the classroom to take care of the students when a substitute can’t be found, the teachers’ level of support will also rise because they see you doing the same thing they may be asked to do.
Tell staff members to go home and then support them when they do. When teachers are coming in because they are sick, or you learn that they need a day off, tell them to take it. Tell them to go home in the morning or midday when you learn of it. This may be a challenge with sick leave days and coverage depending on the school or leadership. We should not do things that will run us afoul of our leadership. At the same time, one should be able to flex within the rules and contract language to support teachers. Teachers who need a day to get healthy should feel that they can take it and be supported within the school policies. This may mean working to provide cover for the teacher at last minute, including you doing the coverage. This will help to bring the staff moral up when teachers know that you are willing to help and support them in difficult times.
All of the above is under the assumption of normal day to day stress and conditions. In the event of an emergency, flu epidemic, inclement weather, or any other cause that significantly impacts the school, we must address these on a case by case basis and under the conditions. For example, if a flu epidemic sends half of your teachers home for multiple days, you deal with it to ensure the safety of the students which may mean that class instruction is limited based on who you have available to you. In an emergency when the teacher has to leave, we address it and cover for the teacher so that they can take care of the situations. Again, a little support for teachers goes a long ways.
One final point for administrators in schools where programs exist that students must be restrained on a regular basis. Have a plan in place for student care and teacher care. A teacher, who has actively restrained a student, should not go in front of a class without ensuring that he or she is ready to do so. A restraint is a traumatic event and can be very physical even if done under the best of conditions. The teacher will need time to come down from the event, collect themselves, complete reports about what happened, and prepare to go in front of the class. Be very aware of how the teacher is doing and allow them space to process before they get put in front of students again. The same goes for teachers dealing with fights, lifeguards, or anyone who is in a situation where they are dealing with a crisis. Support them as needed including providing cover for classes so they can come back at their fullest.
As administrators, we are responsible for both students and teachers. Teaching is hard no matter how good you are. Our students deserve our best so that we may take care of them. Our teachers deserve to be treated as well so they can do the job we hired them to do which is be their best self in front of students. Consider how you care for you teachers and continue to support them in the best possible ways.