Today marks the start of Teacher Appreciation Week, where we pause to honor the tremendous effort teachers put forth every day, both in and out of the classroom. But while the intent of this celebration is absolutely a laudable one, it often doesn’t go far enough to make a difference in the everyday experience of many educators.

Coinciding with Teacher Appreciation Week is Mental Health Awareness Month—two themes that have become increasingly intertwined over the past several years. While many other professions seem to have rebounded from the effects of the pandemic, education is still reeling. Teacher burnout and mental health struggles are at an all-time high, and it’s not getting better.

I’ve written before about the epic crisis facing education. I’ve wondered what will happen when there are no more teachers. I’ve tried to highlight the value of what teachers bring, day in and day out. Today, I want to talk about why Teacher Appreciation Week needs to be more than a pat on the back. 

“Schools are struggling to retain their teaching staff because we are experiencing a workplace

philosophical shift,” says Sophia Koehler-Berkley, former teacher and now a NASM Certified Wellness Coach. “Teachers have begun to recognize the many ways the workplace inside schools are not benefiting their well-being, especially in the long-term, and they are leaving to find other schools or other professions that allow them the work-life-balance needed to continue beyond just a few years in the classroom.”

Toxic workplaces

The major contributor to teacher burnout, says Koehler-Berkley, is how educators are seen as ‘servant leaders.’ “Because teachers deeply care about their students’ well-being, are so mission oriented, and strive to ‘serve their students first,’ this often comes at the cost of establishing healthy boundaries/routines that serve their own wellbeing,” she says.

It’s the often-toxic work culture of schools that hurts teachers the most. Koehler-Berkley shared an example when her brother-in-law passed away from leukemia during her first month of teaching. “I was asked to provide a copy of his funeral service brochure as evidence that my grief was real (this is a standard departmental documentation protocol) and then was guilted by my administration for taking the 1 day off to grieve,” she says. “Doing so in their eyes negatively impacted the learning in my classroom and did not set high expectations for my students.

“Worst of all, because I did deeply care about my students, even after only a few short weeks with them, this only negatively added to my mental load. I felt like by taking time off, I was creating harm.”

The saddest part of this story is that it’s not unique. “Talk to educators anywhere about what contributes to the detriment of their mental health,” says Koehler-Berkley, “and they will name symptoms that can all be linked to the disease of school cultures that do not support teacher wellbeing.”

Non-existent mental health support

From Koehler-Berkley’s personal examples, it seems that mental health support for teachers is basically non-existent. “We get new water bottles, maybe a new school swag t-shirt, or gift card during teacher-appreciation week, but teachers mental health is often pushed to the back-burner,” says Koehler-Berkley. “We are told to ‘fill our cups,’ but no one tells us where/how to find the water to sustain us.” Preaching self-care is clearly not the answer.

During a decade working in and around a large district, Koehler-Berkley says she never once heard of a mental-health workshop that raised awareness or offered research-based practices for monitoring one’s own mental health. “Instead, I have known 3 educators who have taken their own lives, countless who have battled with addiction, and a teacher-happy-hour culture that encourages us to ‘take a load off’ by turning to substance use as the only reprieve from our own mental-strain.”

Would this happen in a corporate setting? It’s hard to imagine a workplace with such unrelenting stimulation and stress, without any meaningful resources for its employees to cope. “In most companies it’s common to have an HR-led ‘here are the systems in place to support you should you need it’ conversations,” says Koehler-Berkley. “This is not the case for most educators. Teachers support whole communities, but every teacher deserves an advocate for their personal well-being.”

Naturally, teacher support can vary depending on the district. Koehler-Berkley is also confident there are many good leaders in the school systems. “I am so hopeful that there are principals out there determined to provide meaningful support to their own teacher’s mental health,” says Koehler-Berkley.

What teachers really want

“What teachers want more than anything,” says Koehler-Berkley, “is a work culture that actually sees and values them as whole humans.” She describes such an atmosphere as one where:

  • Boundaries between work and home are respected, by providing paid time in the school day to plan, grade, and strategize
  • Leaving at the end of the school day is the norm, not the exception
  • Breaks are used to enjoy oneself, not to recover
  • Taking a personal day does not involve follow-up questions of ‘how/why you needed the day’
  • Teachers are recognized for being the support system for so many young-people and therefore granted grace and understanding for what that means to a person’s mental load

Is this really too much to ask?

A teacherless future

If communities fail to address the mental health needs of teachers, the picture is bleak. “There are already vacancies in schools that never fill, which in turn stretches those on staff beyond just the roles they are assigned,” says Koehler-Berkley. “Fewer and fewer of the younger generations are signing up or being motivated to become educators because while they may be service oriented, they have a healthy sense of self-preservation.”

A teacherless future is the crisis of epic proportions that is facing education today. And aside from its large-scale implications, there’s a personal cost as well. “It deeply saddens me—I was put into the position where I had to question what was more important: Continuing to serve the next generation or continue to put my own mental-health on the line,” says Koehler-Berkley. “Teachers will come back to the classroom when we no longer have to choose.”

Even as we focus resources on improving the mental health of students, there should be a similar emphasis on supporting the educators who show up for them every day. So as we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s give teachers what they really want: A frank conversation about what needs to change inside their school in order to support their mental health and wellbeing.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com on April 11, 2024. Read here.

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