It is no secret that Professional Educators of Tennessee has been a strong advocate for increasing mental health awareness for both adults and students in our schools. It starts with the premise that every person has a right to feel valued and respected in society.
It’s often difficult to find solutions for people who suffer from an underlying mental illness. Mental health is not a subject that we readily discuss with others. We keep it hidden. Yet, we must all still live in the real world where mental illness affects 1 out of 5 people.
According to research done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 52 million adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness in 2020. Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are often “silent diseases” that affect a large percentage of the population. The prevalence seems to be especially high in education, where teachers are faced with numerous stressors daily, and these pressures often extend to students, parents, and their own families.
We see teachers every week who are beaten down. They deal with angry parents, angry school administrators, and their own families who are angry that the teachers are being forced to go through stressful issues. Teachers have other stressors such as evaluations, parent conferences, and lack of time and resources. There is no doubt that some of our teachers may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a society, we often forget that teachers are struggling with their own exhaustion and burnout while simultaneously worrying about the home life, mental health, physical health, and social issues that each of their students is dealing with. By the time teachers are out of the classroom, they do not have the mental stamina to fully live their own lives. Educators deserve the opportunity to be able to spend quality time with their families, engage in their hobbies, and live a life that is not controlled by the pressures of their work.
Dealing with issues like bullying, self-harm, suicide, and substance abuse are examples of stressors that educators face on a daily basis. Among U.S. adolescents, 1 in 6 experienced a major depressive episode in 2020. Confronting those issues begins when we elevate the value of the individual, instill courage in students, and teach respect in our schools. Adults and children must feel safe in our classrooms, our schools, and our communities. We must start talking to one another and listening.
The Governor and the Tennessee General Assembly often get criticized for various legislation they pass. However, we are very proud of the $250 million trust fund set aside for mental health by the state in 2021. This is something we championed for many years. We hope that adults also have access to mental health counseling when needed.
We know from almost daily interaction with educators on the frontlines in our classrooms, as well as support staff and other paraprofessionals, that many simply do not feel supported or encouraged. This goes beyond the lack of control or influence in selecting content, topics, and skills teachers can utilize in their classrooms. They are focused on relationships between teachers and their administrators, which are often negative.
They also do not feel there is a cooperative effort among staff members. They are often left alone to navigate their job. Add to that mix, students’ unpreparedness to learn and parents’ struggles and we have serious problems. In Professional Educators of Tennessee’s 2021 Educator survey, we found that over 80% of educators are concerned about teacher morale. When teachers feel supported and valued, they are in a better position to make a positive difference in their students, without sacrificing their own mental health in the process.
Classroom observations by trained personnel, along with teacher and principal input, would likely produce far more consistent and reliable data for assessing the quality of teaching than scores on an annual assessment. We already know from years of disruption that assessment outcomes cannot be viewed as a reliable or significant indicator of Tennessee student proficiency until we have confidence in consecutive years of stable test delivery. Our educators are stressed, and their jobs and livelihood are dependent on how a student takes a test. We must re-think this approach and still hold everyone accountable.
We need to provide our educators with the time and resources to deal with real-life situations, without adversely impacting their career. As a society, we understand that mentally healthy teachers can consequently build emotionally healthy students. This must be an objective of public education. We need the courage to address the issue and challenge our stereotypes and attitudes. We must provide more services and support to those impacted by mental illness.
Kaylee Joslyn is the Member Services Coordinator for Professional Educators of Tennessee
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee