The educational community has led us to believe educator stress and mental health is an individual’s responsibility, that it can be fixed with self care, with a bandaid. And maybe that fix was enough in the 1990s when self care was first suggested as the way for teachers to combat stress. I remember that time, but a lot has changed in the last 25 years-- job demands have increased, voice in decision making is now the lowest for any professional occupation, and a toxic climate too often invades our buildings. These are factors outside any one individual’s ability to change or impact-- they are systemic, they call for system-wide change.
What are our current bandaids? Mindfulness, yoga, meditation, exercise, socializing away from work, turning off your messages on weekends-- all great life additions and changes, sure to enhance and improve mental well being… unless our problems are too big. If the cancer in your building is a toxic climate, mindfulness by a few individuals is going to make little difference in changing the culture. When the overload of job demands and initiatives is so great you can’t keep the acronyms straight, taking the weekend off will only make the brokenness of this system worse on Monday. Our stressors have gotten too big.
Treating bandaids as though they are cures has also led to a feeling of failure, increasing the stress rather than offering relief. “Feeling stressed? Take this mindfulness class!” “No relief? You probably weren’t doing it with fidelity.” No, you were asked to treat cancer with tylenol.
Our current practices in education are often creating major mental health issues for the adults, and by extension, the students in our buildings. Until we start treating the “illness” for what it is-- a major, systemic problem that needs a system-wide approach-- we won’t affect change. And our teachers will continue leaving the profession as this is seen as their best chance to feel mentally healthy again.