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What's the Plus?

Schools Must De-Stigmatize Mental Health Issues for Teachers

By Jennifer Leban

I am a finalist for 2020 Illinois State Teacher of the Year, so it might surprise you to hear that at one time I considered myself a failure. A repeat failure, in fact.

I had been working in the same building, teaching the same subject, for 13 years. It was the same building where I student taught. Over time, my job grew stale and monotonous. So when a new position opened up within my district, I knew that it was meant for me. I applied, interviewed, and eagerly awaited the call letting me know that I’d gotten the job. Instead, I was rejected. I applied again the next year and was rejected again. I tried a third time the following year, but once again, I was rejected. All from my school district.

Because I hadn’t gotten any real feedback from my district, I assumed that it must be me. I must be a terrible teacher. I was bitter, resentful, and angry; I became THAT teacher, bogged down in negativity. I was critical of everything, and I was starting to infect others with my negative attitude. I can only imagine how it must have felt to be a student in my classroom. I didn’t know what to do. I considered leaving the profession, the district… anything to escape the feeling of being trapped and helpless. Convinced that there was something terribly wrong with me, I sought out mental health services as a last-ditch effort. And to my surprise, everything changed.

I saw a psychologist who put me on medication for depression and anxiety. Slowly, my outlook started to shift as did my overall state of mental wellness. I was fortunate to have good health insurance but even with insurance, finding help wasn’t easy. For a teacher who is already hesitant or anxious, it’s tempting to give up on getting help. Many offices close at three or four o’clock, making it nearly impossible for teachers to get an appointment, and definitely not without having to take time off of work. And although it’s extremely important to find someone who you feel a connection with, the available options are often extremely limited.

Without my mental health assistance, it is likely that I would have completely burnt out and left the profession altogether. But I got help. I stayed and persevered. I re-committed myself to my students. In the fall of 2019, I was named a top ten finalist for IL State Teacher of the Year and nominated for a Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science and for Illinois’ Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Without getting help, none of these things would have happened. That’s why I believe so strongly that schools must de-stigmatize mental health issues for teachers, make resources available, and build in time for mental wellness into teachers’ daily schedules.

Having a variety of mental health services readily available to teachers would go a long way towards avoiding burnout and reducing negative teacher culture at our schools. Having professional counselors and psychologists available for video sessions during plan periods and breaks could help break down barriers to access for mental health services. If we had a support system in place, such as relief staff, to help deal with a difficult situation and provide teachers with time and space to reset their mental focus, we could help reduce the stress of classroom management and ensure teachers are better equipped to meet the needs of our ever-changing student population. For educators who need additional support beyond these options, schools and districts need to make available access to outside assistance. Such offices need to have evening and weekend options, and space and staff to watch children during appointments.

We know that adults need to put on their own oxygen masks before they can do so for their children. The same principles apply to our teachers. If we want to support our students to become the best that they can be, we need to start by giving them the best versions of our teachers that we can.

Jennifer Leban is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois ISTOY Teaching Policy Fellow and a 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist. A National Board Certified Teacher, Jennifer teaches creative technology and visual arts classes at Sandburg Middle School in Elmhurst, Illinois.

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