The mental health of teachers
I am grateful my life has brought me the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools and meet thousands of teachers. As a local Member of Parliament, I was always in and out of schools.
Then, as a member of the parliamentary committee that dealt with education, I started to visit schools around the country. That continued as Education Minister and Prime Minister.
Today, I still get to visit schools in Australia with Beyond Blue, and I also have the privilege of visiting schools in some of the poorest places in the world as Chair of the Global Partnership for Education.
Every visit has renewed my admiration for teachers. But I have had enough frank conversations to know that some days teachers feel more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop wrangling students and declaring their headache ‘is not a tumour' than Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society inspiring students with famous prose.
The reality is, teaching can be really tough, and teachers, more concerned with the health and wellbeing of their students, can often put their own wellbeing last.
The stress of teaching
Stress and emotional exhaustion levels in classrooms are high as teachers grapple with growing workloads and difficult behaviour from students and parents.
By some estimates, about 25 per cent of teachers will leave the profession within five years of starting, although this figure could be as high as 50 per cent (AITSL, 2016).
Data tells us principals experience emotional demands at levels 1.7 times higher than the general population, and burnout 1.6 times higher (Riley, 2018).
Principals are also naming mental health issues among staff and students as a growing source of stress (Riley, 2018).
Be You – designed for teachers and students
Beyond Blue, with headspace and Early Childhood Australia, is now rolling out an initiative that aims to create mentally healthy learning communities around Australia, and it includes specific help for teachers.
It is called Be You, and it is about equipping teachers, principals and educators with the skills they need to support the mental health of Australia's next generation.
Educators have told us they want this information, which is designed to make it easier for them to deal with the issues they are managing every day in their classrooms.
Among its other offerings, Be You includes examples of how teachers can build student resilience, fact sheets about signs of emerging mental health issues and advice about where to go for support.
But Be You isn't all about the kids; we know that teachers cannot look after their students unless they are also looking after themselves.
Be You Staff Wellbeing includes resources about managing stress, and tips individual staff can take to protect their own mental health. It encourages staff to monitor their own stress levels by identifying situations they find difficult then getting in early to manage those feelings with guidance about evidence-based strategies.
Being aware of your thinking habits can also help – learning how to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts is a good way to manage your mental health. Of course, making time to do the things you enjoy away from work is another way to improve your overall wellbeing.
Like all of us, a teacher's mental health will also benefit by getting the physical basics right – enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise and limiting alcohol intake.
I can imagine many teachers reading this and thinking to themselves ‘that's all very well but where am I ever going to find the time to work through all the Be You information about my and the student's mental health'? The good news is that the Be You online professional learning modules, which take about 13 hours to complete, can be counted towards professional development.
So yes, there is some effort involved but also rewards. All of us want to work in a workplace where the risks to our mental health are managed and there are protective factors.
That takes leadership from the top – from the principal – and the engagement of all.
Principals and other leaders in school communities are in a strong position to create protective environments.
They can shape a learning culture that is free from stigma and encourages staff to seek support when they need it, where staff talk about anxiety as openly as they would a sports injury.
Principals and school leaders can also arrange personal development opportunities for staff and recognise and acknowledge their work.
The point is, it takes effort from all of us working together to create learning communities where everyone – students, staff and parents – feel supported and have the chance to achieve their very best mental health.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2016). https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/research-evidence/spotlight/spotlights-attrition.pdf?sfvrsn=171aec3c_10
Riley, P. (2019). The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey: 2018 Data