It’s been 10 years since I passed out from school and yet the memories seem so fresh… the badminton games, reading the long plays of iconic English writers, school trips, struggling to match the balance sheets, inter-house & inter-school championships, annual day celebrations, dreadful parent-teacher meetings, the art classes to the practical lessons of chemistry. There’s some beauty about those carefree yet innocent times. A thousand memories were made not just with friends, but with our beloved teachers as well…
So when I decided to write about them, I couldn’t think of any better line to be the headline of my article. This line from the movie: Dead Poets Society truly encapsulates the respect that I have for my teachers.
Being a teacher certainly goes beyond the teaching of the subject matter. They also have the responsibility of nurturing young minds, to make them good human beings and efficient members of society. However, in recent years, it has grown to be a demanding and stressful profession. Job roles have diverged and they are now also looking at managing administrative roles as well as participate in extra-curricular activities and inter-school competitions.
However, with changes in job roles and severe competition in the field, there is a growing concern among mental health professionals that in the coming years, there will be a surge in the emotional and psychological problems faced by them. National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report stated that teachers are subjected to a greater amount of job-related stress in comparison to other professionals. Another study in fact highlighted that factors like the number of classes per day, work distribution, work pressure, strength of the class, duration of travel to the workplace and job satisfaction had a significant impact on work-related stress among the teachers.
Let us look at some of the rising concerns among the teaching fraternity.
Chronic exposure to stress and pressure seems to have a serious impact on their lives. Physical health becomes the first casualty. Akhil, a Chemistry lecturer was admitted to a hospital a few weeks back for dehydration and exhaustion. He adds, “I think when we keep carrying on without giving ourselves the rest we need, it gets difficult. We always have a habit of pushing off looking after ourselves: after this project, after the final year exam, after completing the assignment; till it reaches a point where we eventually break down and are forced to take a rest. My one-week hospitalisation was a wake-up call for me”.
There is also cutthroat competition among the faculties in the school. There is an increased emphasis on students’ academic performance alone. This however has turned to be a narrow parameter for evaluating a teacher’s abilities. Nikhil, HOD of a Biology department adds, “The world is now living on numbers. My abilities as a teacher are judged on the scores of my students, the number of publications I give, the pass percentage of my students, etc. Even one failure is judged and critiqued harshly. The tensions and burden of it are intense”.
Simran adds, “Honestly by the end of the day, I don’t have any energy left in me to do anything. Right after finishing my preparation for the next day, I just sleep. There is no energy left for maintaining a personal or social life”. For some teachers, it is the fatigue from micro-managing multiple responsibilities that wears them down resulting in lowered classroom efficiency. Ranjit a high school teacher says, “I can feel the difference in my classes on days I’m not rested well. I get crankier and little things start to bother me. Sometimes even the quality of the session gets affected”.
“The influence of a good teacher can never be erased”- many aspiring/ newly joined/ long-term lecturers and professors live by this quote. They understand that they have the responsibility and the power to mould the future of the kids. They interact with students coming from varying social and economic backgrounds. They get acquainted with the harsh realities of their student’s lives and the need to go above and beyond to help their students succeed despite the adversities being high. The flip side to it comes when they start to think negatively about themselves and question their abilities as being a ‘good teacher.
In technical terms, we call it secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. Interestingly, while we do acknowledge that in professions like psychologists, doctors, police officers, therapists, nurses, emergency workers; teaching is most often not associated with it. In fact, teachers most often are not aware or recognise it is happening to them.
It is true that occupational stress comes with every job, and the teaching profession is no exception. However, the levels of stress have only catapulted during covid for teachers. Right from adapting to the new mode of teaching to trying hard to explain each and every concept via video sessions: challenges were met at every stage. But that isn’t even the biggest hurdle, says Rohan a lecturer teaching for the past 9 years. He adds, “the difficulty is not just teaching students online; it’s also about maintaining our own enthusiasm during these times… giving hope to our students when we ourselves are lost and looking for things to get better”.
A new addition to the list of stressors is communication with parents. “Sometimes it’s not just the student but the parents too who we are looking after. Gone are the days when parent-teacher meetings were the only interface between parents and teachers. Calls and Whatsapp have brought a huge change. With the ever-changing policies and situations due to covid, parents call in to share their own concerns and issues. This is something totally new. None of us was prepared to deal with this level of connectivity. Boundaries of personal and professional space are getting blurred by the day”-asserts Sumit, Mathematics teacher at a district school.
Emphasising the need to generate more awareness on the mental health among teachers, Preeti, a counseling psychologist adds, “I get quite a few calls for a session from teachers- about managing work stress or discussing the effect of their hectic lifestyle on various facets of their life. We often talk about teacher training programs about recognising the mental health concerns of students: on ways to identify and help students with it. How about doing the same for teachers? Because one thing is clear- there is a strong need for some educational programs, intervention or development of support groups for them”.
Tips for taking care:
There is a whole body of psychological research and data that shows the teachers are stressed and worn out. It becomes pertinent for them to look after their own mental health. While there is still a need for reforms and policies at schools for it, here are some of the ways teachers can look out for their own mental well-being.
- Prioritise mental health: It is well established by now that our state of mental well-being has always had a direct impact on various aspects of our life: social, interpersonal, occupational and physical health. Hence, it becomes even more important to realise the need for looking after it. A neglecting/dismissing/suppressing mental health concern is only going to harm in the long run.
- Communicate with others: It is often the seniors or colleagues of the institute or acquaintances in the same profession who would understand the pain and struggles that you undergo because they would understand where it is coming from. If you feel comfortable, reach out to them and share your personal experiences. Social connections and conversation do have a lasting and powerful impact on our life.
- Make clear boundaries: A boundary setting is not something we are taught and is definitely something we are made to feel guilty about later. And though it may sound tough work, it is well worth it. Studies have found that when we practice healthy and safe boundaries, we begin to feel more compassionate with ourselves. We acknowledge our thoughts and emotions, and take steps to which make us feel guarded and protected.
- Take timely rest: Individuals develop a greater risk of experiencing burnout (which is totally different from stress) when they compromise with their rest. We all need to pause, from time to time to restore our energies. It is not dropping everything and going for long vacations. It is about engaging in small routine breaks and giving complete physical and mental rest to one. Example:
- -entertain work calls during the working hours
- -practice sleep hygiene techniques for better quality sleep
- -engage in some form of exercise/meditation
- Reach out: Sometimes, we cannot carry on alone, and we need support from others to go on. Whenever you feel that it is becoming difficult for you to carry on with the work commitments and stress is wearing you out, please do reach out and talk to a nearby counselor or therapist.
Teachers remember you cannot pour from an empty cup…
Priyanka Bantwal (enrichyourmind.in) is a Psychologist and Researcher. She specializes in elderly well-being, perinatal mental health, anxiety, depression, anger and stress management. An avid writer, she has been writing blogs and articles as a medium of generating mental health awareness and psycho-educating people.