As We Begin Year Two of the Pandemic, It’s Time to Talk About the Mental Health of Our Students and Teachers

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Last week my school's second semester began. My paraprofessional and I were talking about how time flies when I said, "I feel like we're all doing okay. Everyone's working their guts out, but we're halfway to summer vacation. Dang, we're good."

She just stared at me. The pregnant pause was just too much. "Are you kidding me? We're not okay."

This person is always optimistic so her comment caught me off-guard in a big way. I pressed and she offered…

"I'm constantly hearing more people talking about getting meds ‘to help' … Friends talk about family members losing their jobs and are having a tough time because their unemployment has run out … We keep talking about food insecurity in our town … I know people who have lost family members to Covid. People are grieving! We're tired. People are hurting, and it feels like there's no end in sight. We need this to be done!"

Well dang. Apparently I found her last nerve and jumped up and down on it.

Teachers and Students Are Susceptible to the Same Stressors and Risk Factors As Any Other Essential Worker

Teachers are tired, y'all. The dark circles under our eyes are now so dark that concealers won't hide them. It's okay, though, because we're too tired to apply it and can't go anywhere worthy of the effort to apply much more than the basic make-up anyway.

Glasses are needed for eyes that have become weary from squinting at computer screens. Extended computer use is making it necessary to protect those overworked eyeballs with blue light filtering lenses in our glasses. Teachers with kids at home are pulling double-duty - walking the path their peers created to get through the school day and experiencing all the frustrations that working parents everywhere are feeling as their kids struggle to get through the curriculum in the midst of the new normal.

At least we're owning our emotions. In a July 2020 poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of Americans indicated Covid-19 has definitely had a negative impact on their mental health. A survey conducted just a handful of months into the pandemic asked parents to identify behavioral differences in their children. A staggering 76% noticed an increase in their child's level of anxiety; a 52% increase in boredom; 31% increase in loneliness, and a 38% increase in nervousness.

We're suffering right alongside the children. Add in stress over job loss, food insecurity, marital challenges, and more and it's a recipe for disastrous emotional and psychological problems.

Thanks to input from readers, I'm hearing from parents and other teachers from across the country. That feedback is painting a picture of the sadness felt by many of us teachers as we attempt to navigate what can feel like a very scary situation.

As teachers, we're here to serve. Our intentions are to build up the children and people around us, but it sure doesn't feel like that's what's happening this year. Instead, It feels like we're responsible for the degradation of this school year even though we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that none of this is our fault.

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What Our Peers Have To Say About It All: Quotes From The Teachers I Work With


"My students have everything they need but I'm not happy. They're not either. I'm a hands-on teacher and I miss the connections that can only be made with students in-person. I do my absolute 100% best to engage my kids every day and to provide them high quality lessons. I just feel so sad most days when I go into the school building and know I'll be sitting alone in my room, in front of a screen all day. I long for the days when things will be back to ‘normal'."



"It is hard for our team to plan unless it's a weekend, but by then we're so tired that we just decide to work individually. We can occasionally catch each other via Zoom during lunch or preps but mostly we're alone. I spend hours after school prepping and planning. I never see my family."



"Students aren't being held accountable for their work or disrespectful behaviors. Parents know what their kids need to do and if they don't, they can call or email me. No one calls. I occasionally get an email. My administration team is doing nothing with students who are on a recorded video chat session and being very disrespectful. I guess they probably just don't know WHAT to do."



"Thanks to a grant from a major cell phone company, my kids have brand new iPads which have been loaned to them by our school. They have unlimited data and high quality cameras...they just refuse to turn them on, even when I ask/tell them to. It's hard to take attendance when you don't actually see a face. Mostly I think they simply log on and walk off. It's so frustrating."



"I would love it if my district would trust me to teach my classes in a way that makes sense for me and for the students. The decision the district's leadership has made doesn't fit our kids but we are obligated to comply. My students and I have had long talks about what it means to work within constraints and to surpass expectations. My hope is we can all do that. I don't want this year to be anything less than great even though it's going to be really different. Different doesn't always mean bad."



"In my community, so many people have lost their jobs that a lot of my high school students are going to work. Their employers are hiring them for day time hours and for nearly full-time shifts. I hate it but someone has to bring in some money to keep the families afloat. There just aren't many choices for some households."



"It would be wise of districts everywhere to look at how colleges and universities handle online learning and take a cue from them. If kids are going to have to work to help their families, or they aren't engaged/motivated to work virtually, then maybe something could be gained by doing this all a bit differently."



"My idea to work smart and not hard was shot down by my building's administration. I wanted to have a camera to live-feed the day for students who were virtual. They could participate in real-time. Instead of handing in their assignments in-person, they would simply email them or use Google. Nope. Instead, we were told to do it the prescribed way. Okay. Whatever."



"I wish the same level of grace was being extended to me as is being extended to my students and their parents."



"We are being expected to use our own devices. Mine aren't always reliable. My internet isn't always reliable, either, because of living in the country. If I'm being expected to use my own tools, I believe there should be additional compensation to not only pay my bills but also to pay to boost speed."



"Some of my students are in daycares where there are tons of other little ones. It is nearly impossible to help them or to keep their attention. It's an exercise in futility."



"My district decided to give us Wednesdays off without students so that we could have time every week to prep and contact students. We also have built in days this year--2 per month--for kids to come to school and see us by appointment in order to provide additional support as best we can while honoring social distancing."



Working Better Together To Strengthen Our Schools and Students

It's okay. We've got this! We teachers have ALWAYS risen above circumstances that felt--and often were--well beyond our control.

This year has made us do a different kind of hard work. We've had to be our own I.T. department. We've had to handle unique discipline issues. We've had to navigate the sometimes-perplexing waters of web-based classroom platforms. A segment of us have had to admit that our technology skills are sorely lacking and be willing to be old dogs who learn new tricks. We've all had to ask for help about something at some point and on many occasions, we've been told, "I don't know the answer to that." Great. Who does?

On too many occasions this school year, my teacher friends have been overheard using negative self-talk. Their social media posts reflect a darker side to their personalities which I've never before seen. They say they're okay. They say they're trying to stay positive. They say they're doing fine. They talk about their supportive teammates, their administrators who are using kinder words this year. They pronounce a feeling of relief when their district leadership sends out a one-size-fits-all email to faculty and staff telling them to "keep up the good work during these challenging, interesting, and unprecedented times." We read it, extend grace knowing their jobs are also difficult, and we move on.

But let's just be blatantly honest with one another: we are not okay. We keep saying we are, but we're not. What do we need? Quite simply, we need one another.

As teachers, we work hard to be optimistic, sparkly, and to let our lights shine. We are, ourselves, the quiet beacons of light to which our country has always looked. It is our mission and station in life to send our students out into the world, well-prepared, ready to face life and all it brings. We have done it so very well for so very long.

And We're Getting Better At This - The Results Speak for Themselves

We KNOW we're not even close to our expected ideal or normal but we're trying. We're trying so very hard.

In case you're unsure or don't believe that we're actually working successfully this year, take a look at what I'm hearing from my heroic peers about what is happening in our schools and classrooms:


"I've learned to take it day-by-day. I've learned to ask for help, offer help, and I've also set up video chat sessions with my own grandkids twice weekly. They're giving me ideas for what THEY would love their teacher to do. One idea was to have a class family meeting once a week. The class starts with celebrating good things--school-and not-school related. They then have an open discussion about what is and isn't working, what challenges they're facing, or anything they need to vent about without mentioning specific names of others. They end their meetings with fun awards--Person Who Smiled the Longest, Person Who Made Class Laugh a Lot This Week, etc."



"My class has decided to spend a few minutes at the end of each session discussing one act of kindness we did for someone in our home or circle. Kids have raked leaves for elderly neighbors--a perfect socially distanced activity--helping their parents with things around the house, writing letters to grandparents, sending cards to lonely seniors in nursing homes, helping siblings in ways they previously wouldn't have (cleaning their room, helping with school work, etc.). It has been so fun watching them find ways to do quiet acts of kindness."



"We decided to collect pennies within our own homes. The kids and I each put our pennies (and other coins) into a container by our computers and shake them at the end of each class session. We decided once each person gathers $10, they will choose a place or organization and make a donation. It's really helping them think more globally than they would have if we were in school all in one building. It's actually pretty ironic."



"When we had a student lose both parents to Covid, we had a very honest conversation about our sadness, our fears, and just how we were feeling in general. The families decided to donate to the funeral home to help offset expenses. The parents were hotel industry workers and money was always tight. The student was able to stay in his own home because it was a multi-generational home. The grandparents were very grateful and very surprised to receive our donation. The kids felt good helping their friend in a very real way."



"My class decided to make cards for the nursing home just down the road from our school. We spent hours creating them. It was so great for my students (we are face-to-face) to have a creative outlet and to feel like they were blessing someone's day. The home's administrator let the cards sit for a few days as a precaution before distributing them just as a precaution. And then when they were distributed, we were able to FaceTime with some of the residents. The kids LOVED the real-time interaction with the seniors. Everyone's day was so happy because of it. We decided to do it on a monthly basis."



"I have spent the majority of the year asking my younger colleagues for tech help. I want to learn and hate to bother them. They told me to keep asking because we're in it together. I will never discount the ideas of a younger staff person EVER again!"


As We Continue Through the Pandemic, We Will Continue To Be Creative, Supportive, and Supported

The clever group that we are, we have figured out how to manage to teach our virtual students on Zoom while teaching our campus students face-to-face at the same time. We've figured out how to lock out kids from accessing capabilities on Google classroom which can create havoc when left unmonitored. We have figured out how to work together as a team to work smarter, not harder-even though it took a proverbial minute to figure it out.

We are locking arms for the first time in a very long time, professionally speaking. We are standing up for our students, we are working very hard--maybe harder than we ever have in our entire careers. We have to find victory in the fact that no matter how perfect our screenshare attempts were or weren't, we did our best. We practiced, we read, we YouTubed, and we Googled to get it all figured out. Progress, not perfection, came our way. We will continue forward in our year. We will march on knowing that others are out there, just like us, who are spinning an all new set of plates than the ones spun in years past. A few plates will inevitably smash on the floor but the most important thing to remember is that there are people that are all around you--virtually and in-person. They will help you--they will help US--make it through this because together we CAN.

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