I’ve been a school social worker for the last 15 years, so I am acutely aware of our nation’s mounting youth mental health crisis. I know that robust mental health and social-emotional support for students are non-negotiable in education and I applaud the new programs and resources designed to address this urgent challenge for our students. But what about the mental health of our educators?
Yes, the mental health crisis for teachers is also capturing headlines, especially for its assumed connection to our worsening teacher shortage. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen nearly as much investment or innovation on behalf of our educators.
A year ago, I came across an opportunity to change that. I was offered a job at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School as a school social worker — but with a unique spin on the traditional role. I split my time between serving the students and adults in the building. While I still have a caseload of students who I meet with regularly, my job description explicitly states that I am the mental health provider for the staff at our school. My colleagues can place an appointment on my calendar, pull me aside in case of a crisis or emergency, and text or call me at any time.
Initially, I was reluctant to take the position. I became a school social worker because of my deep passion for helping, nurturing and caring for young people. I know the need for that work is greater than ever, especially for students from marginalized communities that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, like the students we serve at Brooklyn Lab. But, what inspired me to take this position and what has energized me every day since, is that I now understand how supporting the adults in the school is among the most important things I can do on behalf of my students.
The creation of this role — an on-site, dedicated mental health resource for teachers and staff — is different from how I’ve seen most schools attempt to tackle teacher mental health. While benefits like free lunch, an extra planning period, or professional development on self-care for teachers can be supportive, they can often feel like Band-Aids on top of a gaping wound.
That’s why my job is so innovative and effective. As a person who walks the halls with the same students and families as my colleagues, I’m able to quickly and tangibly support them with many day-to-day challenges. Sometimes people come to me with personal problems outside of their jobs, but most of the time teachers come to see me about professional challenges. People drop by my office or send me a text because they need to talk about their experiences to someone who understands what they’re going through.
The majority of my conversations center on how teachers can improve their practice. Yes, there are essential skills and technical knowledge that are necessary to teach the quadratic formula, improve reading comprehension or conjugate verbs in Spanish. But any teacher will tell you that a huge part of teaching also relies on soft skills.
So, how do you cope when your entire classroom won’t listen? What do you do when you desperately want to reach a student who is checked out? How do you build relationships with a family and engage them as a partner? And perhaps the biggest issue: How do educators cope with the secondary trauma that they are increasingly carrying themselves? These are the kinds of questions my colleagues want to explore with me. Some have concrete answers, but most of the time these questions are emotional weights and teachers need an outlet and a safe space to process them.
Whether teachers come to me with personal or professional challenges, most of them are leveraging my support because finding time outside of school to care for their own mental health isn’t possible. The teachers and staff I work with give everything they have to their job. So much, in fact, that they often don’t have time or resources to seek support for themselves. If we can’t find a way to provide it for them in a way that is truly accessible, we can’t expect them to show up and be their best selves for our students.
If we want to shift the emotional toll of this profession, and better equip our educators to take on the many challenges our students are facing, we must start investing differently in teacher mental health. My role is not the only way to do this, but it certainly has proven effective and transformative for our school community. Since my school created this position, we have seen a 25 percent jump in teacher satisfaction on an annual staff survey designed to assess what’s needed to improve the work environment.
I am acutely aware that this kind of effort takes significant financial and human resources. We are investing more to address the youth mental health crisis, which is critical. But we’re not taking a close enough look at the role educators play and how to support their well-being.
Taking innovative approaches to supporting teacher mental health will not only curb our increasing challenges with teacher burnout, it ultimately makes schools more connected and effective for everyone — teachers, staff, students, and families.