Improving Teacher Attendance by Embracing Mental Health

Jim Kallieris
Jim Kallieris
Early learning center principal; M.S. in Education
Female teacher pressing forehead to her hand and looking down at desk

While discussing and embracing mental health and wellness tends to be a taboo topic in public education, it is a topic that is near and dear to me. During the 2018-19 school year, I suffered a minor stroke due to several reasons that could be attributed to a medical condition, but other reasons that I attribute to not embracing my mental health and wellness.

Examining Teacher Burnout and the Importance of Teacher Attendance

One might ask, what causes teacher burnout? In one word, the answer is stress. Stress is real and has a lasting impact on an educator’s day-to-day well-being. As we all know, in the event of an emergency on an airplane, the passenger must first apply the oxygen mask to him or herself before helping others. However, educators have been conditioned to do just the opposite. When they see a child struggling socially, emotionally, or academically, their instinct is to do whatever possible to help remedy that situation for the child.

With each passing year, more and more students come to school with ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, which result from childhood trauma. When a child has experienced trauma at home, it is difficult for him or her to focus on schoolwork, as the child’s focus is on his or her immediate safety. Effectively, the child is in a fight-or-flight state of mind. Asking a child to learn at this time is absolutely ridiculous. Science tells us that it is impossible to learn something new when in a state of fear. The brain focuses first on what will make the child feel safe. Once the child feels safe, then and only then can she or he focus on learning.

Teachers tend to learn about their students’ lives at home throughout the course of the year. Learning that a child is being abused or neglected at home has a deep impact on that teacher’s well-being. Educators have to compartmentalize this information during the school day so that the children see a calm and safe environment led by a calm and safe teacher. At the end of each day, the teacher knows that the child has to return to the home where he or she is experiencing trauma. Knowing this, leads the teacher to sleepless nights of worry about what the child is experiencing at home, sometimes resulting in vicarious trauma.

The Importance of Mental Health

Lack of sleep and stress are toxic to the human body, which can lead to lower antibody levels and, ultimately, illness. When a teacher becomes ill, she or he must stay home in order to not spread the illness to the children. Teachers then have to create substitute teacher plans that are easy enough for the guest teacher to successfully complete. All educators and parents know that a child is not going to learn as much from a substitute teacher as they would from their own teacher. Not to mention, there is a shortage of quality substitute teachers nationwide.

If an educator does not embrace his or her mental health and well-being, he or she will not be able to effectively improve the learning of the children in the classroom. Keeping this in mind, most teachers are not aware that their school district provides an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs provide support, counseling, and resources for life issues that can take a toll on a teacher’s emotional well-being or take time away from the things that teachers value most, like work and family. The services are confidential, free, and available when a teacher needs them.

How Prioritizing Mental Health can Improve Teacher Attendance

When school districts prioritize mental health and wellness, it can improve teacher attendance. Just like their students, teachers must feel safe and well in order to provide the best learning experiences for children. When a teacher knows that his or her district embraces mental health, it may be easier for the teacher to plan in advance to create a quality lesson plan and reach out to a preferred substitute teacher rather than using an emergency lesson plan with a random substitute teacher. Taking an occasional “mental health” day would not be as detrimental to student learning as an emergency sick day. This, in turn, could lead to happier and healthier teachers and, in the long run, improved teacher attendance.

What I’ve learned since my minor stroke over a year ago is twofold. 1) Teachers must listen to their bodies and utilize the Employee Assistance Program when needed. 2) School districts must embrace the mental health and wellness of their staff and provide them the support they require.

One way a district can embrace mental health and wellness is to adopt a Trauma-Informed Care program and provide teachers with professional development opportunities to care for themselves as well as those around them. Some school administrators even initiate a tap-in,

tap-out system for their staff. This allows staff members to take a break when the stress of the job becomes overwhelming. Either the administrator or another qualified staff member takes over the class while the affected teacher is taking a “mental health” break. When schools have a calming place like a garden or sensory room, both teachers and students can utilize it in order to “restart” after having the opportunity to calm themselves.

As our students experience more trauma with each passing year, our teachers need more support. In the end, educators cannot care for others if they are not caring for themselves first.

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