National Mental Health Awareness Month falls in May, along with Mother’s Day and — in many regions — the end of the school year.
The month’s remembrances present an ideal opportunity for educators to take steps to avoid mental burnout which, while a risk for all educators, is a particular concern for women.
Women are almost overwhelmingly the caregivers in a family, whether they’re attending to children, aging parents or, often, both. And women account for the vast majority of educators: 96% of speech-language pathologists, 87% of school psychologists and 77% of public school teachers identify themselves that way.
That means female educators may experience even higher levels of stress as they deal with the effects of the current mental health crisis both at school and at home.
Liz Grose, a mom of two with another on the way, understands the strain many educators work under. Currently an assessment consultant at Pearson, she previously spent six years as a school psychologist. “I worked in high-poverty school districts where there were physical needs along with academic and behavioral ones,” she says. “There were never enough resources to get everything done, and I know that many challenges, such as staffing shortages, have since become even more pressing.”
As an educator, your goal is to advocate for your students’ needs. But doing so must not come at the expense of your own wellbeing. As you reflect on National Mental Health Awareness Month, the start of summer and all that’s on your plate, here are four ways to close out the year strong and prepare for your own summer “vacation.”
1. Ask for what you need.
We often tell our students to “use their words” to express their needs. That goes for adults too, notes Grose, citing Mother’s Day as a perfect example. Pop culture — from memes to TV shows — frequently depicts a disappointed mom whose family failed to pick up on her clues about how she wanted to spend the day.
Grose can relate to an extent. Her ideal Mother’s Day would consist of something simple: a restful morning, a hearty family breakfast and then some time spent outdoors. But over the years she has recognized that her kids' and husband’s “love language” is the opposite of hers as they love to give and receive physical things.
“While I have been the recipient of many nice presents over the years, it's up to me to redirect them and remind them I don’t need the big shopping spree,” she says. “When we're direct, we get what we want and need, and our families don't have to try to guess what would make us feel celebrated, and perhaps fall short despite their best intentions.”
The anticipation of summer and a full house is also a good time to consider a better division of household chores and activities. By introducing your kids to basic life skills, like cooking simple meals and doing laundry, you’ll prepare them for their futures while freeing up time for activities that help you recharge.
2. Build your support team.
No one knows the experience of being an educator better than another educator, and connecting with colleagues can be powerful. “When you're overwhelmed, you risk losing perspective on the bigger picture,” Grose notes. “Having other people to rely on helps me keep perspective and a sense of humor. You just feel lighter overall when you have other people supporting you.”
However, she acknowledges that establishing this network of support can be a particular challenge for school psychologists and other educators who don't work in just one school.
“When you're not there daily, you may not be involved in the more social aspects enjoyed by other educators.” She advises recognizing that while you might not automatically be invited to some opportunities, you can still forge bonds. “We're all passionate about our students,” she says, “but we also have other interests that offer a way to connect with colleagues.”
3. Focus on mindfulness.
While a spa retreat might sound like the ultimate in self-care, we stand to reap even more benefits from little joys that are easy to integrate into our daily lives. Grose finds herself refreshed from time outside, but you don’t need to go on a day-long hike in the mountains to feed that need. “It could be as simple as taking a 15-minute break outside to go for a short walk and get some fresh air,” she says.
Many people point to exercise as one of their biggest stress relievers, while others find peace in meditation or reading — whatever feeds your soul. Healthy habits, like adequate sleep and nutrition, can also be gifts to yourself.
And as you’re looking forward to the summer and the chance to recharge, take a minute to think even further ahead to “next year you.” As much as you might want to gleefully run out the door with your students when the final bell rings, Grose found she was better able to unplug during the summer when she took time for reflection at the end of the year, documenting positive outcomes and new ideas.
“Writing down observations while they are fresh in your mind allows you to set work aside and spend quality time with family or on yourself, free from distractions.”
4. Use technology to make your life easier.
Educators are typically eager technology adopters, and they are quick to identify digital tools that can make their lives more efficient.
For Grose, that includes household apps like shared grocery lists and calendars, and work-related tools like templates for emails or reports — all of which allow her to free up her mental load.
Tools to help gain insights from assessments can be especially helpful for time-strapped educators looking to stay on top of students’ progress year-round.
One app for educators she recommends is Pearson’s Q-interactive, a digital system that automates the administration and scoring of Pearson assessments. Traditionally the examiner has had to be regimented in how they administer these precise tests, but Q-interactive automates much of the administration so educators can focus on the student instead.
“My qualitative observations are so much richer using Q-interactive because I feel like I gain more insight into how the student learns and how they demonstrate their learning,” Grose says. “I can provide better recommendations since I can see what they’ve been struggling with academically or where they may benefit from behavioral interventions, such as building additional coping skills.”
Better and faster assessment data can also free up educators’ time for other priorities. Pearson asked more than 1,500 educators what they would do if they had an extra hour to spend on something to improve their workday. Those educators said they’d use that extra hour to prioritize their physical and mental health, as well as spend more time with students and their families.
The transformative power of self-care for mental health
Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity for educators to prioritize their own mental wellbeing while also advocating for the mental health needs of the students and families they serve.
“Most people recognize the importance of mental health in others, but the challenge comes from realizing you need to give yourself the same care,” Grose says. “However, it's a continuous process. No one's exempt from stress, but building a healthy mindset and habits will pay dividends in your personal and professional life.”