Teacher wellbeing: 5 ways to boost your mental health

We know that being a teacher is one of the most challenging professions, which is why it’s so important to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing. Right now across Australia, teachers are reporting higher levels of stress, and, according to a research study out of Monash University, 59% of teachers say they want to leave the profession altogether.

Michelle, an Assistant Principal at a regional primary school in New South Wales, understands these concerns. “Our workload has become huge. Every day, we’re a counsellor or a nurse or a psychologist – we’re everything,” she said. “Teaching time gets taken up dealing with students’ wellbeing, whether it’s friendship problems or anxiety. A lot of our teaching time isn’t teaching time anymore.” 

Many school leaders agree that teacher wellbeing needs to become a higher priority for the sake of school communities and teacher retention. “There has been little to no time for our teachers to catch their breath after the events of the past two years,” said Samantha Brown, CEO of Peer Support Australia. “Our students need teachers who are equipped to care for their own health and wellbeing.”

But the question remains: How can teachers better care for themselves and their own wellbeing in the midst of such challenging times? The upcoming mid-year break provides a timely opportunity for teachers to rest and reflect on ways to prioritise mental health. 

Identify your support system and embrace your community 

Key to wellbeing for a teacher is surrounding yourself with a steady support system. Connect with friends and loved ones who can support you, from providing a listening ear to sharing a meal after a long day. 

“Don’t try and carry the load or feel guilty about it if you’re not coping, or things are becoming really hard,” advised Michelle. “Find a trusted colleague in the school, and talk to family and friends.” 

Set firm boundaries, with your students and with yourself

Teachers have a reputation for being available at all hours of the day. Setting firm boundaries with your students to set expectations about when you are and are not available does not mean you care any less. 

Michelle said, “In this profession, because you feel as though you have to look after everybody else, you increase your workload as you go. So it’s important that, as teachers, we start to say no to the pressures and the bits and pieces that come up.” 

Process emotions in a healthy classroom environment

Oftentimes teachers believe they need to hide or mask their feelings in the classroom. And while this is true to an extent, it’s also helpful for students to see someone share their emotions in a healthy, positive way. 

Incorporating a daily mental wellbeing practice builds in time for students and teachers to regulate, take a breath, and slow down during the day. When students feel seen and heard, it decreases disruptive activity and cultivates a healthier classroom environment.

Take time to celebrate the positive moments

It’s easy to get bogged down by difficult situations at school and the lingering impacts of the pandemic. That’s why it’s vital to take time to celebrate the ‘wins,’ or positive moments. It can be as small as your favourite cup of tea to spending time outdoors with a friend. When we shift our mindset from looking for the positive instead of expecting the negative, our outlook and wellbeing begin to shift as well. 

Use school breaks to rest and replenish

Instead of using breaks to catch up on lesson planning or schoolwork, make intentional time to rest. After a long term, your mind and body need time to recuperate before jumping back into the classroom. 

You know yourself best. You may need more time gardening, walking, or reading. Or, you may be a social butterfly who draws energy from spending time with people. Make a list of ways you can best care for yourself and set aside time to do so during the mid-year break. 

Address teacher wellbeing across the whole school

Teacher wellbeing is central to creating a thriving school community. Without addressing school-wide challenges like understaffing and providing little time for lesson planning, teachers will continue to burn out. 

“We need to remember that caring for our teachers is a community responsibility,” said Ms Brown. “When school leadership provides tangible ways to reduce institutional stress and create a positive school culture for teachers, everyone, from students to their families, benefits.”

One of the best ways for school systems and principals to support teacher wellbeing is to simply ask staff what they need. Every teacher and school operate in their own way and will have their own unique needs. Other ways schools can improve teacher wellbeing and prevent burnout include:

  • Increase time during the school day for planning and reporting
  • Connect teachers with mentors and mentees
  • Reevaluate the number of recurring or extraneous meetings

“As teachers, we always feel guilty that we’re letting people down,” said Michelle. “But, we’re not going to be any good to ourselves or others if we have burnout or mental health issues going on.”

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Let’s continue to build resilience in our kids

First published in The Daily Telegraph on 03 June 2022. Reproduced with permission.

In his election victory speech, Anthony Albanese made the point that every parent wants more for the next generation than they had.

He added no one should be left behind because we should always look after the disadvantaged and the vulnerable and he wants every parent to be able to tell their child that no matter where you live or where you come from, in Australia the doors of opportunity are open to us all.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Prime Minister – and encourage his government to put young Australians at the centre of their efforts to ensure no-one is left behind.

For the past 50 years, Peer Support Australia has been rolling out proven youth wellbeing programs in schools to help young Australians learn the skills they need to cope with an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain world.

We know the pandemic lockdowns hit young people particularly hard and led to dramatic increases in depression and isolation.

A survey of 20,000 teenagers, by the charity Mission Australia, found that half were suffering mental health prob- lems due to the two-year pandemic.

From bushfires to floods, droughts, global health emergencies and dire warnings of climate disaster, there is a lot thrown at young people and we owe it to them to prepare them for an uncertain future.

Many young Australians really don’t have enough experience in the memory bank to realise that things do eventually get better – because they haven’t seen a silver lining in the past few years.

Peer Support Australia welcomes the new government’s strong commitment to support the wellbeing of young Australians through its proposed Student Wellbeing Boost.

The Boost recognises the significant impact the pandemic has had on young Australians and aligns closely with the objectives of the Peer Support Program that operates in around 1000 schools across Australia.

This program supports young people to strengthen their social and emotional skills to successfully navigate chal- lenges as they arise in their lives and we are looking forward to working with the new government on supporting more young people.

And, given the scale of the youth mental health crisis being seen in Australia, we need to dramatically widen the net to ensure we are capturing many more young people in crisis.

The Peer Support Program empowers young people to support each other and contribute positively to their school and community.

I want to see it in more schools around the country.

Placing students at the centre of their learning, we empower them with practical skills and strategies to posi- tively navigate life and relationships.

Peer Support Australia provides schools with professional development, support and guidance to address school-wide wellbeing and implement our programs.

Teachers say the program helps stu- dents form strong cross-grade relation- ships, improve their social problem- solving ability and build a stronger sense of connection and belonging.

After the difficulties of the past two years for young people in Australia, it has never been more important to prioritise wellbeing and build resilience in students and we look forward to working with the new government on achieving this.

Samantha Brown is the CEO of Peer Support Australia