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Mental Health in Education: A KET Forum

Kentucky educators share their classroom experiences since the COVID-19 outbreak and how they're addressing mental health concerns among their peers and students. Renee Shaw hosts.
Season 1 Episode 18 Length 56:33 Premiere: 03/21/22

Educators Discuss COVID-19's Impact on Schools and Policy Changes to Help Students and Teachers Rebound

Here are key takeaways from a KET Forum hosted by Renee Shaw focusing on state of mental health among Kentucky educators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists share their classroom experiences and how they are addressing mental health concerns among their peers and students.

Challenges Arise for Educators During an Unprecedented Time

Early in 2022, an anonymous, online survey of Kentucky educators conducted by IMPACT found that 75 percent of respondents said that they were, to some degree, concerned with the emotional wellbeing of their colleagues due to changes in the school setting and teaching process forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty-four percent of respondents said that they were concerned about their own emotional wellbeing, and 40 percent said that they felt either somewhat, slightly, or not effective at all at doing their job.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says that statistics indicating teachers’ concern about mental health and job stress had been trending upward prior to the onset of the COVID-pandemic in spring 2020, and they have surged since then. He says the current situation is unprecedented for teachers due to an increased amount of external pressure weighing on them as they try to educate students during a health crisis, economic instability, and political divisiveness.

“We’ve seen dropping numbers of people entering the teaching profession, and now we’re hearing that we may see a large exodus this year as a result of all the stress,” Glass says. “Teaching is a difficult, challenging, stressful job in any time. It’s an exhilarating and a great career but it is always a challenging and stressful job without recovering from a pandemic, and without the culture wars and hyper-partisan politics being brought into schools.”

Willie Carver, the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and a French and English teacher at Montgomery Co. High School, authored an op-ed in February 2022 where he assessed that Kentucky education was facing a “make or break” moment. Explaining his view, Carver says that he increasingly sees teachers’ ability to positively influence students and shape young minds in the right direction being hindered by external forces. These include the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed in-person classroom attendance for much of 2020 and 2021 and kept students separated from their teachers and from one another.

“I think there is a lot of unaddressed trauma among students,” he says. “I think there is a lot of bridging of divides that has to happen, and one of the most interesting divides to me is when people say, ‘How can you stand 200 kids?’ That’s the best part. At no point ever are the kids the issue, but there are a lot of behavior issues that are clearly tied to trauma.” For example, Carver sees a higher number of students lashing out with violence as a way to deal with their feelings and, alternately, students who’ve become withdrawn. “I see more students who need more help to engage than I’ve seen before, and that obviously has a toll on the teacher as well,” he says.

Students’ Mental Health Concerns Affecting Teachers

Dontryse Greer, district mental health specialist for Fayette Co. Public Schools, says that she’s seen more students grapple with anxiety in recent months due to the pandemic. She is responsible for over 2,000 kids, and says that she and her colleagues have had to work hard to help students return to the environment of in-person attendance after so many of them became accustomed to going to class in a virtual setting from their homes. She says that during the first semester back for students in fall 2021, her office had a “revolving door” due to a multitude of students seeking help with mental wellness. That constant workload has led to increased stress, anxiety, and burnout for teachers and counselors as well.

“For teachers, it’s been a toll on all of us working with all of the different things we’ve had to overcome,” Greer says. “I feel that a lot of teachers and staff do need that time to ourselves once we’re away from (school) to de-brief and to get additional mental health services for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a counselor or therapist, or knowing what your coping skill is to relieve the stress.”

Sarah Smorstad, a math and reading interventionist at Nicholasville Elementary, taught first grade during fall 2021 before taking on her current role. She says that she had taught preschool from home for almost two years before returning, and was startled to see a disparity among her students once everyone came back to school. Ten of them who had been taught preschool and kindergarten in an entirely virtual setting during 2020 and 2021 were lacking in the social skills required for in-person attendance – it was an entirely new experience for them.

“They didn’t know how to walk in a hallway, they had never been in a cafeteria before. There was lots of crying every morning because nobody could walk them in,” she says. Transitioning those kids to classroom learning was difficult, even with help from counselors, and Smorstad believes she still has secondary trauma from that period. “There were days when I cried at the end of the day, because these were kids and they were struggling, and they were six and seven years old and they had missed the beginning of their education, they were really behind, and they were anxious,” she says.

The student makeup in Pulaski Co. High School, where Kaitlyn Mullins teaches English, includes a high percentage of teens who live under the poverty line and may not have a stable home environment. Mullins says that there has been an increase in students acting out once they’ve been back in the classroom and that the heightened level of conflict and tension has affected teachers, some of whom had not seen their students in person for over a year. Still, she believes that it’s the teacher’s role to not only educate students, but to help them deal with their problems – even if doing so increases stress for the teacher.

“To just react with discipline or anger or frustration will never solve the issue, and it’s not just an issue in high school, or middle or elementary school. [Students] move on and become citizens in our communities and if they don’t learn these skills about how to regulate their emotions and to deal with the situations they’re going through, then we’re doing them a disservice, I think,” Mullins says. “It is unsettling to think that they might not have anyone at home who cares about the way they’re feeling or what they’re going through. Their teachers and their friends at school might be the only ones.”

Student attendance has been a problem for many districts since in-person class was brought back during the 2020-2021 school year, say both Smorstad and Mullins. During that time, many districts alternated periods of virtual learning and in-person classes based on fluctuating infection rates for COVID-19. Mullins says that her school has yet to fully get back to normal in the spring semester of 2022.

Putting Relationships First: New Programs for Achieving Mental Wellness

Angie Watts, a second-grade teacher at May Valley Elementary in Floyd Co., has relied on a variety of approaches to assist her students as they return to the normal routine of in-person classes. She notes that the adjustment is just as hard for many students who are successful academically as it is for those who traditionally needed more instruction and guidance before the pandemic upended everything.

“We’ve really tried to put relationships first, and keep that at the center of our focus,” Watts says. “In particular, we’re trying to look heavily at their social and emotional needs. Our district as a whole has done an excellent job. They’ve purchased a wonderful SEL (social emotional learning) program, and it’s very user-friendly. Each morning, we do this computer-based lesson, and it talks about seven different mindsets and it’s very motivational and encouraging.”

When reaching out to her kids, Watts keeps in mind that COVID-19 has caused everyone in society to adjust their daily living and longer-term goals. “In the past, when my students would go through something, it was sometimes hard to relate, because I had never experienced that trauma. But this is something where we’re all in the same boat in a sense, and we’re all experiencing it together,” she says.

In Daviess County, the school system introduced a kindness campaign for students during the pandemic and also reserved areas in some schools for staff wellness rooms. Christina Dalton, district social worker in Daviess Co., says that teachers and staff use these wellness rooms to take brief breaks during the school day. “When they need that five minutes of peace and quiet,” she says. “Those have been very successful in our district.”

In addition, Daviess Co. Schools held a mental health summit called Project Umbrella Summit in 2021 via a grant from Owensboro Health. “We had over 500 educators that were able to come to Owensboro, and we put on a one-day conference with national speakers and breakout sessions,” she says. “Teachers and family resource and mental health staff could all come and get evidence-based strategies, and they could leave with tools in their toolbox that they could immediately go and implement with students and families.” The second Project Umbrella is scheduled for Aug. 2.

What Teachers Need to Recover from the Pandemic and Move Forward

Willie Carver says that the Kentucky Department of Education identified three major stressors for teachers. Two of those concerned a lack organizational trust and support and not having autonomy as a teacher.

“I’ll readily admit that I’ve cried more than once because I’ve thought, ‘I can’t possibly be Teacher of the Year,’ because I felt so unsuccessful,” Carver says. Balancing the responsibility of educating students and also attending to their emotional wellbeing has always been difficult, he explains, but during the pandemic it has become impossible to achieve on a consistent basis. Too many students have missed and are continuing to miss class, while others are dealing with levels of trauma that are unprecedented.

“It’s always something new that’s being asked of us, and there’s not a lot of thanks,”
Sarah Smorstad says. “We hear the complaining more than we hear the voice of appreciation.” She believes that most teachers are perfectionists and are responsive to constructive criticism, but maintains that the current social environment where parents or other people can attack teachers anonymously online has created an incredibly stressful situation. One way parents can help is just by letting teachers know when they’ve done something positive for students, rather than only communicating to them when something’s wrong, she says.

“I definitely think a pay increase shows appreciation, but even just some flexibility in days off, such as a mental health day for a teacher. Right now, I have just one personal day a year,” Smorstad says. “I think something needs to be done to make teaching more comparable to other professions.”

Dontryse Greer agrees with Smorstad that giving teachers mental health days to use when they become overwhelmed would be very beneficial. She says that she has seen teachers, counselors, and staff use sick days for mental health – “A sick day is a sick day, and your mental health is that,” she says. She adds that offering therapy services to teachers would be well received, recalling a recent incident where an educator came to her office and broke down. Greer told her to go home and tend to her mental health needs. “We can’t flow from an empty cup,” she says.

“The core reason people go into teaching is altruistic – they want to support students, they believe in serving others, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Commissioner Glass says. “But educators are also rational people. They do that calculus, balancing that altruism versus can they manage their own finances and stresses at home, and what sort of supports are around them to help them be successful at their jobs. And those things have eroded.”

Glass believes that a growing number of state legislators are aware of the myriad mental health problems affecting teachers, but he worries that the crisis will have to hit “rock bottom” before significant changes in education policy are made in Frankfort. “I think we’re right on the edge of that now,” he says, noting that many rural districts are having a hard time recruiting teachers and staff for positions that traditionally have had a glut of applicants.

And for current teachers, Glass says that the financial pressures brought about by an uncertain economic time have only added to their anxiety. The commissioner states that teachers deserve a raise at least to keep pace with the higher level of inflation that currently exists. “That seems to be a reasonable thing to ask for – and even beyond that, because we’ve gone numerous years without meeting that benchmark, so our educators are falling behind,” he says.

Kaitlyn Mullins says that when the COVID-19 pandemic began and all schools went to virtual instruction, many parents who were home with their kids during the seven or eight hours of school per day gained a newfound respect for the hard work teachers do on a minute-by-minute basis. “And then, very quickly they got frustrated and overwhelmed, and they are also not being paid for that job, and some of them started to say, ‘My kids need to be back in school and teachers need to be doing their job,’” she says.

Mullins notes that most teachers are doing their job for altruistic reasons as Commissioner Glass mentioned – but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to make a living. “An increase in our compensation is valid, it is something that we deserve,” she says. Mullins also believes that teachers should have more input in organizing the school schedule, allowing for more substitute days if needed.

Ultimately, Commissioner Glass believes that parents and state and local government leaders must do all they can to “see teachers thrive,” to use a phrase from 2021 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubay. “Our kids need to see teachers thrive,” he says. “And if we want people to come into the teaching profession, they need to see their own teachers thriving.”

Glass says that the preponderance of criticism currently being directed at public schools and teachers by political actors is misguided. While there are always things to improve, he stresses that far more success stories exist in every school, and they occur on a daily basis. “We’ve got to stop politicizing the teaching profession and start getting toward, how can we support the people that are doing this important work,” he says.

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