The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

TLDR: Teacher burnout is a real risk. The mental health of teachers also has a significant impact on students. Besides relying on their peers and official support channels, teachers can practise meditation to promote greater mental wellness for themselves and their students.

The Missing Conversation

“What’s missing from the conversation in schools is the mental well-being of teachers.”

So goes a comment from a former secondary school teacher, as quoted in a CNA Insider post, which highlighted the challenges that teachers have faced. As netizens generally agreed, teachers have it tough. 

Struggling to cover content while keeping up with new policies and coping with safe management measures, answering multiple stakeholders like parents, colleagues, and supervisors. Teachers may find it all rather overwhelming. 

If a common refrain of critics is to ask who guards the guards, can we ask in turn how we can care more for the caregivers? 

How should we take better care of teachers’ mental health, especially from a Dhamma-based perspective?

Burnout and Brownout

The issue of mental wellness has preoccupied the nation’s collective imagination in recent months. Reports have noted that, in comparison to their peers globally, Singaporean workers experienced higher than average levels of burnout: around half felt exhausted, while almost 60% felt overworked. For professions as demanding as teaching, the risk of burnout seems particularly acute. 

Aside from ‘burnout’, more workplaces have observed increased incidence of ‘brownout’ — akin to the reduction in voltage which results in the dimming and flickering of lights — in the workplace environment. This would refer to the stage before the point of burnout, as a loss of interest in work and life, in general, threatens to slip into depression. 

I’m reminded of the five hindrances in Buddhism: perhaps experiences of burnout and brownout constitute a toxic mixture of states of torpor, intensified by restlessness, worry, and doubt.

Some have raised the deeper question about the role of teachers and the scope of their responsibilities. In a widely-shared video by RiceMedia, artist-musician and former teacher Chew Wei Shan recounts what it was like to be marking on weekends and juggling multiple obligations like managing a CCA, managing parents’ expectations, and so on. 

She movingly describes her experiences at school, which included dissuading a teenager from jumping off a roof at 2 AM, having chairs and scissors thrown at her, and male students cornering her while “eating [her] worksheet in [her] face”. 

At the same time, she observes how emotionally invested teachers can be in the lives of the hundreds of students they meet every year. 

As she reflects, it’s hard for teachers to avoid bringing back home worries about the students, or to prevent themselves from evaluating the little choices they make daily.

More than to ‘Just Teach’

As an NIE lecturer of mine once quipped, “If you want to just teach and only teach, you should be a full-time tutor.” 

To be a teacher, however, is far more than just to teach. 

It also means being a confidant, ready to step in when the need to counsel students arises, in addition to being an event planner, community organiser, safety officer, and a myriad of other roles. 

I’m reminded of the figure of Kuan Yin, the thousand-armed bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, whose numerous arms deliver aid to all suffering sentient beings, and who tirelessly offers blessings in the spirit of boundless compassion and wisdom. 

Perhaps teachers, who have dutifully coached and comforted students despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are akin to modern bodhisattvas, selflessly devoting their time and effort to the welfare of their young charges.

But unlike Kuan Yin, teachers generally don’t have infinite energy and knowledge. Many teachers have also gone out of their way to ensure that programmes and lessons can proceed uninterrupted. 

For instance, as described in a TODAY article, as mass assembly programmes had to be halted due to safe management measures, teachers had to equip themselves with new skills such as how to record or live-stream performances to be presented via video-conferencing tools for events like Racial Harmony Day. 

The work involved in preparing for such events, in addition to other preparatory work needed to create resources for home-based learning or other activities, may have taken a toll on teachers over the past two years.

No System is Perfect

In response to concerns about excessive workloads as a result of duties apart from teaching, the Ministry of Education has clarified that the appraisal of teachers is such that their contributions are given recognition in all aspects of work, taking into account their efforts in aiding students’ holistic growth. 

As for administrative duties, there has been significant progress made to minimise teachers’ workloads by incorporating technology like the Parents’ Gateway app, as well as the evaluation and furnishing of manpower support. Furthermore, the ministry has reminded schools to review their systems of management so that teachers’ responsibilities can be better managed. 

On the ground, much depends on individual schools, school leaders, and colleagues, but at least official clarifications signal purposeful angling of priorities and directions for future educational policies. 

In a world governed by Dukkha (dissatisfaction), no system is perfect, but teachers can still refine and shape their sphere of influence to promote greater awareness and understanding of the roles that they play, and the effects they have on others. 

Interdependence: Teachers & Students

As former nominated MP, Anthea Ong, was quoted to have observed, “A student who is not well affects the well-being of a teacher—and a teacher who is not well affects the students. These two things need to be looked at in totality.” 

This reminded me of the concept of interdependence, or interbeing, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. 

When we understand how all phenomena exist concerning one another, we develop an awareness of the welfare of one is contingent on the other. Teachers and students are inextricably interconnected.

Such interdependence also explains why teachers play such a critical role in modelling to students what mental health entails. Students mirror their teachers in many ways, and the effect of teacher modelling can hardly be underestimated.

If teachers are calm and steady, students naturally sense this and develop a similar composure. If teachers are anxious or worried, students also succumb more easily to such fearful states of mind. Students are extremely observant towards the emotional tenor of their teachers, and they can quickly spot any discrepancy between teachers’ words and feelings. 

Getting off my Treadmill of Suffering

All this is based on personal experience. I remember how, amid one particularly difficult period in school, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. All the work involved in teaching graduating classes, setting examination papers, managing a CCA, coordinating committee work, organising events, responding to parents, and so on—with the cycle repeating every semester—had left me feeling like I was on a samsaric treadmill that could not stop.

I hardly realised it at the time, but without adequate strategies to cope with stress through skilful means, the atmosphere of my classes had been compromised. Even though I thought I kept maintaining my encouraging and reassuring classroom persona in front of students, my students shared privately after school with me that they noticed how I was often worried and anxious in class. 

My micro-expressions and other body language cues must have revealed my sense of tension and unease, which had invariably filtered into my students’ consciousness as well.

Fortunately, after my students alerted me to this, I began a process of self-reflection and lifestyle adjustment. I went through all my duties to reschedule or de-prioritise whatever I could. I blocked off time for sleep (instead of marking into the wee hours) and time for regular meals (instead of skipping lunch). 

In the evenings and on weekends, I set aside time for spiritual reading, and often I would also be listening to Dhamma talks like those by Ajahn Brahm. I made a conscious effort to shift my default state of mind from restlessness and agitation to calmness and equanimity.

This shift paid off—my students noticed that I was more ‘alive’ and present during class.

It was a testament to the importance of self-care, which far from being selfish, is essential for long-term flourishing. It means setting boundaries and respecting one’s own physical and psychological limits. 

The Power of Mindfulness

As Venerable Thubten Chodron observes in her book Good Karma, “Giving up self-preoccupation does not entail making ourselves suffer. We must take care of ourselves… this human body is the basis of our precious human life that gives us the possibility to learn and practise the Dhamma.”

Meditation can also be a powerful means of promoting greater mental wellness. When my school counsellor conducted weekly secular guided mindfulness practice sessions for the whole school via the PA system, I noticed how helpful it was for my students to begin the day with such a dose of calm. 

This practice signalled how mindfulness could be beneficial for the mainstream. Through mindfulness practice, students could increase their attentiveness, reduce test anxiety, and develop greater impulse control. Teachers in turn could cultivate a greater sense of balance and become more responsive to students’ needs.

Naturally, this is not to suggest that mindfulness alone is a panacea for all teachers who experience burnout. For teachers experiencing mental health issues, support from colleagues and official channels (such as counselling services offered by the Academy of Singapore Teachers) would be crucial. 

Seeking such professional help should also never be a cause for stigmatisation. We can continue to develop a culture in which self-care is safeguarded, and access to affordable therapeutic care is normalised. 

Perhaps we could learn from therapeutic circles of care, such as those established in other countries that have leveraged community partners like trained grandmothers to provide affordable mental health support. At the same time, mindfulness can help to enhance teachers’ abilities, while ensuring that they can care for themselves in ways that allow them to care better for others. 

If “wisdom springs from meditation” (Dhammapada v. 282), teachers are in a unique position to cultivate life-changing qualities of wisdom and compassion through the practice of mindfulness for the benefit of their students.

By championing and foregrounding the importance of mental wellness, teachers can better empower their students to learn, grow, and pass on the light of mindful living to others.


Wise Steps:

  • Develop a sense of purpose and meaning in the work that you do. Minimise the risk of burnout by prioritising tasks, based on discussions with colleagues and superiors.

  • Never be too busy to take care of your physical and emotional well-being. Schedule time for regular meals and sleep. Reading or listening to Dhamma talks can also promote your mental wellness.

  • Engage in mindfulness practice as a daily habit to ground and centre yourself during difficult times. Remain motivated to practise by staying connected to like-minded spiritual friends.
Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

This teaching is compilation of teachings extracted from talks/interviews with Dr Gabor Mate, Luang Por Sumedho, and Tara Brach.

Hungry ghosts can’t get enough satisfaction

In the Buddhist psychology, there are a number of realms that all beings cycle through.

  1. One is the human realm, which can be described as our ordinary selves.
  2. The second is the hell realm, which contains unbearable rage, fear, and terror; it contains emotions that are difficult to handle.
  3. The third is the animal realm, which is related to our instincts.

In the hungry ghost realm, the creatures are depicted with large empty bellies, small scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They are always hungry, always empty, always seeking satisfaction from the outside. This speaks to the part of us, isn’t it?

Just watch the desire in your own mind. It’s always looking for something. There’s a kind of restlessness such that when you’re frightened, you look for something certain; and you don’t know what to do, you feel this momentum of desire that looks for anything to do – eat, smoke cigarettes, read books, watch televisions, look around for this and that.

This is just a force of habit.

When you are not mindful, and when you are not wise, you become easily pulled into these things. When you lead life heedlessly, when you lead our lives without any kind of wisdom or understanding of it, you just get caught up in seeking excitement. When you get bored, you seek excitement. But when you get bored with excitement, you seek annihilation.

You get caught up in these habits.

The false refuges in our lives and never arriving

One of the most pervasive false refuges or substitute gratifications is the never ending effort to improve ourselves. It’s not the kind of improvement that leads us to sensing our creativity and the knowledge we long for, but it’s the kind that stems from a place of deficit. It’s the “I need to be a better person” kind of striving, and that wanting to feel like we’re good enough.

This is what goes on in us and is part of the hungry ghost.

If we’re honest with ourselves, are we really content and feel good enough? This sense of wanting to be good enough is not the same as the impulse to manifest our true potential. It’s the kind of internalised standards we have that make us think we should always look better, do more, and be more.

When we are honest, we realise that for many of us live with the kind of dissatisfaction, a disappointment that our lives aren’t turning out the way we want it to be. There’s a sense of never arriving, as though we’re trying to get somewhere, and we’re not there.

Three levels of suffering

Level 1: We are not satisfied

There’s a whole range of how we experience these hungry ghost energy. Along with that, we have chronic patterns on how we are trying to meet our needs and we do so through different substitute gratifications such as consuming sugar or seeking approval or attaching to our possessions.

As we may know, these are temporary fixes. We’re on a roller coaster. We feel better for a little, but then, the need is back there again.

Wanting begets wanting. It’s like drinking salt water to satisfy thirst.

So, that’s one level of suffering – i.e. we don’t get satisfied.

Level 2: The aversion we have towards ourselves for not being satisfied.

In the Buddhist tradition, we call that the second arrow. The first arrow is “I want, I need, I’m not satisfied”. The second arrow is “I am a bad person for wanting, needing, and feeling that I’m not satisfied”. It’s the self version that we pile on that is a very notable part of the addiction cycle. Eat too much, then feel really bad about ourselves. Feel like such as bad person, and then feel so miserable that we eat more, and return to feeling bad about ourselves again. The cycle keeps getting fuelled like this.

Level 3: Never being present and never arriving

The last level is just like in the casino: when we really want to win but are not quite there yet or when we are seeking approval and when we are trying to in some ways get something we don’t have, we’re not present. It’s kind of like we’re leaning forward, wanting the next moment to contain what this moment does not. We’re not present, and we’re always on our way to somewhere else.

Such wanting, addiction, and attachment is the heart of the suffering that comes with the hungry ghosts.

How many moments of our life is there a sense of we’re on our way to something rather than this moment counts?

A comforting perspective

Our attachment and addiction can be a flag to pause, and deepen our attention to what is here. And if we are willing to pause, and deepen our attention, we can begin to discover that rather than hitching to our addicting habits, the star we felt away from is right here. It is in this present moment. Right here.

Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, 
his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.

But whoever overcomes this wretched craving, so difficult to overcome, 
from him sorrows fall away like water from a lotus leaf.

– Dhammapada verse 335 & 336

This Is It: When Plans Don’t Go Your Way

This Is It: When Plans Don’t Go Your Way

TLDR: We get busy making plans after plans. But what happens when our plans are upended? With the pandemic, some plans such as having a holiday overseas may take another year or two to unfold. Maybe life is just it. This is it – with or without plans, we can learn to live life in gratitude.

Most of us make plans. One plan after another. Some are short-term such as going on a holiday. Others are long-term such as getting married and buying a property. For the last few years, I have stopped making plans except to take time off to go for meditation retreats. Thanks to COVID19, I realised that was a plan too. A plan is something you have in mind to do in the future. Despite not making as many plans now as compared to my youthful self, making just one plan is a plan as well.

In 2019, I attended a course and met several people whom I made a few plans with. These plans included travel.

When Plans Don’t Go Your Way

Making plans is a normal routine. You wake up, think of the task you have in mind for the day. Then you brush your teeth, have your breakfast, take a bath and act on your day’s plan. Though the daily routines of brushing the teeth, and having breakfast are small plans we make from one thing to another.

What happens when your daily routine or plan is upended? Maybe you are used to going to bed at 11 pm but a friend who needs to talk about an issue is preventing you from sleep. What about being told by your manager to change your presentation after you have worked on it to perfection? With the current pandemic, most of our holiday plans have gone down the drain.

This period of major changes does not allow our plans to go as planned. It can bring on frustrations and impatience. Some are suffering from the loss of their jobs while others are still trying to get used to having lesser social contact.

The Reason We Make Plans

What happens if you were to stop making plans one day? Try it. Take a day not planning to do anything at all. It is hard right? Our brain is wired to do things and to take rests in between. It feels uneasy without a job. There’s a saying, “An idle mind is the playground of the devil.” When we don’t give our brain a job, it seems to spiral downwards.

Having plans makes us feel alive because there is something to look forward. Without something to look forward to, life has no purpose and it may feel as though we are waiting to die. Though the truth is, no matter how many goals we have and how many things we have to do, we are still marching towards death.

Could it be possible that we make plans so we feel we exist? Is having plans a way to feed the ego’s existence?

It’s Time to Stop

Having plans can bring frustration when it does not come to fruition. Not only that. The time of death is uncertain. Having plans after plans can cause this fear that if death comes, these plans would come to a halt. Or you might never see the fruition of them.

Is it possible to do the tasks according to plans without thinking of its fulfilment? It is like going on a holiday. We plan and expect an enjoyable trip. But during the trip, we don’t feel it is special, and instead of being rested, we feel fatigued.

Imagine the possibilities spontaneity and acceptance can bring without us being attached to our plans and its fulfilment. Making plans is inevitable in life with family and work goals to fulfil. But many times, frustration and impatience set in because we want the plan to unfold as we had imagined it. A little inconvenience may cause blood to boil.

Not clinging to how a plan should be completed opens up fresh possibilities and creativity in spontaneous moments.

When I discovered that my mind was dissatisfied because I was hinging on my plans to unfold one day, I realised I had taken life for granted. I was not appreciating the moments I have. Even if there is nothing going on in my life, I have my breath. Watching the breath and wishing those around you well in meditation is a very pleasant job for the brain even in active life. My longing for a meditation retreat to reconfigure my mind of a bad year was really one of the causes for having a bad 2020.

Most of us go about our busy lives without questioning why there is a feeling of sadness, of dissatisfaction or frustration. I went through last year learning to lift my mind through relaxation. But it was not until I realised that even a small plan like wanting a meditation retreat could cause upheaval in the mind, that I became content with all that there is right here, right now.


Wise Steps:

  1. Make goals without being attached to the plan its fruition. Allow spontaneity and flexibility to add creativity in what you do.
  2. Give the mind a job to anchor it to the present (such as your breath) so it does not create an unrealistic image of your plans, which when unfulfilled can bring frustrations.
  3. Take a pause to breathe in and out slowly every twenty minutes by setting a bell on repeat to help you rest and feel refreshed.