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.
Learning To Be Your Own Psychologist

Learning To Be Your Own Psychologist

TLDR: The pandemic and climate change have shown us how fragile our minds can be during times of great change. How can we take care of our minds and learn to be our own psychologist?

We spend a great part of our lives busy with our studies, career, starting a family to taking care of the family. Much of our thoughts go towards achieving a goal or doing something we enjoy. All of these seem perfectly normal, which it is since it’s how our industrialized society has functioned for generations. It is a cycle of life as we know it on earth. We are born, study, get a job, start a family, hopefully have enough to enjoy our retirement and then die.

In order to keep the cycle going, we accept the stress that comes along with it – since life is sweet and bitter right? Stress is becoming more salient with current conditions. While not everyone is clinical depressed, any unexpected change in our lives – already upended by Covid 19 and with more to come – could easily tip one over into serious depression. If you are already feeling some anxieties about the uncertainties you are facing and seeing a counsellor or psychologist is not yet a necessity, what can you do? The good news is, you can start learning to be your own psychologist.

Here are six ways on how you can do so!

1. Seeing Impermanence

There is much to worry about in our lives, especially with changes in our current economy and climate. Also, the pandemic has shown us that our lives or the retirement we work towards are not guaranteed. We could catch the virus and die, we never know. While we all dislike changes that challenge our lives, these changes are actually great opportunities for us to recognise impermanence. Changes have always been there, but we never notice it until it disrupts our lives.

Impermanence seems to be built into nature to make us feel uncomfortable in order that we may start looking inwards. Why do we have fears? Man’s greatest fear, as well as that of plants and animals, is death. The fear of death drives our behaviours. Behaviours we never suspect would come from this fear of death.

Why is there fear of death within our hearts? Perhaps we can look at our perception of the nature of change itself.

2. No Beginning, No End

If you have had a walk in the park, you might have noticed leaves falling from trees. The fallen leaves are mostly old and yellowed. There are young leaves too who have fallen from the trees. In the wilderness, these leaves decompose. Their decomposition becomes fertilizer for earth, so that more plants and trees may grow.

Plants don’t grow without water or the sunlight.

As plants turn sunlight into energy, we consume the energy of the sunlight through plants. We too, partake in the sunlight and water the plants consume, in order to survive. Our bodies are intertwined with nature.

Like a piece of paper, our bodies too contain the elements of plants, sunlight and water.

As our bodies age and die, it too could become fertilizer for earth to grow new organisms. Truth is, there is no beginning or end, but only change. One body change to another just like water turning into ice due to conditions. Despite learning about change in elementary science, we however, do not think this constant change in nature applies to us.

Our bodies are a part of nature dependent on nature. It does not belong to us. We identify with our bodies. We identify people we know with their bodies. With this identification that the body is “I”, there is always this feeling of holding onto the body. The Buddha talked about three types of feelings. We can easily feel pleasant and unpleasant feelings. What about neutral feelings? Is your mind holding onto the neutral feeling in your body when the grosser feelings are absent?

3. Investigating Perception

Our perception on normal days is impeded by mundane knowledge. When we see a tree for example, we look at it with the image we already have in our minds. With this image in our minds, we think we already know the tree and so we don’t pay attention to it. Otherwise, we look at the tree and think about what type of tree it is, if it produces flowers or fruits, or if it can be of any use for us.

It is the same when we look at people. We think we already know the person – the name, the face, the body, the school s/he came from etc. Or we produce an image in our minds of this person and hardly pay any attention to him/her.

But if we look deeper, we may find that the relationship with have with our world is based on the images we have in our mind. Isn’t it ludicrous that various feelings emerge from just having relationships with the images in our minds?

If you haven’t noticed the image in your mind, you might have noticed the narratives and voice in your mind on different objects you come into contact with.

4. Seeing the World as It Is

Our habitual identification with our perception and body do not allow us to really see things as it is. Try letting go of what you know or think you know. Look at your body without your thinking you already know who you are. What is this body and mind? Isn’t it strange and yet fascinating that this body, dependent on earth, water and sunlight, is able to move and speak? Isn’t it amazing that the brain, which lives on glucose is able to think?

When you take a walk in the park the next time, let go of the image you already have of the plants and trees. Look and listen without having preconceived notion. Let go of your feelings about them and see. What do you see?

5. Effects of Wrong Identification

We have not really lived because of the mundane knowledge we have identified with. We live in a way where we do not notice what’s around us and we get bored easily. If boredom is the only problem, then maybe it isn’t that bad. But no. We have fears, stress and anxieties and we don’t truly enjoy each breath or moment that passes.

We identify with fleeting images and narratives in our minds that are conditioned. Conditioned things are built and dependent on one another. Conditional things are how nature functions and it includes our mental and emotional world. Sadness cannot arise without happiness. Death cannot come without birth. These dualities create one another. Being concentrated on one or the other mental or emotional state create more likes and dislikes in our mind producing actions. In this endless cycle, we are living between dullness and restlessness, birth and dying, pleasure and fear. Underneath the gross states is a neutral feeling we hold onto we call “I”, which we emphasize with gross feelings. Anything threatening the survival of this feeling of an “I” causes stress and fear. It truly is an ocean in a storm even if subtle.

6. Letting Go

To begin with the small steps of letting go of duality is to start seeing and hearing with a fresh mind every moment. This is a repeated intentional action we take in our minds all the time. Why let go? The wise throughout the ages have said the same thing – if the mind and body truly are ours, it would not change. If earth truly is our home, why do we die?

Impermanence is a great teacher that teaches us to let go with everything we do. We do what we have to do and let it go. If we want to experience good effects, just do good by way of compassion, friendship and non-expectation. Let things unfold and observe if the law of cause and effect is truly real in our experience.

For every negative emotion, there is the positive counterpart in our world of duality. If you are impatient, there is also patience within you. It’s not that it’s not there, but you may not have explored it as much as impatience.

Recognise how desire feels. Does it feel good? Does it make you feel contentment? Funny thing about desire is, there is this heightened feeling that drives action and produces a pleasant thought in our minds.

We tend to think desires bring gratification and so chase after it. But truth is, behind every desire also lies disappointment, regrets and sadness when we don’t get what we want, or when what we want disappears in this world of impermanence.

Staying Curious

By being curious and inquiring into our feelings and impermanence, we learn to be our own psychologist. We begin with noticing how our minds are identifying with different feelings, thoughts and objects that never last. Slowly and surely, insights will arise on the nature of impermanence. In the process we will slowly learn to let go of anxieties and fears while enjoying every breath without holding on, for nothing truly belongs to us.

Wise Steps:

1. Be curious about your experiences in terms of feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral). See how each action, driven by desire, bring up an effect in your experience.

2. Put away the knowledge you have about your environment and the people around you. See them for what they are, and not the relationship you have with them in the image of your mind.

3. Notice with curiosity how each feeling in you ceases eventually. Don’t act on the impulse and see if the feeling persists when you don’t indulge in it. See impermanence in your experience.