The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

Written by Wai Kit Ow Yeong
7 mins read
Published on Oct 15, 2021

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.

 

What are your thoughts?

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An educator, Zen practitioner, and founding board member of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, Wai Kit promotes inter-religious dialogue and mindfulness practice in schools. When not marking or writing, he enjoys nature walks and learning poetry by heart. He is on the lookout for ways to build inner reserves of courage and compassion.
An educator, Zen practitioner, and founding board member of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, Wai Kit promotes inter-religious dialogue and mindfulness practice in schools. When not marking or writing, he enjoys nature walks and learning poetry by heart. He is on the lookout for ways to build inner reserves of courage and compassion.

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