Amid COVID, teachers face growing mental health crisis

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded Hoover’s organization to address the emerging problem of student mental health. In recent years, however, the center has expanded its scope to include teacher mental health.

She said one approach districts often use to address teacher well-being are programs that encourage self-care strategies — things like better nutrition and exercise, a social support and stress management.

While that can be helpful, Hoover said these efforts alone won’t solve the problem.

“Educators are increasingly expressing the fact that they cannot simply ‘take care of themselves’ in toxic environments,” she said. “We can’t expect people to do more for themselves. We need to change the structures within which they work to support their well-being.

Hoover said broader organizational changes are needed, including adequate compensation and giving teachers a greater role in decision-making, more flexibility and autonomy, additional professional development opportunities and greater meaning. of the goal.

“If you don’t get some of the basic needs covered like compensation, it won’t do the trick,” she said. “It’s like saying, ‘Just walk more, just eat better,’ which doesn’t work if people can’t buy the basics they need to keep themselves and their families afloat.”

(Video by Milan Andrade/Cronkite News)

Some of these issues are particularly severe in Arizona, which consistently spends less on K-12 education and teacher salaries than most states.

A May Census Bureau report found that Arizona spent $8,785 per student in 2020, ahead of only Utah and Idaho. And Arizona was dead last — 51st among states and the District of Columbia — in the amount spent on actual education, at $4,801 per student.

Arizona’s average teacher salary of $52,157 ranks 44th in the nation, according to the NEA, well below the national average of $66,432.

“Arizona’s educational landscape can best be described as a hellish landscape,” said Rodrigo Palacios, president of the Tempe Secondary Education Association and member of Save Our Schools Arizona, a group that advocates for increased funding for public schools. .

Nationally, reports the NEA, the average salary of teachers reflects a 1.8% increase from the previous school year, but after adjusting for inflation, salary decreased by 3, 8% over the past decade.

Add to that the added stress of teaching during a pandemic, and some educators decided they were done.

A January survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association showed nearly 80% of K-12 teaching positions were either vacant or filled by people who do not meet teaching requirements. standard.

In addition, according to the report, more than 1,600 teachers lost their jobs. Most have resigned. But more than 600 either failed to show up for work at the start of the school year or left their jobs after the school year started.

‘I’m tired’

For nearly 20 years, Sydney Francis taught at schools in Flagstaff before leaving the field in 2018. She primarily taught art classes to elementary and middle school students, but as a mother of two, she said he struggled financially throughout his career.

Ultimately, she says, the lack of community support and budget cuts that spurred the “Red for Ed” protests in 2018 persuaded her to quit.

“Towards the end, we took pay cut after pay cut – one for health care, one for wages – and it was like, ‘I can’t afford to live anymore, and I I’m stressed and I’m tired,'” she said. “And then on top of that, I no longer felt supported in my community.”

Francis said some of the biggest stressors throughout his career involved a chronic understaffing.

Instead of employing teaching assistants, schools often asked teachers to oversee recess, which meant they had no time for lunch or preparing afternoon lesson plans. Or teachers were asked to stand outside and greet students each morning, cutting down on morning planning time.

Additionally, Francis said that some of his students had special needs and would have benefited from the help of a special needs teacher, but these positions often went unfilled.

Given the pressures and his own financial struggles, Francis struggled to care for his students during the day and his own children at night.

“I felt exhausted the moment I got home,” she said. “I felt like my own kids were getting a less nurturing version of me on certain days.”

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