Teachers’ Mental Anguish Through Festive Season

By Tanya Hallet

I was at an end of year Christmas celebration when I realised that the man, I was talking to was struggling so badly with compassion fatigue and stress that he couldn’t sleep, was highly anxious and deeply depressed. While the fairy lights twinkled around us, people danced and the music thumped, I looked into his eyes and asked him if he was thinking about taking his own life by suicide.

On Christmas Eve, after I had filled my kids’ stockings and laid out the homemade shortbread and peeled carrots, I lay awake thinking about some of my present and past students. Do you have somewhere safe to sleep tonight? Will you have food tomorrow? Will your mum stay clean this Christmas? Will your dad go on another meth bender and chase you up and down the street while you hide in the bushes in the dark until he calms down? Will you have to call the cops to your house tonight? I woke up some hours later after another nightmare about breaking up a classroom fight from years ago.

My uncle told me over Christmas brunch he has nightmares about being in the classroom. Dreams about things that could have gone wrong, or incidents that could have occurred and he couldn’t stop them. He retired nine years ago.

At a Boxing Day party two days ago, while other people drank strawberry daiquiris and splashed in the spa, I spoke with a lady who wiped away tears as she spoke about the trauma, she had experienced that year at her job, how she had received no support, how she had quit a job she had initially loved, and still couldn’t think straight or sleep.

Another told me she didn’t know how much longer she could do their job. “I got no support; this year just broke me. I am beyond exhausted.”

What do we all have in common? We are all completely exhausted. We are all exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety, or stress and in some cases, PTSD. We have all been exposed to psychosocial hazards at work with no support or risk mitigation. And we are all working or worked as teachers.

In September this year, The West published the following headline. ‘Teachers quitting in droves. Compensation claims for stress skyrocket..’ The article went on to say that teachers are quitting their jobs at the rate of four per day. According to the Insurance Commission of WA, teachers account for more than half of the public sectors’ total workers’ compensation claims. Half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

Many rural and remote schools don’t have enough teachers to put in front of their students. Forget getting relief staff. Metropolitan schools all over Australia are finding it nearly impossible to get relief teachers, especially in peak sickness times and some can’t fill the positions they have.

Politicians wring their hands together and come up with following solutions:

  • Fast track teachers through their education degree and get them into the classroom before their degree is finished. Great idea. Who is there to mentor these new and inexperienced teachers to prepare them for the challenges they face? The other teachers who may have the experience to guide them are already buried under their own work.
  • Fund teaching degrees! Again, might help attract people but won’t help them stay. Half of them burn out after five years.
  • More money to go remote or to hard to staff schools. Excellent! I love money. However, no amount of money will buy you good mental health if your job is too stressful and you are not adequately supported.

What’s the solution then?

  • Psychological safety. If teachers go to their leaders and they are struggling, them something needs to be done. Stop placing extra demands on teachers without giving them the time or resources to make them happen! They shouldn’t be guilt tripped for taking mental health leave. If they have violent and abusive students in the class, they need to be removed. Not just taken for a lesson and returned. Removed. This means schools need the power to exclude some students who need specialised behaviour support schools. I know, I know, these schools are full. Politicians, we need more specialised behaviour support schools! Build them! Staff them!
  • Mental Health First Aid for all teachers and school leaders. Why? Because we can remove the stigma surrounding the need for mental health support and we can learn to have open and honest conversations around mental health issues.
  • Complex Trauma Training for all teachers and school leaders. Why? Because 41% of children are exposed to at least one traumatic event by the time they are 17, mostly witnessing domestic violence or experiencing physical or sexual assault. More often than not, these children are then exposed and suffer to multiple traumatic events. This severely impacts their cognitive function and emotional development. We need to understand what this means for the children and adolescents we teach.
  • Vicarious Trauma Education for all teachers and leaders in low ICSEA schools. Why? Because when you work with our most vulnerable members of the community and you hear stories of abuse and neglect repeatedly, it takes a toll on your own mental health and wellbeing.

I guarantee, if these steps were taken, it would make a massive difference in the overall psychological wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty more that our schools need to survive and maybe even thrive. We need more funding and more resources.

But if we started protecting the psychological safety of our teachers, maybe more would stay for longer. Maybe they would feel better inside their own minds.

Maybe they wouldn’t spend their festive season worried and shattered? Maybe….