How online learning could negatively impact teacher mental health

FETC speaker shares three steps to help faculty cope with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma during school closures
By: | June 2, 2020
Administrators need to pay attention to teacher mental health, especially during school closures, since online learning could impact teacher stress which can lead to teacher compassion fatigue and vicarious SDI Productions

Many educators who are further exposed to their students’ personal struggles during online learning could likely be experiencing conditions that negatively impact teacher mental health, academic achievement and school culture.

“Kids can act normally at school even though they are having difficulties at home, but on Zoom calls, teachers can see into their homes and, in turn, the possible chaos unfolding there,” says Mandy Froehlich, an education consultant and keynote speaker who presented on The State of Mindfulness and Teacher Mental Health in Education at FETC 2020. “Students could also be more vocal about possible increases in alcoholism, drug use or abuse at home during this time. Meanwhile, teachers know that these students don’t have a safe place to go seven hours out of the day as they did before school closures.”

The conditions that educators could suffer from include compassion fatigue, where caregivers provide so much support that they do not have the time to care for themselves, and vicarious trauma, which involves caregivers experiencing the trauma-related symptoms that their students exhibit.

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“These conditions are not only detrimental to a teacher’s personal life, but can, in the most basic sense, lead to teacher disengagement such as failing to form relationships with students or contributing to a negative culture,” says Froehlich, author of The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning and Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, which cover how teachers can cope with vicarious trauma and include mindfulness activities that support healing. “It is really important for administration to understand why their teachers disengage so they can help educators help themselves.”

Here are three steps that school administrators should take to help faculty cope with teacher compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

1. Provide teacher mental health resources

Leaders need to provide mental health resources or bring health experts on campus to curb teacher stress and help educators understand what they are experiencing. “Failing to identify the source of their troubles could lead to teachers believing they are experiencing burnout or demoralization, for example, and therefore pursuing the wrong solutions to get help,” says Froehlich.

2. Maintain boundaries

Administrators need to respect faculty work-life balance. “If you are going to send an email at 6 pm, for example, make sure your faculty understands that you do not expect a response at night,” says Froehlich. “When I was a tech director, sometimes I would email late at night, not because I was expecting my staff to respond immediately, but because it was only time that I could get to my email. This needs to be communicated.”

Reducing teacher workload by ensuring every step in new initiatives has a purpose can help as well. This can be accomplished by eliminating unnecessary compliance-type of activities. “Do not ask your teachers to give themselves up for their work,” says Froehlich. “They will try to do this on their own naturally and don’t need help in that.”

3. Understand complexities of mental health insurance

Districts have the responsibility to know how their insurance operates so faculty and staff can efficiently seek help when needed since teachers suffering from compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma do not have the capacity to do so continuously. “To get the point across, I often tell a true story about a time when I was having a significant bout of depression and had to call 14 or 15 different people on our insurance list just to get an appointment that was three months out,” says Froehlich. “Even though your insurance says that a doctor’s office is taking new patients, they sometimes aren’t. Understanding the insurance that is being purchased and their commitment to maintaining their databases, updating their information, and supporting an easy mental health process is imperative.”

Leaders could work with community mental health professionals to schedule time for them to come into the schools to work with teachers and students. “Teachers aren’t going to take time out of their day to get a counselor until their condition gets so bad they can’t stand it. To make services convenient and accessible is a more proactive approach,” says Froehlich.

She adds, “Teachers have to be the ones to say, ‘Oh, I recognize this in myself and I want to get better.’ The best thing that administrators can do is provide the education and support so that teachers can take that next step on their own.”

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