From Dr. Luther Baker, Parent Liaison

Posted by Heike Cook on 11/15/2021

Amid coronavirus pandemic, teachers’ mental health suffers in ways they’ve never experienced

This story was published in partnership with the 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.

Carly Evans never missed her weekly appointment with her therapist. She called it her “maintenance” – it kept everything in her life running smoothly. That changed in September, when Evans, a high school English and drama teacher and mother of three, found herself juggling an impossible burden: educating students in a pandemic while stewarding her own family through the crisis. “I wish I could say ‘I’m handling it so well and am on it every day,'" she said. “I’m not.”

Experts are concerned that the challenges, isolation and stress of remote education are weighing heavily on teachers and affecting their mental health.

Evans’ district in Sudbury, Massachusetts, has been operating since September on a hybrid model of teaching, so she splits her time between working on campus and remotely from home. Her two youngest children, who are in second and third grade, need adult supervision with their own online schooling, a responsibility she splits with her mother, who lives with the family. (Evans’ husband, also a teacher, has to show up in-person for his job at a private school.)

Evans, 42, keeps a color-coded daily schedule to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. But, of course, things do. And top of the list? Taking care of herself.  Since September, Evans said, she has canceled more therapist appointments than she has kept. With everything going on, she said, “it’s that much harder to justify giving myself that hour every week.”

She isn’t sleeping. Before the pandemic, she suffered migraines every few months and called in sick on those days. Now, she has one a week, an increase she attributes to stress. She makes herself work through the pain – there aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around, and already, she said, “I have so little time” with her students. She’s exhausted, she said, but she has to keep going. “You power through and do what you’ve got to do,” she said. “I keep telling my own children this is temporary. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is.”

Since summer, experts have warned that the mental health of the nation’s teachers – a category dominated 3-1 by women – could suffer when school resumed. That prediction appears to be bearing out. Many say their psychological well-being is suffering in ways they’ve hardly ever experienced.

Because of the pandemic, about three-fourths of the 100 largest school districts opted for complete remote learning, an October study found, and a little over a quarter of all districts began the year with a hybrid approach. But as COVID-19 case counts climb, districts across the country have ricocheted from remote to in-person to hybrid models, and many that started with even a semblance of in-person learning have fallen back to remote education.

Between the unpredictability, the isolation and the newfound challenges in reaching their students – who mental health experts worry are also struggling – what little mental health support is extended to teachers feels like nowhere near enough. “I spend all day staring at a screen and kind of generating enthusiasm into the void that Zoom is, and I end the day so tired, and so done, and so frustrated,” said Emma Wohl, a middle school teacher in Washington state whose district has been fully remote this year. “The moments of joy I used to have are so much rarer.”

Last August, the National Education Association, a major teachers union, found that 28% of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave teaching. A study from Louisiana tracked early childhood educators’ mental health last spring, finding that rates of depression almost doubled, with more than a third of those educators indicating depressive symptoms. In a survey from August to September by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the vast majority of teachers reported working longer hours, and only a quarter said their school offered adequate support for mental health.

Research shows that high stress can trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression. Already, women were at greater risk for both conditions. As of the end of November, about 48% of all women exhibited symptoms of one such condition, an increase of 8 percentage points from this April and above what is normally seen, according to data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 37% of men reported the same.

It’s a theme that has emerged repeatedly since March, said Laura Wangsness Willemsen and Elisheva Cohen, two researchers who have been tracking teachers since the coronavirus pandemic began, focusing on a cohort of elementary school teachers in Minnesota. Their research didn’t initially focus on mental health, they said, until teachers kept bringing up the topic on their own. The level of stress isn’t sustainable, they said. Teachers have been operating in crisis mode since spring. By now, any surge of energy that fueled them through the pandemic’s initial months has been depleted.

The sources of stress and fatigue are complex. Many teachers have had to switch back and forth between in-person and online learning, often with only a few days’ notice.

Teaching from home is also a fundamentally different exercise, one that is simultaneously more invasive but also lonelier. Students on Zoom lessons often have their cameras off and microphones muted, making it harder to engage or connect with them. Normally, teachers can rely on their colleagues for consistent emotional support in quick lunch room chats. That sort of spontaneous support isn’t an option right now.

The challenges are greater for mothers. Research has shown that in many families, moms are more often the ones supervising a child’s virtual education. Teachers experience that dynamic two times over – instructing their students virtually while also working as the primary parent to ensure that their own children don’t fall behind in their own distance learning.

And all the while, many teachers carry the knowledge that their students – who often rely on in-person school for meals or for social support – are struggling, too. Research has shown that teachers’ mental health declines when their students are doing poorly.

Dr. Luther Baker

Parent Liaison