To be at their best for their students, teachers first have to take care of themselves. And they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
In a recent Hoonuit webinar created for members of Illinois Computing Educators (ICE), my colleague Tina Daiker and I were joined by author and educator Mandy Froehlich for a critical conversation about the mental and emotional health of educators. In addition to serving as Director of Innovation and Technology for the Ripon Area School District, Froehlich is the author of The Fire Within: Lessons From Defeat That Have Ignited a Passion for Learning, coming out June 18.
Froehlich’s work focuses on the importance of professional support for educators who have experienced trauma or are dealing with mental illness. Given the necessary resources, Froehlich says, educators can heal and learn from negative experiences through a process called “post-traumatic growth.” This process empowers educators to develop a unique toolbox of strategies — or as Froehlich calls them, “superpowers” — to provide additional support for the students they teach.
By providing educators with a platform from which to share personal stories of overcoming adversity, she hopes her book will help more teachers find healing after trauma. “I want people to know that not only are they not alone, but even during the roughest things that we go through, there can be positives that come out of it,” she says.
Recognizing That Teachers Experience Trauma, Too
When combined with the stigma surrounding mental illness and trauma, some of the wonderful qualities that draw people to teaching — a willingness to always put students’ needs before their own, for example — can make it particularly difficult for teachers to talk about and seek help for depression, anxiety, and other such challenges.
Froehlich notes that it’s important to remind educators that “sometimes doing everything we can for the kids means taking care of ourselves as well.” This is especially true for educators working with kids who have experienced trauma, as a student’s traumatic experiences can ignite the development of secondary traumatic stress (STS) in the educator — potentially spurring the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “It’s really important to recognize secondary traumatic stress and to understand what it is so that you can be self-aware enough to get help,” Froehlich advises.
It’s also critical for teachers to have access to a shame-free environment in which they can share their own experiences of adversity and connect with others who have faced similar challenges. The Fire Within has served as a way for Froehlich to share the stories of educators who have overcome traumatic experiences and used post-traumatic growth to become better educators. While Froehlich makes it clear that you don’t need to experience trauma or mental illness to be a good teacher, “it’s very inspirational” to learn about their struggles, and to discover the unique contributions they’ve made in the classroom.
Strategies for Supporting Colleagues
Part of Froehlich’s work involves raising awareness about concrete ways in which district personnel can support both colleagues and students who face challenges due to mental illness or trauma. Many people feel they don’t know how to be supportive of a struggling peer and worry their efforts might only make things worse. According to Froehlich, the key is to recognize that everyone has a different personal strategy for coping with mental illness or trauma.
“Giving advice sometimes isn’t helpful because mental illness is so personal,” she says. When it comes to supporting a colleague or student, less can be more. Rather than telling someone what they should or shouldn’t do, Froehlich suggests using language like, “I know you’re struggling right now — how can I help you?”
If the person is experiencing a panic attack, for example, he or she may want to be left alone or may simply want to talk about something innocuous. If the person is dealing with depression, even seemingly easy things like calling to make an appointment with a counselor may feel insurmountably difficult. You can help by offering to make that call. Most importantly, simply “being okay” with the fact that someone is struggling can reduce the stigma they may feel and help them seek out the resources they need.
Check out this course preview on SEL Essentials.
Using Professional Development to Foster Social and Emotional Competencies in Staff
Our conversation with Froehlich only scratches the surface of an important dialogue that’s beginning to unfold around the country. By providing personalized resources that facilitate social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies in the classroom, districts can give their teachers the support they need to build their own social-emotional competencies and, in turn, pass them on to their students. As Froehlich says, “We have to take care of ourselves, and we can’t do it alone.”
As part of our Pathways module, Hoonuit has developed a series of professional development resources entitled Health, Wellness and Emotional Wellbeing of Staff. The pathway is designed to help educators gain different perspectives and learn new strategies to support not only their own wellbeing but that of their colleagues and students.
Interested in learning more? Check out the full conversation below.
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