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Workers in an Overwhelmed Education System Talk Mental Health Teachers feel ‘expendable.’ They ask: ‘What’s next?’

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Above image credit: Educators are crying out for better mental health support and resources, a need amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Catherine Hoffman | Flatland)
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5 minute read

“We’re treated as expendable,” reads a text from a Kansas City area educator who asked to remain anonymous. 

“We’re expected to put our lives and mental health on the line with minimal support. I’m teaching in person and virtually simultaneously.”

Between March 24 and April 7, Flatland is publishing a three-week series of stories that will explore the issue of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic as experienced by frontline workers. On April 8, Kansas City PBS will premiere “The Hidden Pandemic,” a documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Michael Price focusing on the lives of Kansas Citians navigating mental illness.

Another area teacher, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she’s in an “identity crisis.” Life feels like “a constant, ‘What’s next?’” she added. What she needs most is “rest and restitution.” 

Many of the educators Flatland interviewed for this story agreed to share their experiences without being named. Several sought anonymity as they discussed their own mental health because they were in the process of interviewing for new jobs or renewing their contract.

They are not alone.

Across the country, educators have felt the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Educators are in survival mode, according to a PBS report from December.

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that teachers are experiencing even worse burnout as a result of the pandemic. Inside Higher Ed called it the “dark shadow” of COVID-19.

Forced to come up with novel ways to teach their students virtually, many educators have sacrificed sleep, time with their own families and care for their own mental health. When COVID-19 hit, some teachers were faced with risking their own health or losing their jobs.

Many within the education system point to inadequate financial and emotional support, which they say was a problem long before the public health crisis. 

For context, a teacher’s starting salary in Kansas City, Missouri, Public Schools is $39,000 and the maximum salary caps at $84,000. Some teachers say they are in limbo, unsure whether to sign another contract or leave education altogether. 

The pandemic prompted such a sudden shift from in-person to online instruction that they were left juggling how to care for their students and their personal life. 

‘How do we do this?’

Amanda Olvera, a former teacher-turned-counselor at North Kansas City High School, said it was like being a hamster in a wheel. Even though Olvera said she’s doing OK mentally, some days were tough. 

She worries mostly for her students. 

As a counselor, her job is to track how students are doing with classes as well as identify behaviors that could indicate an impending crisis. These days, that’s tough to see in a grainy Zoom stream with a patchy internet connection. 

What about the students who can’t Zoom in? A phone call offers limited access and students may not be as forthcoming when they’re at home, in front of family members, which can be an added stressor. 

Cara Gruhala agrees. 

Cara Gruhala is a Kansas City area therapist with multiple friends who are educators. She shared some of her friends’ concerns with Flatland. (Contributed)

Gruhala, a former Kansas City school counselor who is now a private practice therapist for Seeds of Change, said she and her colleagues were concerned about the pandemic’s impact on teachers, who were already stretched thin. When schools began to convert to online learning, she, her friends in the education and mental health sectors braced themselves.

“We knew that there was going to be some intense anxiety,” she said. “I started to see some rumblings both on the counseling side and in the education side of like, ‘Wow, how do we do this?’”

Approximately 28% of educators said the pandemic was the reason they want to or will leave the education field or retire early, according to a nationwide poll conducted by the National Education Association (NEA). High turnover rates were already a problem among early childhood educators, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Several educators Flatland interviewed said the pandemic overloaded an already overwhelmed education system. In March 2020, when they were given public health guidance from school board members, they didn’t feel safe. 

In study after study, educators say they feel under-supported or not valued. Still, teachers – particularly those in secondary education – continue to work extraordinarily long days and tailor teaching to each of their students’ needs. 

While some young students are struggling with school online, others are thriving. Teaching is not one size fits all. 

However, it’s much easier to identify students’ needs in a physical classroom than on a muted video call. So, educators and school counselors spend extra time tracking students down, checking in and devoting time to one-on-one meetings.

“It’s eating into their personal time, their family time, their weekends, their downtime,” Gruhala said. “A large struggle is that lots of teachers have just lost a lot of their personal time to be able to do self-care.” 

“(They’re) burning the candle at both ends.”

Brittany talley, therapist and coordinator for Trauma Sensitive and Resilient Schools at kckps

Teachers are caregivers

Self-care is crucial to avoiding burnout, which takes the form of disinterest, lethargy or lack of engagement. It sometimes causes a mental fog and an inability to focus.

But how do school districts help support their staff? 

Brittany Talley is a private therapist and the coordinator for Trauma Sensitive and Resilient Schools at Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools. As a coordinator, Talley engages with almost everyone in the school system — custodians, teachers, principals and nutritionists. 

She provides workshops, resources and training on trauma responses, activities and methods. 

“If you care for kids and if you work in our district, we consider you a caregiver,” she said. 

Brittany Tally, a private therapist and coordinator for KCKPS, has seen the pandemic’s impact on educators first-hand. (Contributed)

As caregivers, they’re taught to identify burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. Before the pandemic changed life as everyone knew it, these terms were already well-known in the education world. 

A study on a small sample of teachers who worked with traumatized students showed that training lowered their levels of secondary traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress. 

This was pre-pandemic. Today, Talley said educators often tell her they’re exhausted.

“(They’re) burning the candle at both ends … because, um, many of our teachers are also caregivers in their own personal lives,” she said. 

So, the tendency is to shut down. It’s not just the stress of an infectious virus spreading and replicating, but also the grief of losing family and friends to illness. It’s the compounding effects of social isolation, the long workdays and uncertainty of when – or whether – school will return to normal. 

“People are starting to numb themselves to some of these bigger issues because there’s so much going on. That’s what happens in our brains and bodies when we experience trauma chronically,” Talley explained. 

She said lately more and more teachers are taking advantage of the Employee Assistance Program, which offers free resources, short-term counseling and other mental health help. This is one symptom that the mental fatigue and anxieties teachers are facing are at an all-time high.

One of the anonymous educators agreed, but added that trauma-informed care isn’t available at her school. So she asked: “Where’s the money for mental health resources?

“We’re hurting ourselves and our families.”

Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

Helpful Resources:

Mental Health America (MHA) offers these tips for teachers to protect their mental health. Click the link above to read the full list of coping mechanisms and strategies.

Several studies show that teaching is one of the most stressful professions, with nearly 58% of teachers saying they had poor mental health. It’s only worsened during the pandemic.

Experts advise:

1. Establish boundaries
2. Focus on what you can control

3. Stay active
4. Communicate with friends and family
5. Prioritize self-care
6. Be gracious and gentle with yourself

Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, are real, common and treatable. And recovery is possible.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or not like yourself, take this short online screening.

For immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, or text “MHA” to 741-741 to talk to a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line. 

Coverage of “The Hidden Pandemic” is made possible with the support of William T. Kemper Foundation – Commerce Bank, Trustee, Hall Family Foundation and Marlese & Robert Gourley.

Error: Embedded data could not be displayed.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Brittany Talley’s name and has since been updated.

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