Teachers tell their students that mindset matters. Yet teachers do not always allow themselves space to receive those same messages of reflection and self-care.
Henry Seton, a longtime high school teacher and department head, learned that firsthand. In a courageous and insightful essay in Educational Leadership, Seton explored the hurdles that teachers face — especially those who work in schools in high-poverty settings — in safeguarding their mental health. He also revealed the challenges he’d faced in his own life.
“Teachers are attuned to the social-emotional wellbeing of our students and trained to monitor for signs such as trauma, anxiety, bullying, or microaggressions,” he wrote. “Yet we are still just learning how to discuss a huge, lurking threat to our work: our own mental health.”
Usable Knowledge sat down with Seton, who earned his master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last May, to talk about the ways in which school communities can both hinder and support the wellbeing of their members.
Where do you think the silence around teacher mental health originates from?
I think so many educators, especially in high-poverty settings, are barely holding on as is. To acknowledge, head on, where we are in terms of our mental health might not be something we feel like we can bear. High-poverty schools also often attract a certain type of intensity junkie who loves the intensity of that work — a person who, previously, has always been able to get through it. Talking about issues of mental health can be seen as a weakness and there’s this mentality of “I just need to be tougher. I just need to work harder and work smarter.”
How have you seen that mindset translate into a school culture? Did you feel equipped, at an early stage in your career, to handle it?
I worked for a decade at a young charter school that, like many young start-up organizations, had a blurring of work-life boundaries. It was predominately young people in their twenties, and we were all super mission-oriented, very energetic, very committed. I think we came into the work with a lot of unprocessed insecurities, whether it was our desire to be a savior or issues of our own guilt, that we were never doing enough. Just like open offices today, you see who gets there earliest, you see who stays there latest.
And there’s always this feeling that you could be doing more. Instead of the neighbor’s grass being greener, it’s the classroom next door that’s always operating at a higher level than yours. We all loved each other and worked hard to support each other but intimidated each other to death. It drove us to wonderful growth and phenomenal outcomes for students. Also, at times, it burnt through our emotional resilience and destabilized our emotional constancy with one another and with students. It affected our mental health. As the school transitioned, it did learn how to support teachers over time, but that transition is difficult for all sorts of schools and organizations.