Many teachers, such as biology teacher Emily Barro, much juggle hybrid and online students at once. (Photo by Andrew Hsieh)
Fountain Valley High School

Opinion: How to support teachers’ mental health during distance learning

Most people can agree that distance learning presents an entirely new set of challenges in starting a school year. From technology issues to virtual labs, it is easy to see why mental health might not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the distanced school year progresses.

The barrage of online information and resources can be overwhelming for students who now find themselves spending the majority of their time on a Chromebook.

The lack of face-to-face interaction can leave everyone feeling lonely or depressed. Concern over the international health crisis has led to increased levels of stress and anxiety in distanced learners. Studies have shown that nearly a third of students who did not have mental health support prior to the COVID-19 now feel as though they need it.

Teachers, however, also face issues with mental health during the school year that may not be as addressed as students, dealing with the same challenges presented by distance learning while also having to restructure their classes to be online and maintain the quality and caliber of pre-pandemic education.

“Teachers’ jobs are always difficult… They are tasked with the need to provide high-quality instruction, [making] sure students are mastering content, [creating] relationships with students,” student support school psychologist Cynthia Olaya said. “As teachers start teaching kids in higher levels, they are tasked with being mindful of mental health issues, getting kids the help they need whether that’s mental health [or] physical health. It’s a lot.”

Teachers are tasked with restructuring the entirety of their courses into an online format through Canvas. Every week, they face new challenges with technology that require more time and effort than before. It’s easy for teachers to become stressed and overworked as they devote themselves tirelessly to helping students learn.

“You feel like a first-year teacher again,” science teacher Erika Williams said.

With work and home so interconnected, the chaos of online learning leaves little time for taking a break. Teachers cannot truly go home from work since their houses are their workplaces. On top of concerns about their students, they worry about the well-being of their families as well and experience concerns surrounding the pandemic.

Teachers miss human interaction too. Many of them value the connections they make with their students as a vital part of their job. Teachers also do not see their coworkers in the same way they might have pre-pandemic, and it can be difficult to keep in touch via technology only.

“For the most part, from the moment you’re born, humans are hardwired to connect. And so we’ve been pushed apart by this, and teachers in particular … have chosen a profession that is all about connection,” Olaya said. “I think all of us are [experiencing difficulty] but I think it’s really exacerbated when your job is to connect, and connection is the very thing that is so difficult right now.”

However, teachers are not alone in their struggles. Students can help support teachers as well.

Students should try to keep their cameras on during virtual classes. Teachers like seeing their students and miss face-to-face interaction just as much as students do. Having a classful of people in the online classroom is much more exciting for teachers than a blank screen. Even getting to see students’ facial expressions can be encouraging. Being able to see their students can make teachers feel less alone and generally happier.

“Participate. Show your face if you can. And if you can’t, your [zoom] profile [could be] a picture of you so that it helps teachers recognize who you are,” Williams said. “I love getting some sort of personal connection with my students.”

Furthermore, students can unmute every once in a while. A dead silent class is also monotonous and sad for some teachers. Even if it isn’t to participate, unmuting to say hello and asking how a teacher is doing might help them cope with the lack of connection during COVID times. It is always good to let them know that you care. Teachers appreciate any communication from students, especially because it is so difficult to gauge the needs of the class during distance learning.

“I think that connection is missing, and so the more students can reach out and let teachers know when they need something, I think that’s going to be helpful too.  It’s going to help create those connections, [and] it’s going to help teachers understand students better and know where students are at,” Olaya said.

Lastly, students should be patient. Teachers are people, just like students, and are dealing with immense stress from the pressure of adapting an in-person class to an online format. Students should not be surprised if it takes a little more time and effort to email back or post homework assignments on Canvas. Remember that teachers are fairly new to navigating online learning too.

“Teachers, especially Fountain Valley teachers, are pros… and they hold themselves to such a high standard.  I feel we all need to be a little bit more reasonable with that standard right now,” Olaya said.

Teachers can use a variety of techniques and resources to help alleviate stress and make distance learning easier for themselves as well.

A good tool for teachers to use is mindfulness. Meditation, yoga and other mindful activities can help anyone destress and focus.

“Usually [yoga] helps to reduce my stress,” Williams said. “Mindfulness — practicing it, incorporating it, sharing it with others — also helps.”

It is important that teachers recognize that distance learning does not look the same as in-person learning.  Being more compassionate with themselves and knowing that this is temporary will help reduce stress and anxiety for teachers.

“I know that they’re doing the best that they can, and I just want them to be kind to themselves and take good care of themselves,” Olaya said.

For immediate mental health crises, hotlines are available to both students and teachers. Orange County’s mental health hotline can be reached from any phone by dialing “211.”

Stress and anxiety managing apps are also available to download on mobile phones. The Self Anxiety Management app, known as SAM, allows people to assess and keep track of their anxiety. Similar apps help users track their mental health and well-being.