Education Week | By Madeline Will | August 3, 2021
Emily Wang noticed that when her teachers seemed stressed, their demeanor changed and sometimes they took out their frustration on students. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone, the 16-year-old wondered, if teachers could take mental health days?
Emily, a high school senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md., surveyed two dozen public and private school teachers across the county last school year about whether they think teachers need mental health days. Nearly 80 percent said yes, and the vast majority also said they think mental health days would improve teachers’ performance in the classroom.
Yet Emily has received a lukewarm reaction from administrators and union officials as she’s tried to pitch her research and proposal of paid mental health days for teachers. She said she’s been told that educators want to focus on student mental health—which Emily agrees is important. But she wonders why that same attention isn’t given to teachers.
“Once we start talking about teachers’ mental health, no one seems to advocate for them,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma around adult mental health.”
There’s a growing push in both state legislatures and school districts to make sure that mental health is an acceptable reason for students to take a day off. Yet there hasn’t been an equivalent push for teachers, despite surveys showing that teacher stress levels—which were already high, compared to those of other adults—have skyrocketed over the past year.
A recent survey from the RAND Corporation found that 78 percent of teachers said they experience frequent job-related stress, and 1 in 5 said they’re not coping well with that stress. Half of teachers reported feeling burned out, and more than a quarter said they experience symptoms of depression.
“If you want to support student mental health and well-being, you have to support teacher well-being and mental health because they are very inextricably linked,” said Patricia Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and an expert in teacher stress. “I think people are starting to recognize that teachers’ well-being is really critical to their ability to perform their jobs well.”
Research shows that classroom tensions can be “contagious”—when teachers feel burned out or exhausted, their students are more stressed. Other studies show that teachers who feel stressed have worse classroom management.
Still, Jennings said, she’s not convinced that giving teachers explicitly named “mental health days” is the solution. Instead, she and other experts said, school leaders should encourage teachers to use their sick leave any time they don’t feel well—physically or mentally.
Already, most districts do not require a doctor’s note for the use of one sick day, so teachers could take the day off for mental health reasons. On average, teachers receive about a dozen sick and personal days a year and are able to roll over any unused days from year to year with no cap. (Many teachers save their sick days so they can have paid parental leave, which is not given to teachers in most states.)
Seventy-nine percent of educators said their school or district allows staff to take excused absences for mental health reasons, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders that was conducted June 30 to July 12. And 88 percent said they support staff being able to take time off for mental health purposes.
But in interviews, many teachers said they rarely take a day off for mental health reasons, even if they can. Some said the stress of finding a substitute, writing lesson plans, and then dealing with the aftermath of being absent for a day would negate the benefits of taking a break.
“The idea of a lost day … you’re kind of shooting yourself [in the foot] in the long run,” said Meredith Lesser-Gonzalez, a 5th grade teacher in Framingham, Mass. “A mental health day seems like a luxury.”
A lack of substitutes makes a day off seem out of reach
Educators often report working long hours, bringing work home on the weekends, and taking on a multitude of responsibilities to meet the needs of their students. Administrators have increasingly started to pay more attention to teacher mental health, but experts say it will take time to significantly change school culture.
“We have this ethos that if you’re not showing up, … it’s probably a reflection of weakness on your part,” said B Grace Bullock, the senior mental health strategist for the Oregon Department of Education. “There’s really a stigma for identifying mental health concerns, and not all schools allow for those conversations. … Schools, in many respects, are not designed with staff mental health in mind.”
There are also structural issues preventing teachers from taking a break, experts say, like the shortage of substitutes. A nationwide EdWeek Research Center survey of school leaders conducted in December 2019 and January 2020—before the pandemic—found that administrators were concerned about finding enough substitute teachers, and only about half of respondents were able to fill their teacher absences each day. (The survey was commissioned by Kelly Education, a staffing service.)
And the pandemic made things worse: Another national survey conducted in November 2020 found that most school and district leaders said their need for substitute teachers is up, yet applications for the positions were down. Teachers say they don’t always know who will be taking over their classroom when they’re gone. Sometimes they’re even asked to find their own substitute.
“As a teacher, you end up feeling sort of trapped,” Jennings said. “On one hand, you feel like you need to take care of yourself, you need time off. On the other hand, you worry that you’re just going to make your life harder if you do take time off.”
And one teacher taking the day off could make it harder for their colleagues. Lesser-Gonzalez said that when a substitute isn’t available, other teachers on her team have to pick up the slack and cover the absent teacher’s classes.
“While I love the idea of a mental health day, … I would be reluctant to just take a day off because of the negative impact on my team of me not being there,” she said. “Our team works really closely [together], and we all support each other.”
Jennings said ideally schools would have a full-time substitute whom teachers trust and who could be readily available to take over classes. This type of model, common in high-poverty urban schools, is recommended by Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit focused on improving substitute teaching, for the stability it provides students and staff.
After all, providing a substitute with information about each child’s needs, in addition to the lesson plan itself, is time-consuming, said Mary Strickler, a 4th grade English/language arts and social studies teacher in Indian River County, Fla. The amount of time and work it takes deters her from taking a day off, she said.
It would be a relief, she said, if the substitute were a “member of your school community. … You knew her, and she knew you.”
Teachers will need support this year, experts say
Attention to mental health will be especially important this coming school year, as both students and teachers return to the classroom still reeling from the stresses and traumas caused by the ongoing pandemic and the disrupted 2021-22 school year.
Bullock is spearheading a campaign through the Oregon education department for districts to spend the first few weeks focused on building a supportive community for both staff and students. For example, the department suggests that districts hold professional development sessions that recognize educators’ strength and resilience from the past year and support them in healing.
Giving equal attention to both student and staff mental health is a cornerstone of the department’s mental -health initiatives. Bullock said school leaders need to make sure they’re putting systems in place that encourage teachers to take care of themselves.
“A mental health day is great but it does not address the underlying conditions that are contributing to the need for a mental health day in the first place,” she said.
Lesser-Gonzalez, the 5th grade teacher, said she’d rather have more time for planning and paperwork, “so we don’t reach the point of needing a mental health day.”
In the meantime, Emily, the 16-year-old from Maryland, is still advocating for mental health days for teachers. She’s reached out to the Montgomery County Education Association and the school district in hopes that they will consider her policy proposal.
Emily, who plans to replicate her study on a larger scale, said she was surprised at how “indifferent” administrators and others have been toward teacher mental health: “If nobody is willing to act, then when can the teachers’ voices finally be heard, cared for, and valued?”