“How are you going?”
It’s a relatively simple question, but in the context of yet another Covid lockdown, there’s usually not such a simple answer. Staring at the faceless squares that represent my students, I search for creative ways to show them that they are not alone and delicately enquire as to how they are faring. The responses are always the same; I’m tired. I’m over it. I’m overwhelmed. Can I go sleep?
Concurrently, there is an ever-increasing demand on schools to provide a level of social and emotional support that is unparalleled in education history.
As Australian states endure yet another round of online learning and all that comes with it – the break in routine, the uncertainty, the social isolation – the divide between school life and home life is becoming increasingly blurred and students are struggling to maintain any semblance of motivation and engagement in a world where their futures are so uncertain. Across the world, mental health is plummeting; anxiety and depression rates are soaring, and mental health providers are overrun with requests for help, leading to longer waitlists and more distress.
On the other side of the computer screen, teachers are grappling with the boundaries of their role as they consider how to minimise learning disruptions and protect their students’ wellbeing from a distance.
In recent years, Australian teachers have reported increasing levels of stress in their jobs, particularly for those in low-equity schools (ACER, 2020). Arguably, a major source of this stress is driven by the increasingly necessary focus (both by the government and general public discourse) on improving student academic outcomes and competing on the educational world stage (such as here), which drives endless school improvement initiatives and demands more and more accountability for teachers to balance and respond to competing sources of learning data.
Concurrently, there is an ever-increasing demand on schools to provide a level of social and emotional support that is unparalleled in education history. The pressure for schools to act as “social organisms… [that] make society as a whole” (Dr. Savage, University of Western Australia) has resulted in policy and curriculum changes that prioritise the teaching of wellbeing, emotional regulation and societal values.
In the regular day-to-day life of a generalist teacher, this means that it is no longer just our job to teach young people subject matter. We are sought after to support and advise on matters that have nothing to do with what is happening in our classroom: family breakdowns, friendship concerns, addiction, self-harm and suicidality, just to name a few. And it is not only the students seeking this support: parents, unsure how to help their increasingly struggling children, call upon teachers for guidance and intervention.
And we willingly and wholeheartedly respond, offering any wisdom and support that we are able to.
I would wager that there are very few, if any, in our profession who would argue that the shift in education to considering the whole child is a negative one. It means that our education system has become more equitable and accessible to students with differing needs, which in turn creates a more inclusive and better functioning society. Wellbeing teams are thankfully now a staple in most schools, creating a positive impact that is difficult to measure in standardised tests, by making schools safer and more accessible to the most vulnerable young people.
However, as these wellbeing needs increase exponentially in a world bereft of stability and certainty, resources that have always been stretched are now spread impossibly thin, leaving teachers to fill those gaps.
Just ask the Victorian government’s Coronavirus response team, who have literally called their Coronavirus resource guide for students “talk to a teacher” (https://www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au/students#talk-to-a-teacher-or-school-wellbeing-member ). Aside from lacking some naming creativity, this advice has an unspoken effect on those teachers who are fielding more and more cries for support from their students and feeling the impact of this increased responsibility.
Teachers (who are already spending countless hours of overtime simply trying to keep up with the demands of their classrooms), are simply not equipped or given adequate time to respond effectively to such issues, let alone process the significant emotional toll this care takes before rushing to their next class. Though the demands are ever increasing, the working days are simply not getting any longer, and it is getting tougher and tougher to prioritise the competing needs of our schools, our students and their families.
And our own.