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Dedicated to Teachers

Systemic Support for Teacher Mental Health with Dr. Kris Scardamalia

Systemic Support

If you enter “teacher mental health” into a search engine, you’ll probably be met with a surprisingly short list of results. But teachers have long experienced high rates of stress and burnout, which have only grown in recent years.

As Mental Health Awareness month comes to a close, we wanted to take some time to address the long standing and often overlooked state of teacher mental health in the U.S. Well-meaning approaches tend to miss the glaring issue of broken structural supports that leave teachers and their students with little to work with.

To begin to address some of those structural supports, we’re joined by Dr. Kris Scardamalia, associate professor from the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland. 


Steph: We’re here today with Dr. Kris Scardamalia. Kris, thank you so much for joining us. I want to jump right in and ask you, when we talk teacher mental health, what kinds of issues to you see coming up, and what are the impacting factors?

Kris: Yeah, it's a great question because the recent focus on teacher wellness, self-care, mental health, there's kind of all these different versions of it, has been grounded in this talk about stress around COVID, but this has been an existing issue. It's been a bit under the radar. It hasn't gotten a lot of attention. And the sort of reframe of perspective right now is teacher mental health didn't become a problem during COVID. It was suddenly spotlighted during COVID, and the cracks that were already there in the system suddenly emerged. I think of the education system as having been a bit fragile moving into that time, and we were not a system that was prepared to deal with a major crisis.

Teachers work really long hours. They have high-stress jobs. They have an extraordinary amount of oversight and, at times, micromanagement. There are often mandates to meet certain standards, meet certain goals without the funding, the resources, the training, really the space or room to do it right. So. a lot is asked, not a lot is given. The stakes are high, and they've only become higher. I mean, both from a kind of an official logistical standpoint, we go all the way back to No Child Left Behind and this idea that schools can be taken over by states if you're not meeting performance standards. Right? So there's like huge, huge consequences there. But then just down to the softer, less visible consequences often of high teacher stress, poor mental health, and what that means for the day-to-day interactions with students, for the teachers themselves, and then, overall, for a profession. It's hard to convince people to stick around for 30 years when one year feels like 10.

So, these issues have grown over the years. There's been a couple of things that education has been doing right, but in a problematic way, right? So one of the best, best things about the American education system is the commitment to educating every single student. There was a time in this country, still in other countries, that you had to be considered educatable to be in this system, right? We could just say, "Oh, you're not educatable." Or, "Mmm, if you drop out, you drop out. Not really our problem. If you have learning differences, if you can't learn the same way other kids do well, maybe you could go elsewhere. But again, not our problem." Since the early '70s, the American education system has said no, every single child. And I think that is noble. And I think that is where we should be. And I think that is absolutely a core value. If we're going to do that, we have to have a system that is resourced enough to meet the needs of every child entering the system.

So, we have the right idea, but the execution has been really problematic and in different ways over the years. But teacher salaries have not kept up. Although we want to provide more and more individualized instruction, classroom size is going up. So, I need to do more with an individual student, and yet I have more students sitting in my class with a wider range of needs, and it's just become untenable.

Steph: You know, what you’re saying makes me think of a conversation I had just last night with a teacher in my life. I was telling her this conversation was coming up, and she said, “Steph, you know, I had to fail a kid this semester, and it keeps at night, because I know how much that’s going to impact him.” And it just makes me think about the severe amount of pressure that is put on teachers to be a make or break point for all of their students.

Kris: Yeah.

Steph: Yeah.

Kris: And they feel that. I've never known a teacher that didn't feel that. And that becomes that sort of softer impact, right? It's not as visible, but they are carrying the weight of their students home every single day. And again, when kids are in difficult situations, and we know higher rates of poverty, higher rates of trauma, teachers are feeling not like obligated, like, oh, it's my job. I have to do this. But as humans, I want to help this child. I want them to feel better. I want my classroom to be a safe space for them. And I want them not to hurt. And there's only so much control they have. And so teachers take on a lot.

We also know that education is critical. It's very, very hard in an adult life if you don't have at least a high school diploma. So, this sense that this isn't just math class. This isn't just one thing, among many things. These are things that are going to determine success and even opportunity for success later on in life. And it's very hard then to keep some healthy boundaries and to say, "You know what, I've done my best, and this is just what it was," and not to take all of that in very personally, and to feel very, very responsible for that. Again, that is an admirable, admirable approach, right? I think there's a lot of nobility in teaching and in teachers, but it takes a lot out of you to stay that present, to stay that involved with your students, to stay that even aware of what is going on in their homes, what they're bringing in with them, their own struggles. And you can't help but be impacted by that.

When I'm talking with teachers, one of the first things we have to acknowledge is we are empathetic human beings, and the vast majority of people who get into education do so because they're helpers, they have a helping orientation, and they may be a little more empathetic than even your average individual. And that's all really lovely and wonderful, but when you're a highly empathetic individual, and you are sitting with student after student after student who is going through really rough times, or having a lot of academic difficulties and worries about their future, that takes a toll. It's emotionally exhausting and draining. And if we support that, then we can work with that. But not just the past few years, but for a while now, we've been asking teachers to take that in, take that in, take that in, go home, get a hot bath, and it'll all be fine, and not really attending to what it means to sit with that.

Steph: So, you said something a little earlier that really struck me. The idea of “good ideas, wrong approaches.” What are some of those wrong approaches, however well-intentioned, that have allowed the state of poor teacher mental health to persist, and, unfortunately, get even worse?

Kris: There's a business model that has crept into education, right? And so we've increasingly asked the question, what is the least amount of money we can spend and accomplish this goal? How can we be the most efficient? How can we do the most with the least? That's fine in some business models, but in education, what that has led to is fewer resources, larger class sizes, and more tasks being put on any individual. And so teachers are spending an enormous number of hours outside of their teaching time just entering data, grading papers, dealing with all the communication, and then the paperwork that has become involved in all of these various services. So, I've got higher loads, more kids, and with more kids becomes a greater range of needs. And instead of then having more supports, more teaching assistance, more programming, smaller class sizes, so that I can really work with each of these individual students, we're seeing the opposite, and it's larger class sizes, and it's more standards. And it's sometimes standards that don't make a whole lot of sense for my class, for my community. So, there's this disconnect between what is being offered and what is actually needed.

Education has this history, and I don't actually know where this comes from of we fall in love with a certain program or approach, and we do that for a year or two, and then, oh, we're on to the next best thing. We're on to the next best thing. And first of all, nobody gets great at any approach in a year, right? You don't do it the best you can ever do it the first time you've seen it. So it doesn't encourage the sort of deep learning and deep approaches. And then there's also just this fatigue that sets in.

Several years ago, I was developing a new social-emotional learning curriculum that was designed to fit within a classroom structure, and pervasively, when we tried to work with teachers or introduce this, not one more binder. Do not give me one more binder. I'm done. And it's just an overload of new things to learn and new things to handle, and why should I bother if next year you're just going to bring in a different program. So, mmm, I'll do what I need to do to get by, but there's no real reason for me to deeply invest in this approach or this program if it's not going to stick around and I'm not going to get continued support. This is a big one. We throw programs at teachers. We throw binders at teachers. We say, "Sure, we'll get around to some professional development, maybe in October, maybe in the spring semester." And then that's it. We know anywhere outside of education, right? The expectation would be there's continued support, there's continued consultation and an opportunity to get feedback, to better our skills, and to be supported in whatever approach we're taking. You know, it's the new reading program. This is how I did it, what can I do better? But we don't do that. It's here's the binder, figure it out. You might get some PD, and we're going to hold you responsible for the results. And, oh, this was probably going to change in a year or two. So you can imagine just the utter exhaustion and it's really hard to be good at something with that minimal of training and support around it. And we're quite in love with this. If we just have a program, it'll fix the problem. And we've gotten more and more into that model.

What researchers know, what teachers know is that the vast majority of learning and education boils down to relationships. When we have good relationships, when we have time to develop those relationships and attend to those relationships, learning improves. All of that is interrupted by yet another new academic program. Not that we don't want to be concerned with academic intervention, because we certainly do in academic support, but I think one of the things we're still not quite connecting with is that in order for any academic improvement and intervention to really take place and be robust, kids have to feel safe.

Relationships with teachers are a big part of feeling safe. Then on the other side, for teachers to really be able to stick in and invest, they need those relationships with each other, with the students. And that makes a huge difference. You can't do that when you're doing everything on the fly in 12-hour days.

Steph: And I would have to imagine too a good relationship between teachers and their administrations and their districts. I'm hearing this sense of not really being in control, just being given things and saying, "Do this, do that." How does that contribute?

Kris: It contributes hugely. It is very, very common to see decisions that are being made about education, about educators, being made by folks who are not educators, have never been educators, and don't really understand what's going on. Teachers are happy to tell you what the needs are and have lots of great ideas about how to solve these problems, but we're not asking teachers. So one of the things we've been working on, I'll introduce that first, is a tool to look at organizational wellbeing from a school perspective.

So as a school entity, what is the wellbeing of your organization and how are you supporting folks in your organization? One of the key domains there is input, flexibility, and autonomy. I am asked my opinion, I am given the opportunity to give my expertise on what the needs are and what best approaches might be. And not only do you ask me, but you ask me before you've made decisions and you incorporate my responses into what happens and we are really allowing teachers on the ground to make those decisions and to at least drive policy to what we need. This just doesn't happen.

I think whether you're in education or not, if you just think about if at your job you didn't really ever have a say in over what your job was and somebody's just always telling you what to do, it's very natural to start to become a little disconnected and to start to feel a little less responsible. It doesn't feel good. It just doesn't feel good. So we know that input and autonomy are really key and it's not something we often attend to.

Steph: Yeah. Hearing you use the phrase “organizational well-being” makes me think of some of the more common approaches that we hear about when it comes to teacher mental health. You know, I think we could call a lot of them self-care. When you and I were talking earlier you referred to them as “self-preservation techniques”, which are helpful to a point. But it still leaves this poor structure intact. So, what large scale systemic changes would contribute to a true culture of organization well-being?

Kris: We have to rethink our systems. The frame up until now has been self-care. Go make sure that you're getting good nutrition and you're exercising enough and you are getting enough sleep. It's really on the individual teacher. And just, as you said, that only gets us so far. You can't be healthy in a toxic system. It doesn't work that way. So I can do everything I can do to take care of myself, and when I walk into a really disorganized, dysfunctional, toxic system, all of that goes out the door.

So the first next step that we've seen is, okay, we need to make time for teachers to engage in self-care. And there's some utility in that. There's some like, "Nope, we're going to give you extra planning time." I talked with one district that they were then allowing Wednesday afternoons for nothing to be scheduled because that was teacher self-care time. Okay, that's good, that's a move in the right direction, but that's still putting the onus on the teacher. So what we're called to do now and really challenged to do is to think from that organizational perspective, what does that look like?

That looks like, first of all, just resource and support. So we as a system are going to take on figuring out smaller class sizes, better compensation, all of those just sort of logistics. We think of that as really the foundation. You need to be paid enough to do your job, you need to have the resources and the space to do that. Beyond that, we have to... this gets into the relationship piece, that you have to feel safe within your school building. There's a lot of different ways to interpret that. The first thing that usually comes to mind is school safety from a physical safety standpoint.

And that's important. We want teachers to feel safe and we want our buildings to be safe, both from outside influences, from student behaviors going on, from parent complaints and harassment that might be happening. But there's another side of feeling safe, and that's that sense of psychological safety, that when your administration, whether it's at a building level, a district level, a regional level, is either supporting or not supporting, this creates a sense of psychological safety. So when am I not safe?

When I'm worried that if I give critical feedback, maybe there's a new program and I'm like, "This isn't really working. I have not been having a lot of success with it," and I worry about saying that because then I'm going to be the problem and the troublemaker, so I can't say anything, I can't give critical feedback. Can I just discuss that I'm having a hard time? Can I admit that I made a mistake? Not from a personal defensiveness standpoint, but knowing that I could go to a mentor, a supervisor, an administrator, and say, "I am really struggling with this lesson or this thing," and somebody say, "Oh great. We can help you with that. Absolutely."

Instead of, "We should probably be marking that down on the annual performance review." That you are supported as a professional, trusted as a professional to make decisions and do the right thing, and that when we make mistakes, because we're all human and we do, it's seen as opportunity for growth and not as an opportunity for discipline and consequence. There's a real lack of trust in teachers in many ways, and it's demoralizing. It's really demoralizing. So you trust me with your eight-year-old all day long, but you don't trust me to modify his math assignment to make it easier for them to do or more accessible for them.

Steph: That specific combination of high expectations and low trust, seems like the kind of thing that could only come out of a highly feminized profession in a deeply misogynistic culture.

Kris: Absolutely. We think about how traditional gender roles operate outside of education, just in general. That it is typical to expect a woman to take on the cognitive load of a relationship or a household, to be the emotional nurturer, to be the one to keep track of all of that, to sacrifice themself for the better of others, to make sure that others are taken care of. That's a pretty traditional gender role that is magnified times three, five, 10 in a school building. And it is mostly most of our public school teachers now and in the past are female. It is a heavily, heavily feminized profession.

And that it is considered an expectation of your job to be nurturing from the moment you enter that building, not until the moment you leave the building, but until the moment you go to sleep, right? So that you're answering emails late at night, you're up thinking about your kids late at night, you're doing whatever you need to do to support your kids late at night because that's the expectation. And it's just an expectation that sits in the background, that everybody it's like, "Oh, well, that's just the way it is. That's just how women are."

It would be fascinating to me if we could ever see a public school system that was the vast majority of teachers were male if those expectations would be the same. Do you expect me to be able to understand each student's emotional state and respond in the moment in an appropriate and nurturing and compassionate way? Or is it like, "Yeah, you do the best you can do. And if you get it right, you get it right." Or even more, "That's not my job." So just this assumption that women are caretakers, that school is about care taking because kids are there, and that that is not a supported part of the role, it's just an expected part of the role.

And I think underneath that is the assumption that it doesn't take any energy out of that individual. There's no recognition of the amount of psychological, emotional energy that goes into giving that. If you can't recognize that it takes energy to give that, you are absolutely not going to recognize when somebody has no energy left and they can't give it anymore because they're completely depleted. And at that point, then we just start turning on the individual, "Oh, they used to be a great teacher, they just don't care anymore. They don't care anymore. They're just handing out worksheets."

We take it as that person is no longer valuable instead of saying, "Wow! That person needs to be really invested in their students and they were super creative with their lesson plans. They were really working it and they were amazing. Now I see them phoning it in every day, I bet they're burned out. Wow! We need to help. We need to intervene." Not because we need a consequence, but we recognize it as a signal of a need for support and somebody who is starting to break down and is just doing the best they can to survive their situation. But all of that would start with us recognizing that to be the nurturer does take mental and emotional energy.

Steph: Yeah. I really love your point about that's the consequence of it being just an assumption, of something that will just happen without support. So have you seen some examples of... whether it's schools or districts, really implementing that support successfully in a structural way?

Kris: I have. Not a lot, but I have. And even pre-COVID, back when I was a school psychologist, I worked in a elementary school. And I always had multiple schools, but there's one of these five schools I was working with where the principal had a very, very strong sense of responsibility for her teachers and her students and worked very hard to take everything off a teacher's plate that she could outside of teaching. It's like, "Your job is to be in there with the kids and teaching. I will find a way to get you help with paperwork. I will schedule your meetings for you around your schedule. I will make sure that you have coverage. I will run interference with parents and when I get a complaint about something rather going on, I am not going to immediately assume that, in fact, that is a valid complaint in that you made a mistake as a teacher, but I am going to spend time addressing that with the parent or the concerned individual. And I'm going to protect you from all of that. And you will only hear about it once I have done my job and my homework, say, "Okay, is there actually a problem that needs to be addressed here?" And then I will set a time to sit down with you. Not grab you during your planning period on the fly, but in a respectful way say, "Hey, let's schedule a time to talk. This is what's come up. How can I support you in this?" I can hear the thoughts, right?

Like, "Oh, I really wish we had the time and energy to do that." This was a Title 1 school with an extraordinarily high poverty level in a really challenged student body. Our students were dealing with a lot walking in the door and there wasn't a lot of money for things. This wasn't a well-resourced district that was able to just make this happen through cash. This was a committed principal who believed her number one job was supporting her teachers and protecting her teachers and allowing her teachers to do their job. I've worked with a couple principals like that. They're amazing. And you feel it when you walk in the school building, you feel it when you talk to the teachers. It is a whole different atmosphere and teachers in that atmosphere feel encouraged to stretch and grow and try new things and really bring life to their lessons and try creative things with their students.

Because if it doesn't work 100%, that's okay. They have an administrator that's supportive of that and would rather see them try and flourish and grow than do what you've always done, because it's going to be a problem if you don't get it right. I have seen other systems that ... More recently, actually we have school based mental health clinicians that are there to help students. I've seen several districts extend that to teachers. There is a model in Texas that is still ongoing, that the clinicians working in the schools are not school employees, so there's a level of confidentiality there. And they work with students, but teachers are also able to schedule therapy appointments with this individual whose office is on campus. They can go before school, they can go after school. They can go during a planning period, if that's what they want to do.

So many teachers have taken advantage of this. They saw absenteeism plummet. They saw academics increase. They had teachers saying, "I have always wanted to go to therapy and I haven't been able to, because school schedules don't work well with that. And I can finally go, I can actually have the time to go." And that didn't take a whole lot extra, right? You already had the mental health clinician that was in there to help support the student body. The space was provided, and the service was opened up to allow others to take advantage of that. And I've seen a couple different versions of that. And not only does it provide concrete help for teachers, it sends a very strong message from the administration to the teachers that we care and we're willing to do something to help.

Steph: So I think we've talked a lot about what the core issue is or what the many core issues are, some possible approaches which I would like to talk more about. What is the impact of not implementing potential structural changes? I think something that we're seeing increasingly is teachers are quitting.

Kris: Yeah. The number one impact, and certainly right now the most present, is teacher retention. Teachers are not wanting to stay. They have hit breaking points that between the low salary, the high demand, the lack of support, and then just the general sense that teaching is not a valued profession. Why am I sticking around? So we've got a retention issue. We've seen dropping numbers of students enrolling in education prep programs. So selecting education major and a bachelor's program, for example, or other preparatory programs. So we know we have fewer students entering the pipeline to become teachers. We have teachers who are leaving and first year teachers are particularly over the last few years, much less likely to stick around because they're walking into a system that's on fire. Like, "Whoa, I didn't know this was going to be the situation," and they're wanting to disengage pretty quickly.

We know that pre-COVID we were seeing that 10% of teachers leave after one year, 17% of teachers leave within five years in an urban districts up to 70% within the first year. So economically it's a problem because in any profession, new hires are the most expensive, right? You've got to bring them in. You've got all the startup, you've got all the training. So when we constantly have a new crop of teachers, A, we're just financially at our worst point because we're having to pay for all of that. We're losing the ability to really have a cohesive group in a school. There's something really wonderful about being in a school with a group of teachers who have been there years together. They're a well oiled machine. They are able to support each other in a way that you can only do after you've worked together for a long time.

"I know so-and-so's style. I know who to go through for this." And you can work cooperatively. You can't do that when every year a quarter of your teachers are new. Even programming. It's really hard to institute new programming when you're constantly having to train new folks coming in. So there's a lot of promise in restorative practice approaches, but it takes a while for a program like that to become part of the way an institution operates, nearly impossible if you have major teacher turnover every single year. On top of that, now we're seeing veteran teachers leave education at alarming rates, we're losing our institutional wisdom. We are losing our teachers that have been there 10, 20, 30 years, who have deep, deep knowledge and who at this point are really masters of their craft. They were mentoring the younger teachers.

Our veteran teachers are absolutely key in helping to train and support our younger teachers. They're leaving. And no disrespect to new teachers. I think we can all say, "Yeah, absolutely people who have been doing a job for 20 years have something to offer to people who have only been doing the job for a year." What we're getting now is we're going to have schools full of first, second, third year teachers who are struggling on their own without that layer of veteran mentorship to help them go through all of this. And then teaching staff that are just going to turn over year to year. So that's all logistical and that's bad enough, right? This all creates stress within a system. And we know that teacher stress strongly and directly impacts students and student behavior and student learning.

There was one study that they looked at reported levels of teacher burnout and cortisol levels in students and teachers who were reporting higher levels of burnout had students with higher cortisol levels. Now there's a bit of chicken and egg there, right? But the bottom line is stressed out teachers have stressed out students. That's not a great place for learning. We know that teachers who are really stressed out are quicker to consequence, quicker to remove a child from their classroom versus trying to work through a couple things.

It's like, "I can't deal with this. I just need you out." Tend to respond more negatively to mistakes, right? Kids are kids. They're going to make mistakes. Part of teaching is using mistakes is opportunity to learn. Can't do that when you're stressed out and you don't have the mental space. So teaching becomes less deep, less creative. Students are less supported. They're stressed out more and it just becomes this really difficult cycle to break. The only logical place to interrupt that cycle is to support the adults who are struggling so that they can then support the students who are struggling.

And we can get things back on a more even keel. One of the more, I think, interesting meta-analysis over the last many years ... This is specific to social-emotional learning, but we can take some lessons from this, that there was a large meta-analysis that found that schools that implemented social-emotional learning, did no other academic intervention, no other academic intervention, test scores improved on average 11 points. We saw a significant increase in academics. Graduation rates went up, attendance rates go up. Did we do academic intervention? No. You know what we did? We supported social-emotional functioning of our students and our teachers. I would suggest that teacher wellbeing and mental health is where you have to start. That's the foundation. You can't do the rest of it unless you have that.

Steph: When we talk about teachers who are quitting, which communities are being impacted the most?

Kris: So I think unsurprisingly the least resourced, the most stressed. Some recent surveys are suggesting, and we'll see what happens in the fall, but right now, when we ask teachers, "Do you intend to come back in the fall? Do you tend to stay in the profession?" The reports are somewhere around one in four teachers are saying, "No, I'm not coming back." That increases to about half when we ask teachers of color and they just say, "I can't. I'm not coming back." We have a very white teaching force. It's much whiter than in fact, our student body. And so we already have lower numbers of teachers of colors than we do students of color. And now we're losing a number of them, a larger number of them. The urban communities, we already know have a higher rate of teacher turnover and lower rates of retention.

Rural communities can have their own challenges where it can be very, very difficult to recruit into the system. One of the regions I'm working with right now is a very rural region. And we're having conversations that in 20 years of education we've never had before, which is we have money. We actually have money. We have nobody to hire. Right? There's nobody to bring in. And so rural communities, just because a lack of people to draw from are very strongly impacted. So it is our most needy in many ways that are impacted the most with high turnover and low retention.

Steph: Yeah, even here in New Hampshire we have had a number of schools over the past 10, 20 years close I our rural communities partially due to… whether it’s lack of funding, they can’t pay teachers, enough, or there’s just a lack of available teachers. It’s really devastating.

Kris: Yeah. It reminds me of two different districts. One is a state and one is a district that have had this problem. So there's a district that I've worked with in Maryland, that borders two other states and those two other states pay much better. This particular district usually has positions open. They tend to get new teachers in, they get training, and then they're hireable, and they go 20 minutes away to one of the two other states that will pay them significantly more money. One of the states I was talking to, their real struggle is that it's not just that their pay is lower than the surrounding states. They have a higher number of lawsuits on average than other states. Yeah, so not only am I going to get paid less, but my job is merely by definition going to be that much more stressful. We can't attract people. Why would you come here when there are plenty of other options around? And this is that tension that has been in the school system all along, and in particular since Brown versus the Board of Education. Who are we going to educate, and who gets to be in the building together, and who gets the resources, and who are we attending to? And what do we expect of certain schools?

It's been one of those sort of undercurrents that there's this sense that if schools want to be doing well, they can do well. If schools aren't doing well, then they must not want to. And that is then assumed to be a characteristic of the students and the parents within that attendance zone. Right? The students that go to that school. This was one of the major, major mistakes with No Child Left Behind, is they started from this idea that we had a level playing field. That all schools were at the same starting point. They failed to recognize that a lot of schools were still struggling with just meeting basic needs. And we had the same metric for everybody. And then when the schools were well positioned met that metric, and the schools who were not well positioned did not meet that metric. It's that meritocracy. It's that sense of, well, if you wanted to do well, you could have done well, you would've figured it out.

My experience was within a single district. I could be on one side of the town in a wealthy area, and not only were my students well taken care of, and they had small class sizes, but there was a tremendous amount of funds for all these little extras. I was sitting in a meeting once talking about a child who had a high need for movement. And they're like, "Oh, we can just get in one of those tall desks that has the swing bar and all these amazing tools and supports." Same district, 20 minutes across town, and I'm in a school that the previous year was holding a class in the hallway because they were out of classrooms. Where students may not actually have textbooks. Not every student is going to have a textbook, not every student is going to have pencils. And we're just talking about basic needs. Right? And that's within the same district. We have the same funding structure, and yet we see these inequities, and that is magnified as you start looking district to district then, and sometimes state to state.

Steph: Yeah. And I can really see how it's almost this endless loop of, well, if you wanted to, you would, so therefore we don't have to. And really just ignoring the structural piece of this. As we wrap up, let's look forward. Very broadly, I'd like to know what does the future of teacher mental health look like? And that's a really broad question, so maybe I'll just pass it off to you like that…

Kris: Yeah. It's a great question. And I do think there is some room for optimism. Acknowledging it's going to take a lot of work and it's going to take a lot of systems change. However, as we have seen this past year, and I think in many ways this past school year was more difficult even than the 2020 school year, as everybody was coming back into schools, having not been in schools. Carrying in all of their trauma, carrying in everything that we've been through. The last school year was really brutal. And I expect next school year will be very difficult. As hard as that has been, and not to minimize that, it has really highlighted that there are issues in our systems that are... That our system is in many ways broken. Right? We cannot move forward.

And so we have opportunity. Right? There is opportunity in crisis to rebuild some of these systems. And to start from the ground up saying, no, we need to start with relationship building. We need to start with supporting teachers. It has really only been in the last year or two that I've started hearing this idea of, "Maybe adult social-emotional learning is where we should start, and then student social, emotional learning." Right? We're just starting to get this idea that we really should be supporting educator mental health.

The other switch I'm seeing is a little more willingness, and the need's always been there, but schools just saying, you know what, we're just going to do our thing. We know what's needed, we're just going to do it. Right now we just need to take care of our teachers the best way we know how, and make that our priority.

I think those are positive shifts. And I think as long as we can keep rolling in that direction, we do have opportunity to correct some of the imbalances in our systems… to build not just a workforce, but a whole system that is uplifting for those who work in it, and those who go to school in it. Right? That is a place of creativity. That is a place of innovation. That is a place of learning. It's a place of acceptance. It's a place that I feel valued, that I feel like I belong. And why wouldn't we want that? We think about as a nation, right, if you're part of a tech company, you're CEO of a tech company, and you're looking for folks to hire, right, who do you want to hire? You want to hire somebody that can be creative and innovative and autonomous, and do all these great things, and stay up to date with the latest technologies.

That's the workforce we need to produce. Right? Moving toward schools being just good places to be. I think one of the essential tensions is this idea, that for some, that schools are reading, writing math, that's it. It is academics and academics only, and schools are not the place for social, emotional learning, for mental health, for counseling, for all these other things. And that is an idea that exists only in theory. The reality is you can say that all you want, but our teachers are being counselors and social workers, and case managers, and all this other stuff. And the sooner that we embrace that and make that work for us and not against us, we will build a better education system. I think it's a hundred percent within our capability and within our grasp, if we can truly value education, not look at it as what is the least amount I could possibly pay for this. Right? That's great when you're going shoe shopping. It Is not so awesome when you're trying to produce students that have good, critical thinking, and great skills to move forward, and do all this wonderful stuff in the future.

Steph: My dad always says, spend good money on a pair of shoes because it's what supports you.

Kris: I know. Right?

Steph: And we need to spend good money on the structure of education to support our teachers and support our students. It's a really beautiful thing to look forward to, and very inspiring to hear that it is happening. It is starting to happen.

Kris: Yeah.

Steph: Yeah.

Kris: Absolutely, hearing more out of the Federal government than ever before. And not just hearing. I mean, I never heard the President actually mention school psychologists a dozen times now. I'm like, "Oh my gosh." I've never heard school psychologists referenced by any sort of major national political figure before. That's exciting. But there's funding. There's funding that's coming along to try to figure all this out. It's a bit of a conundrum right now. Like I've said, it's, okay great, we finally have funding once we no longer have people to hire, but I think we have that opportunity at least to say, okay, we're now recognizing the importance, and we can start building back in a better way. 

Steph: Well, I think that's a great note to end on. Very forward thinking. Kris, thank you so much for joining us today. I really encourage people to check out the work that the National Center for School Mental Health is doing. And thank you again for your time and your insight.

Kris: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It's such an important topic, and I'm so excited to contribute to the conversation anytime in any way I can.

Scardamalia_KrisKristin Scardamalia, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine National Center for School Mental Health. Dr. Scardamalia has extensive experience working with high needs youth and their families as a school psychologist in both the public schools and juvenile services. Her research focuses on the intersection of the education, juvenile justice, and mental health systems including supporting staff wellbeing. Dr. Scardamalia led the development and dissemination of a self-paced online well-being tool for individual providers and a tool to assess and address organization well-being in behavioral health workplaces.

Topics: Education Policy, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Mental Health, Mental Health Awareness Month

Date Published: 06/02/22

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