We have all seen it—students who are overwhelmed by discouragement at their inability to “meet the standard” expected of them in their studies. Students who live with loss and brokenness in their families. Students who struggle with depression so deep that it causes them to consider suicide. Students who engage in self-harm. Students who experience deep loneliness and alienation from their peers. Students who struggle with issues of sexual orientation. Students who suffer the after effects of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Students who suffer with other diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues.
We have also seen that these struggles are not confined to our students; we may know some of them through personal experience. We have seen colleagues who deal with burnout, with the sense that they are simply not able to do the work that faces them each day. Colleagues who struggle with conflict in their families and their churches. Colleagues who experience waves of doubt about the value of the work that they do. Colleagues who live with addictions, either personally, or in their families and circles of friends. Colleagues in conflict with their administrators and fellow educators. Administrators who feel torn between the often conflicting demands of students, parents, faculty, and boards, and who give in to hopelessness and cynicism.
All of this can serve as reminder of the obvious. The work that is involved in education is difficult, and it is often done in circumstances that are very challenging. The demands on our time and on our emotional and spiritual resources seem limitless, and sometimes the rewards and results of our work are not immediately evident to us. So the question that we come to is this: How can we respond more effectively to the needs of our students and colleagues, and how can we, as educators, take care of ourselves and each other so that we can retain a sense of hope, courage, and focus? Or, to ask the question another way: How can we create workplaces that are healthy, where students and educators alike can flourish and grow, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, in the way that they were intended to flourish as God’s people?
This issue offers a number of approaches to dealing with these questions. While not all the situations we face in our schools will be addressed here, we hope that what is written in these pages will encourage discussions among educators (characterized by respect, love, and care) that will allow us to work together to meet the specific challenges we do face. Students and colleagues who struggle with complex life situations and mental health issues are often in a very vulnerable place, and conversations that do not acknowledge their pain can result in much greater harm. Therefore, it is essential that our classrooms and staff rooms are safe places, where trust and love are evident, and where concerns, hopes, and fears can be shared in appropriate and supportive ways. They should be places where we can learn to identify situations that are hurting our students and colleagues, and to ensure effective protocols are in place to help those in need to find support, both in the school and in the wider community. They should be places where issues of emotional and mental health are not cause for shame, but where they are met with understanding and clearly available paths to support.
When I began teaching many years ago, I dealt with the expectation that when I was in my classroom, I would close the door (which did not have a window) and set about teaching my students. What went on in my classroom was completely my responsibility, and it was clear to me that to share any issues in my classroom with my colleagues would be seen as a sign of weakness and failure. When I think back on those years, I remember vividly my feelings of exhaustion, lack of confidence, and fear. I also think back on the students in my classrooms whose complex life circumstances I misunderstood, or did not recognize at all, and very likely mishandled. And I often wonder how those experiences could have been different if I had been able to sit down with my colleagues to share my concerns honestly, and then benefit from their experiences and insights. I would, I expect, remember those early years much more positively. And perhaps my former students would remember them more positively as well.
It is our hope that these kinds of experiences no longer exist in our schools, and that we can continue to create positive and supportive environments where God’s name is honored, where all of God’s children can flourish, and where we remember that the healing grace of God is offered to those whose lives and hearts feel crushed by the circumstances of life.