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Supporting the Emotional Well-Being of Teachers

Teachers work hard to support their students not just academically, but emotionally. But, who provides support for teachers as they work with dedication––and sometimes despair––to teach and help students who come to school with trauma?

Sydney Jensen, who teaches 9th grade in a large district in Lincoln, Nebraska, addressed this issue with courage, heart, and clarity in a TED Talk master class.

She says that like most teachers, she has students who go home every day to a healthy dinner and parents avidly interested in hearing what they learned that day.

“But, I also have students who go to the homeless shelter, or to the group home, they go to the car that their family is sleeping in right now.” Some kids may also be entering and exiting the justice system.

And this, she tells her audience, is what’s hard about teaching––not the grading, planning, and meetings. “The tough part is all the things you can’t control for your kids. All the things you can’t change for them once they walk out your door.”

Encountering student trauma connects directly with crucial evolutions in modern teaching that open lines of communication in the student-teacher relationship.

As a University of Georgia undergraduate, Sydney learned that new educators aren’t teaching a generation that will work on a factory line. “Rather, we’re sending our students out into a workforce where they need to be able to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve. Lectures and sitting in silent rows just doesn’t cut it anymore. We have to be able to build relationships with and among our students to help them feel connected in a world that depends on it.”

Two years into her teaching, Sydney began building opportunities into her classroom for students to talk more with each other, and to her. “And it was through those conversations I began not only to know their voice…but to know their pain. “

After she implemented these changes, she learned many new things about her students. She learned that one boy, who was acting out in school, had a father who was undocumented and had been deported. “In so many ways, I felt his pain. And I needed someone to listen.” Who would help her, as she worked to help him?

“We recognize that need for police officers who’ve witnessed a gruesome crime scene, and nurses who have lost a patient,” Sydney says. “I believe it’s paramount that teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and all other support staff have convenient and affordable access to mental wellness supports.”

Teachers are at risk each day of what is called “secondary trauma and compassion fatigue” as they take in the pain of what students share with them. “After awhile, our souls become weighed down by the heaviness of it all.” She sites the Buffet Institute statistic on teachers that “86% across early childhood settings experienced some depressive symptoms during the prior week. And one in 10 reported clinically significant depressive symptoms.” Sydney believes this trend is universal across all grade levels.

Her large school district offers all staff free counseling. But many districts don’t have the resources. She says every school needs not just to provide counseling services, but to proactively “seek out those closest to the trauma and check in with them.”

Yet, as has been true through human history, people help each other in grassroots ways. Sydney describes a middle school in Lincoln that sponsors “Wellness Wednesdays”, with community yoga teachers, lunchtime neighborhood walks, and social events. A middle school in Alabama has a “Mid-Week Meet-Up”, where teachers talk over lunch about what’s going well, and what is “weighing heavy on their hearts. These schools are making space for conversations that matter.”

And then there is Sydney’s friend and colleague, who for five minutes each day writes a note of encouragement to a co-educator, “letting them know that she sees their hard work and the heart that they share with others. She knows that those five minutes can have an invaluable and powerful ripple effect across our school.”

Sydney concludes with the simple reminder that we all need “somebody to reach out and make sure that we’re okay.”

Watch and hear Sydney Jensen’s TED Talk master class here!

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