03 February, 2022

Make the mental well-being of teachers a priority

It is now clear that COVID-19 caught us all by surprise. The school education sector in India too struggled during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While online learning for children has had its fair share of challenges, including learning loss, fatigue from online learning to mental stress, there is another group that faced severe adversity — a group that has not been adequately considered in the general discourse — our teachers, who too struggled with meaningful pedagogies embedded in digital platforms.

The pandemic-induced conditions posed several challenges which largely remained unnoticed. The two sides India has an estimated nine million teachers, but they are not a homogeneous group in India. There are extremes: those working in schools under the Union government with better qualifications, working conditions, salaries and systemic protection to those in low-fee private schools with abysmally low salaries, poor working conditions and no systemic protection.

Those in medium range, urban private schools faced a new type of ‘bullying’ by being under constant ‘watch’ of parents who pointed out even the tiniest mistakes, including variety in pronunciation in online classes. In addition to this, under COVID-19 duty, their deployment in undertaking door-to-door COVID-19 survey, distributing immunity booster tablets, policing inter- and intra-district check-posts, managing queues outside fair price shops, keeping records in COVID-19 care facilities and, at times, disciplining queues outside liquor shops led them to a sense of ‘loss of identity’. This peculiar situation, juxtaposed with media reports suggesting that ‘teachers drew salary without any work’ led to much mental turmoil, a lowering of the self-image and self-respect.

Teachers were also under constant pressure to submit records of efforts made to keep learning ‘alive’. These efforts could neither be fully verified nor could their effectiveness be gauged. One of the main pain-points for teachers during the pandemic was a total cut-off from contact with children during the initial months and during and after the second wave. For many teachers, teaching is not just a profession but also the most rewarding work as interacting with young children and adolescents brings with it great pleasure and joy. Mental stress due to being cut-off from children fuelled by societal perception of the salary of teachers being a great burden led to some innovative responses from teachers to mitigate their own stress and pressure. For example, at Akole (Ahmednagar, Maharashtra), teachers started a COVID-19 care facility which is operational till date, with more than 650 patients cured and returning home. Such work, according to Bhausaheb Chaskar, a Zilla Parishad teacher and Convener of Active Teachers’ Forum Maharashtra, is helping teachers rebuild their image under assault by vested interests and is also bringing a lot of solace, mental peace and meaningfulness to the community of teachers. But, it is now increasingly clear that our children face a crisis in terms of their mental health and well-being. The silent pandemic of mental ill-health in adolescents and young people was brought to the fore globally by the pandemic.

Teachers, as primary caregivers to children, influence the emotional environment of a classroom as well as the emotional and behavioural well-being of those in their care. The teacher’s ability to navigate this responsibility is significantly shaped by their own mental health and well-being. Need for destigmatisation Teachers, especially those working in high poverty environments and with marginalised groups, face an inordinate amount of job stress, it is very important to recognise and validate their stress, bring it out and discuss it openly. School environments often embody the larger cultural milieu and discussing mental health and well-being might be stigmatised; recognising and addressing this stigma through a cogent set of policies at a systemic level will help schools create an environment where mental health can be discussed openly. Some steps that might be helpful include creating a space where teachers can talk about their daily stressors and their well-being with their peers in a supportive environment. Community of Practice of teachers and teacher unions can take this up as an agenda of priority.

Including mental health, well-being and burnout management in teacher training programmes and refresher training will go a long way in prioritising mental health. Systemic investments in school mental health allow for a creation of an environment focused on well-being, addressed through clearly defined policies on anti-bullying, redress of harassment and grievances, creating a support system of psychosocial services that teachers can access. An objective recognition programme focused on the small achievements of teachers also goes a long way in building a culture focused on strengths.

If we want to be a thinking, forward-looking, advanced society sensitive of challenges, a society in which children are safe, secure and protected with professionally well-trained teachers who know the ways of mitigating newer challenges (including mental health and the well-being of children), then there is no alternative to making the mental health of our educators a priority. It is a very important first step in addressing the mental health and well-being of our children. Our acknowledgement of systemic challenges created for teachers and our focus on teachers’ well-being and mental health would perhaps ensure a safe and secure ‘future of our future’.

This article has been authored by Kishore Darak and Tasneem Raja, and was first published in The Hindu on December 11, 2021.

Kishore Darak works with the Education team of the Tata Trusts. He has been working in the school education sector for two decades with a focus on teacher development. Tasneem Raja has over 22 years of experience in the health-care sector and has worked on a range of issues including non-communicable diseases, infectious diseases and maternal and child health, in various parts of the country.

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