George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

How My Anxiety Has Made Me a More Empathetic Teacher

Teaching with mental health issues isn’t easy, but it can help educators connect with their students and create conditions for students with similar issues to succeed.

November 28, 2023
Dan Bejar / The iSpot

Think of three teachers from your building, district, or social media: One of these three has likely experienced mental health symptoms before. This is not a surprise, because the National Institute of Mental Health reports that mental illnesses are common. In 2021 there were 57.8 million adults with a mental illness.  

This topic holds personal meaning for me, as an educator navigating generalized anxiety disorder. My diagnosis has impacted my work as a school counselor, academic adviser, and adjunct professor. And teacher well-being is connected to student well-being. Educators must strive to better understand psychological safety, social and emotional skills, and mental health, and how these impact themselves and their students. Here are some themes that have emerged for me while teaching with anxiety.  

Mental Health Literacy

Education: Perhaps begin by asking yourself, “How prevalent are anxiety and depression for my students?” This is a great question to explore with your school counselor, with your special education staff, or via National Alliance on Mental Illness resources. Most of us can easily name common disorders, but it takes time to read personal stories of those managing their mental health daily. Consider creating and sharing with your students an ongoing list of local resources (such as organizations or people) and online resources (hashtags, counselors, and users openly sharing mental health experiences). You can also chronicle your own story in an article—as I am doing now!  

I am an ally to students, but I do not want my experience with anxiety to overshadow my academic responsibilities. Learning to be objective yet supportive with students with mental health needs is top of mind. This can be tough, as sometimes help makes a student feel embarrassed, small, or uncomfortable (if the student can complete the task independently). Pay attention to how students describe their needs and mirror their vocabulary. Few may mention mental health or mental illness directly. Some may say, I am dealing with..., I experience..., or I am living with.... 

I also check in with students to learn if my attempts to support and extend kindness are well received. Seeking student feedback on what is working and what should be tweaked is my go-to practice. This helps me navigate the murky waters of supporting versus enabling students.   

Curiosity: Remember, learning more is the goal. Did you know that a mental health issue that impacts daily functioning may qualify as a disability through the Americans With Disabilities Act? We can also learn about the intersection of key factors (race, socioeconomics, gender, etc.) and mental health. For example, students of color represent a higher percentage of students with disabilities. Turns out, voices like mine (an educator of color) are less likely to be examined in mental health literature.  

Mental Health in the Classroom

Language: Teachers can also reexamine classroom language. Monitor language on discussion boards or during class to minimize phrases that are ableist, such as “That is crazy” or “That is stupid” (this can sound like an insult to students with an intellectual disability) or “I am so obsessed with...” (making light of the obsessive nature that characterizes obsessive-compulsive disorder). It is unrealistic to ban particular words, but discuss how such words are used and what to use as alternatives.  

Triggers: A trigger provokes an unwarranted strong reaction (anger, crying, etc.), as it reminds you of a past trauma. I am triggered by time pressures. I had only four months with my dad after his brain cancer diagnosis, and this led to feelings of loss, fear, and anxiety.

My hypersensitivity to time plays out in multiple ways: Rereading student emails—so terrified of miscommunicating a deadline. Feeling I will never catch up (with giving feedback, grading, lesson planning, etc.). Taking it personally if a student misses a deadline. Prematurely judging the students (They are unengaged), worrying about grading expectations (Is my policy flexible enough?), and doubting myself (Am I practicing curiosity?).

A mental health trigger is serious and can be scary, though over time, the word trigger has become more mainstream and used to describe general pain points. Common student examples are exams or class presentations. For exams, I help students anticipate (digital and in-person test reminders) and practice (providing study tips, study guides, practice test questions, etc.).

Sometimes layers are involved. Yes, an exam may make a student anxious, but it may also represent a deeper concern, such as fear of uncertainty, vulnerability, or failure. We can help students peel back the layers to identify what we can control. Students can control note taking. I encourage this by providing guided notes and utilizing open-note assessments (to emphasize the value of notes). Students can also manage their time. I help facilitate this by breaking larger tasks into mini-assignments. Also, students can learn how to self-advocate. I attempt to model this by openly asking questions when I am uncertain or need clarification.   

Visibility: Making coping strategies visible is critical. Include resources in syllabi and newsletters (such as contact information for the school counselor and tutoring offerings). Model how you identify emotions daily. I incorporate opportunities for students to share attitudes and feelings in assignment reflections. When a student unexpectedly reveals their feelings, I make a point to acknowledge their courage. I check in with students who are missing work or have had a change in work quality, and I share why I’m concerned about their performance.  

In the classroom, discuss the need for grace and how teachers can help students overcome challenges (dropping the lowest quiz grade, allowing test retakes, etc.). I like to acknowledge examples of students acting proactively, whether they start an assignment early or read a chapter ahead in the book, and discuss the positive impact of those behaviors on anxiety. 

Is it beneficial for students to see faculty and staff navigate mental health concerns? Research suggests that structured, selective, real-life exposure decreases stigma and that teachers sharing their own mental health experience may be relatable for those dealing with mental health struggles (and eye-opening for those who are not). I believe it allows students to see you as more than a teacher—as a human being with challenges to overcome. 

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