The impact of the pandemic on teachers’ mental health

Teachers at La Quinta High School are all adjusting to the new school year of 2021-2022 in their own ways, but some say they would benefit from additional supports to take care of their mental health so that they, too, can take care of their students. 

The new school year proved to continue to be demanding for both teachers and students at La Quinta High School. However, the spotlight on teachers and how they are doing has been unclear because the focus is often on students instead. 

Teachers at La Quinta High School are all adjusting to the new school year of 2021-2022 in their own ways, but some say they would benefit from additional supports to take care of their mental health so that they, too, can take care of their students. 

Taking mental health to heart

Paula Alcantar is a biology and the environmental teacher and is currently in her sixth year of teaching. When she heard that this school year would be fully in-person, she was overjoyed. 

“It was a mental celebration. In my mind, I was very excited to be able to be in a room full of students again because that’s my favorite part of teaching,” she said.

In the first week of school, with her classroom filled up to the brim with students, Alcantar was filled with excitement and thrill. After 18 months, she was finally able to see all of her students again.

“It was a really joyous feeling,” she said. “I felt like I got to remember why I wanted to be a teacher, why I continued to teach for all these years. Being able to see this classroom filled with students just made me really happy, this is the part of this job that I love.” 

Alexa Galvez
Paula Alcantar is a sixth-year science teacher.

Alcantar resigned from her teaching position at the high school during the fall semester and has accepted a job offer from the Coachella Valley Water District. (Though, she is still teaching at the high school as the district has not yet released her from her teaching contract.)

Her new role will be to educate young people about the importance of water and how to conserve water in the desert. 

She will most miss the daily interactions she has with her students.

“In the semester that I have spent here [this school year], I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to build some really great relationships with a lot of my students,” she said. “That’s what makes leaving the hardest part; I’m not going to be able to see my students until the end of the year.” 

It is the school district’s responsibility to look after students and teachers, but when it comes to teacher mental health, they may not be addressing the issue merely on the surface. 

“They’re saying the right words but I don’t feel like they’re really following up on those words with appropriate actions,” Alcantar said. “For example, I feel like more so this year than in previous years, they’re trying to say, ‘Take care of yourself and practice self care.’ But then on the flip side, they’re also adding more to our plates. There’s more things that we, as teachers, need to do to accommodate [like] student absences because there are kids who are absent for weeks on end.” 

Alcantar wishes the school district would directly reach out to teachers for their input.

She suspects those at the district have not been a teacher in a long time, while others may have never been teachers—so they don’t know what’s it’s like to be a teacher in this present moment, especially in a pandemic.

“They like to think that they do,” she said, “but they don’t because they’re not living it day to day. I think in order for the school district to actually do something effective, to help better teacher mental health, they need to listen to the teachers and reach out to them, ask them questions, get feedback from them and actually listen to the feedback, and they need to take it to heart and use that feedback to do something productive.” 

There are times where teachers are just as stressed out as students are, if not more.

Sometimes students and teachers forget that everyone has a personal life and that they are going through some things outside of the classroom. It’s important to stay in touch with and genuinely check up on one another, Alcantar said. 

“To be honest it was a combination of factors that helped me decide to prioritize myself,” she said. 

Attending graduate school was one of the factors that encouraged her to seek other career opportunities besides teaching.

“[One of my mentors would] just always would tell me to be true to myself, and if my brain or my heart is tugging me in a different direction, [I should] listen to those tugs because they’re happening for a reason,” Alcantar said. “I’m basically telling myself that I want to pursue other opportunities to do something different so I should listen to that.”

The biggest message that Alcantar would like every student, not just her own students, to know is that it’s okay to not know what you want to be when you grow up right now.

Refocusing energy

Most teachers adapted and overcame the challenges of teaching remotely and coming back to the classroom was certainly thrilling. However, teaching and connecting with students over Zoom was burdensome for some more than others. 

“I was energized and a little overwhelmed since it had been a while,” David Jewett, the band director, said.

Jewett is currently in his fourth year of teaching at this school. Teaching band and music is interactive and requires the ability to actually look at the students’ performances individually and as a whole.

“One of the biggest challenges of Zoom for musicians is that there is always delay on the video and audio, and so trying to run a rehearsal or even just to play a song together didn’t work,” he said. “I would have a recording playing that the students would play along at home but their sound wasn’t on, so I couldn’t hear them playing. I had students make individual recordings so that I could hear them play.” 

Jewett has certainly had his fair share of problems teaching his class remotely. But there is always a toll taken by these challenges and just teaching remotely in general.

“It was hard,” Jewett said. “When I’m teaching on campus. I’m a lot more active physically, but I still think that teaching online was more draining. I’d rather stand up and walk around than sit at home in front of a computer all day.” 

Part of being a teacher means attending teacher meetings. But the school district has them so often that it’s easy to get burned out when having other things to do.

I think the best thing the district could do to address mental health is to require schools to use the teacher meeting time every week for things that are truly relevant to helping us be better teachers. So much of our meeting time is not very useful and just adds more paperwork and busy work to our collective plate,” he said.

Jewett and his students have been working hard at perfecting their performances, which they displayed in last month’s winter showcase. 

The importance of taking a mental health day

Most teachers at LQHS have a few years of experience under their belt, so they’ve experienced teaching at this particular school as well as getting to know their students.

However, there are still a few new teachers that are getting into the groove of things, especially after 18 months of working from home or in a hybrid format. 

Alexa Galvez
Joshua Sessa is a first-year teacher.

Joshua Sessa is in his first year of teaching. He teaches U.S. History and psychology.

Coming to school for the first time, especially under these global issues, is terrifying but exciting for Sessa because he got to meet his students and colleagues for the first time.

Since this year is typically different from all the other past years of regular teaching, there have to be new challenges that need to be dealt with. 

For Sessa, and many other teachers, a byproduct of the pandemic is struggling to help the students who have had to quarantine when they get sick for a long period of time. 

“I’m trying to give them their work while also keeping the students that are here engaged,” he said. Overall, the real world problems are blending [into the classroom] right now.”

Being a first-year teacher means that there is a clean slate, a reputation that needs to be built. What’s important this year, after coming back from distance learning, is being able to build a connection with students and with colleagues. 

“I establish a connection with my students by understanding that we haven’t been in school for over a year. Right now, we’re just taking things slow and I’m more focused on building relationships with the students,” Sessa said.

When addressing teacher mental health, the school district occasionally offers workshops and other support for teachers outside of school hours. But of course, there is always room for improvement.

“I think that encouraging teachers to take days off and actually help us out [with our mental health] would be good. There are a lot of supports out there that the district does implement, but I think on a district-wide level, they should be placing more emphasis on taking a personal day,” he said.

For Sessa, workshop days are personally better for him because getting a day to plan ahead and have time for himself can alleviate some of that stress for the future.

For others, taking a day off can be difficult due to the substitute teacher shortage. (This school year, teachers have been asked to fill in for their colleagues during their prep periods.) 

Sessa would like the entire school to know that he is very fortunate to have ended up at LQHS. He commutes all the way from Riverside just to get to his job every morning and he’s very excited and committed about working at the high school.

Building trust and moving forward

Veteran teachers have truly encapsulated the Blackhawk Way and school spirit, and they definitely know all the secrets or great things on how to better teach their subjects to their students through trial and error.

Yet in their first year during distance learning, it was like having to teach for the very first time. 

Joann Monachello-Prahl is in her 27th year of teaching and teaches dance. Like band, dance is an interactive class that requires partner holds and the ability to see each performance.

“I was scared of being online because I wasn’t used to it. Building trust amongst my students was hard because there was hardly any communication,” she said.

Another challenge for Monachello-Prahl was the appropriateness of students touching for partner dances when physical distancing was encouraged due to the pandemic. 

In her classroom, students have to shadow dance when performing partner dances to ensure safety. Teaching proper partner holds is now more difficult due to COVID-19, and they need to be taught because students will retain these dances for the rest of their lives.

She encourages students not to make up for what they have lost and to “kick out” what they really need and to “keep moving forward.”

Although there is room for improvement, some teachers such as Monachello-Prahl believes that the school district is doing sufficiently when it comes to addressing teacher mental health.

“They’re doing a lot and offer us courses to take and check in with us and offer counseling. I wouldn’t want to change a thing,” Monachello-Prahl said.

All teachers care about the well-being of their students inside and outside of the classroom, which is why they sympathize and try their hardest to understand. However, teachers’ feelings are not taken into consideration as much as students’ feelings.

Even when teachers’ stories and emotions are often not talked about, they still care and give back to their students however they can. Students’ mental health is of utter importance and it’s always the teachers’ top priority, regardless of their own feelings. 

Reestablishing trust and managing high expectations

Dr. Bettyrae Easley is in her 16th year of teaching, teaches IB English HL 1, and is the co-department chair for English. It was hard for Dr. Easley to learn how to teach remotely mainly because of technology and lack of communication from students.

“One thing I learned was how to use the computer a lot better because of Zoom. It was hard, I thought, because we were always on the computer and I really tried to have students put their cameras on as much as I could,” she said. “I feel like I got to know the students who put their cameras on a lot better because I could see them and talk with them.”

Alexa Galvez
Dr. Bettyrae Easley has taught at the high school since 2004.

Difficulty online has somewhat carried on into the new school year for Dr. Easley as she tries to reestablish those connections with students and have handwritten assignments turned in, as anything handwritten shows dedication and personality.

“The class size is so large, so trying to reach out to all of the kids is hard. The other two things are that it’s really hard to teach with a mask on and trying to get to know my students with masks on is really hard too,” she said.

The ability to understand one another is what makes the school run so well. It is important to understand that everyone has something going on in their lives whether it’s good or bad.

“All of us are really trying to connect with the students and I think we’re trying to be, if it’s possible, even more caring because there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress that students are under, and especially after being [at home] for such a long time,” said Dr. Easley. “I think a lot of kids have had a hard time coming back to school, and so I’d say that our whole faculty is really trying to be there for kids. Just try to be there and be helpful to one another.” 

Advocating for mental health is different for everyone, as well as different ways to actually advocate for it. The school district does some things for teacher mental health, but not fully addresses it.

“I don’t feel like they really address it as much as they should. We’re trying to teach, we’re trying to keep the masks on, students are out of class a lot because they are ill. We just have a lot on our plates and it seems like oftentimes we have a lot of teacher meetings, which also takes away from our time. I think there’s a really high expectation of what the school district wants teachers to do, and it would be really nice if they would also plan some time for teachers’ wellness, [like] plan taking a walk or doing some exercise, or having someone available to us. They kind of do, but it’s not as apparent, I don’t think,” Easley said.

These past two school years have been stressful for teachers because school is now different due to living in the pandemic. There has been a lot of change this year, and teachers are still trying to cope with and explore these new challenges that have come their way. But with these difficult challenges, the mental support system for teachers needs to change.

“This is really hard for all teachers, my colleagues are under a lot of stress because they’re trying to keep their heads above water. With the situation the way it is, with all the late work and a lot of kids being gone, it would be nice if the school district could come up with a really good wellness plan for teachers. I think that would be a really good thing to do,” said Dr. Easley.