Writing and recording exclusively for ESS, Dr Tara Porter explains why it’s vital for teachers to protect their own mental health as well as that of their students’.
It was a pleasure to sit down with Ann Mroz to discuss one of my favourite subjects: the relationship between education and mental health. I reflected how over the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in the way we all speak about education – it’s increasingly reduced to the sum of a child’s achievements or qualifications. This narrative is reflected in the way children and adolescents feel about school and tertiary education: it can feel like a relentless slog or a production line of taking tests, doing coursework and revision, all geared towards sitting formal exams. I think this has affected their mental health.
We explored how teachers and parents can mitigate the mental health impact of the current education system: in part this is about the way we talk about hard work and exams, the former being important, but the latter not being the be all and end all. Life is long and children who don’t “succeed” in their exams have many different paths to a good life. Children are all different and need different conditions to flourish. But in one way they are similar: they need a consistent sense of containment, and at the same time room to grow. Boundaries that are always there but that come with a little bit of space. Giving children and adolescents areas of their own life they do control can help with this, and not making every activity about their output or achievement.
Ann and I also discussed the impact of the pandemic on children, teachers and schools. I have a lot of sympathy for teachers and the multiple roles they have to play. Not only do they have a pastoral role and a teacher role but now, thanks to Teacher Assessed Grades, a role as examiner too. This may be uncomfortable for teachers, as their instincts as a caring pastoral figure in a child’s life may conflict with their role as an examiner. Teachers need to protect their own mental health by remembering that every year there are kids that are disappointed, and that they are not responsible for the limitations of the examination system or for an education policy that has led us to this place.
We briefly touched on bereavement and how schools may be dealing with children who have lost oved ones. I stressed how important it is to really listen to children – to use our empathy ‘ice pack’ to understand what they are struggling with and not to impose our own ideas or our own solutions. While children are young it may be developmentally appropriate to take charge. But with adolescents, adults are often too quick to “know best” and to try to solve the problem. In helping teenagers find their own solutions it can be helpful for adults to try to understand the thoughts that are going through their heads that often trigger the emotional response. Strong emotions are often caused by spiralling thoughts of fault, blame or of being no good: “I’ve let everyone down”, or “I’m never going to achieve anything”. Gently and kindly helping young people see that this hyperbolic language is one extreme perspective, and that there are multiple perspectives and many paths to the future, gives children hope for the future. Hope is so important in maintaining good mental health.
Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist in the NHS and private practice. She also works at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and is Tes' mental health columnist. Her book “You don’t understand me. The young women’s guide to life” is published by Bonnier on 22nd April 2022. She tweets as @drtjap