Between remote learning, ongoing updated health regulations, vaccines, and mask mandates, there’s no question that educators have been among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To support educators, the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Colorado School of Medicine developed a new program to help teachers cope with mental health concerns brought on by the pandemic.
The Educator Support Program, created in partnership with the Colorado Education Association (CEA), offers individual and group counseling, a well-being support line, and online learning modules on such topics as stress, trauma, depression, and wellness — all free of charge for educators in Colorado.
“Schools have always been the center of our community — the ones responsible for keeping things normal when the rest of the world feels crazy,” says Amy Lopez, PhD, clinical supervisor for the program and assistant professor of psychiatry. “Teachers are really trying to find that balance between ‘How do we keep things normal?’ and ‘How do we recognize that this is not normal?’”
The Educator Support Program has its roots from an intervention the Department of Psychiatry created last fall to offer mental health support to health care workers. When psychiatry faculty members began hearing about the mental toll the pandemic was taking on teachers, they opened the program to educators as well.
“We started hearing lots of reports of educators really struggling, to the point where they were wanting to quit or even commit suicide. It was pretty significant,” Lopez says. “So we opened our well-being support line to them as well, and within the first week we were open, we almost tripled the number of calls we’d had over the previous six months. It was a lot of need, and it was really amazing.”
Jessica, a fourth-grade teacher in Denver Public Schools who asked that her last name not be used, knows all about that need. She has seen it in herself and her fellow teachers over the past year and a half. This Educator Support Program, she says, helps to reduce the stigma around educators asking for mental health support.
“Educators have always been expected to successfully step up when faced with adversity, and they have done so, but the pandemic created hard-to-predict needs for their mental health,” Jessica says. “Opening the curtain to expose the truth behind how hard educators work within and outside of working hours to elevate our youngest citizens and provide the nurturing environment they need to learn and thrive has been taboo for far too long. This program should shine a welcome light on the unrealistic expectations educators are facing and, most importantly, how they can cope and re-envision how to move forward.”
Carrie Pettigrew, director of early childhood education at Aspen Academy in Denver, agrees, saying the pandemic took a toll on teachers across the board, but especially on those who are parents.
“Where I saw a lot of the stress come into play was teachers and educators trying to balance their home life with their work life,” says Pettigrew, one of several teachers who reviewed Educator Support Program materials before the site went live. “That’s always a struggle, but it has looked a lot different these past two years. I saw a lot of stress from the teachers who were trying to continue to make livings for themselves while trying to be mindful and healthy and making sure their families were OK. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, and I think with this new variant, we’re all getting nervous again.”
Struggle leads to personal doubt
With the CEA’s blessing, Lopez and her team went to work, building the Educator Support Program in just one month over the summer, using as their guide the concerns they heard most frequently on the well-being line last spring. Not surprisingly, many teachers reported feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, but Lopez was surprised by how personal the struggle was for many educators.
“We heard a lot of comments of, ‘Because I’m overwhelmed and stressed out and I can’t keep up, that means maybe I’m a bad teacher,’” she says. “We were surprised at how personal they were taking things like not knowing how to teach online, even though they never had to do that before.
“One of the big distinctions between health care workers and educators was that health care workers were saying, ‘I’m stressed out, this is a lot, this is overwhelming, but this is also what I do. I’m trained to do this,’” Lopez adds. “Educators were saying a lot of those same things, but in addition, they were saying, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing. This is not what I’m trained for.’”
The resources offered by the Educator Support Program will help educators overcome that divide, Pettigrew says — particularly the confidential well-being support line.
“I like that a lot because it’s just a phone call, you’re anonymous,” she says. “Just having that support for people who need it or want it, I think that’s important. That’s letting us know, ‘OK, somebody does have our best interest in mind.’”
The support is especially important, Jessica adds, as pandemic pressures are causing teachers to leave the profession altogether. Young students are the ones left behind.
“Educators at the highest level of success in the past are feeling devastated at their inability to meet expectations,” Jessica says. “Morale is low and continues to plummet. A collective understanding of the nature of where we actually are, and the lack of positive prospects, has educators either leaving the profession for their mental health or actively navigating in a new direction — a path outside of education in general.”
Room to grow
The Educator Support Program aims to remedy that, with the help of eight master’s students who support the phone lines and six faculty members who lead the individual and group counseling sessions. The program is open to all educators in Colorado, in public and private schools, as well as administrators, school staff, and even childcare and early education workers.
As other COVID-related challenges arise — including the Delta variant — the program has room to grow and change, Lopez says.
“We were thinking over the summer that some of their main challenges would be things like catching up on learning loss and renormalizing kids who maybe hadn’t been in school for a year,” she says. “We did not anticipate the other issues like mask mandates and this controversy and fighting over masks. We may potentially add workshops specific to handling confrontation or dealing with upset parents.”
The number of educators utilizing the support program continues to grow; Jessica says she plans to use it this year, and she knows of a colleague at her school who has used it already.
“It helps to have the need for mental health support for educators brought to light as a valid and desperate need in order for students and families to receive the best from us,” she says.