Michigan schools grapple with teacher mental health crisis

LANSING – Pandemic-stressed teachers in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Middle School District are drawing prizes each month to boost morale.

“Teachers donate a little bit of money every month, maybe so they can wear jeans on Friday,” said Joe Sbarr, a school psychologist for the district. “This money is pooled and used to purchase prizes, such as a gift card, which are then entered into a raffle.”

At Meridian Public Schools in Sanford, schools are showing appreciation for teachers during tough times with gifts to celebrate birthdays or major life events, said Stephanie Caterfeld, a school psychologist for the district near Midland.

“My dad passed away at the beginning of the school year,” Katterfeld said. “Teachers, staff and students made me a gift basket with fluffy socks and handmade decorations and a bouquet of flowers. It really made me feel loved.”

Meridian Public Schools officials meet monthly to discuss how teachers and staff are doing and what can be done for them, Katterfeld said. These “cultural committees” have improved relationships between staff members.

It’s helping, but school officials say much more is needed to help members of a profession in deep trouble.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated stress that had existed for some time.

The CDC Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations, surveyed 643 teachers about their mental health in March 2021. In that survey, 27 percent of teachers self-reported symptoms of depression, and 37% reported anxiety symptoms.

This stems from the added pressure of the pandemic, Sbar said. Teachers have faced extreme pressure from parents and school administrators to keep children on track in a situation that no one is prepared for and that is not conducive to learning for young children.

“Teachers are taking on a lot more responsibility than ever before,” Sbarr said. “But they are not being fairly compensated for it.”

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, agrees. Teachers are not just teachers, they often step into the role of parent and counselor. MEA is the largest union of teachers and other school personnel in the state,

“Teachers don’t just work from bell to bell and don’t get paid for it,” Herbart said. “What they take on is far more than what they are paid for.”

Financial bonuses may be an incentive for teachers to stay in their professions, but that’s not possible for many schools right now, Sbar said.

“Even though we’re getting consistent raises, they’re not keeping pace with inflation,” Sbarr said.

There’s also a shortage of substitute teachers, Caterfeld said, so teachers can’t take as much time off.

Being forced to work while experiencing burnout and without days off has pushed teachers to the brink of burnout faster than in pre-pandemic school years, Katterfeld said.

The CDC says 53 percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession, a large increase since before the pandemic.

“Before, teachers could motivate themselves,” Sbarr said. “They loved their work and they loved their children. But now that’s not enough to keep people in the profession. Teachers are trying to support themselves, but without government support it’s like being in the trenches.”

Until teachers are more fairly compensated for their work, they may choose to work in another job, even one that pays less, according to Sbar.

“In rural areas, teachers stayed in the profession even when they didn’t want to,” Sbarr said. “There aren’t many other options that pay this much. But now they will take those jobs or just move.

Two-thirds of Michigan schools suffer from teacher shortages, according to a MEA report.

But Katterfeld said community support for teachers has increased as a result of the pandemic, and that has eased some of the pressure.

“We received large boxes of school supplies from a local company,” Katterfeld said. “It was really inspiring for the teachers to know that people care.”

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