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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Why teachers need just as much help as their pupils

Educators who are stressed or dissatisfied are less likely to be compassionate or emotionally available to their students

Pupils and teachers practising mindfulness in Ranches Primary School in Dubai under a programme called Sandy Seeds / Mona Al Marzooqi
Pupils and teachers practising mindfulness in Ranches Primary School in Dubai under a programme called Sandy Seeds / Mona Al Marzooqi

Mariam hates her new school. Each morning she wakes up thinking about how she doesn’t really fit in. She feels lonely and isolated and Mrs Smith, the maths teacher, seems to put her down at every opportunity. On top of that, Mariam is stressed by the unrealistic workload imposed on her. Yes, Mariam hates her new school. She is beginning to question why she ever became a teacher in the first place.

Relatively little attention has been paid to the mental health of teachers. An article in last week’s The National described how some teachers in the UAE were battling depression, debt, drink and social isolation as a consequence of work-related problems. This situation prompted one teacher, Robert Welsh, to set up Teacher Socials, a peer support service.

The international research focused on student mental health paints a worrying picture: rising rates of distress amid an emerging mental health crisis. One particularly robust UK study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, spanned a 25-year period and used comparable definitions and measurements at each assessment point. The study reported an increase in the rate of mental health issues among school age children, especially emotional problems.

But what about the teachers? Far less research has looked at the mental health status of educators. However, the relatively few studies that have looked at this issue report high levels of stress and stress-related problems. One recent survey, undertaken by Leeds Beckett University, found that among the 775 school teachers surveyed, 54 per cent reported poor mental health while 81 per cent said their mental state negatively impacted their relationship with pupils.

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Read more from Justin Thomas:

Workplace happiness is a job for us all

World Mental Health Day: it's good to talk

It's time to encourage children to log off and explore the world

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It seems glaringly obvious that we don't address the issue of student mental health and wellbeing without simultaneously ensuring the mental health of our teachers. In Arabic, there is an old saying: "Al hilm qabla al ilm", which can be translated as "kindness and patience before knowledge". If teachers feel stressed, isolated and dissatisfied, they are far less likely to be caring, compassionate and emotionally available to their students. Unhappy teachers fuel a downward and interlinked spiral of deteriorating teacher-student relations and poorer wellbeing.

A recent UAE initiative, also reported in last week’s The National, aims to address the issue of student mental health. This pilot project being trialled across Emirates National Schools is led by the National Rehabilitation Centre. The project aims to promote wellbeing by teaching students how to manage mental health pressures better.

One of the techniques that will be used as part of this program is mindfulness. When people are stressed, worried, angry or sad, we often tell them not to dwell on it or not to overthink it. This is unhelpful advice. It is good advice in that ruminating and brooding can deepen and prolong negative moods but it is useless in that it contains no instructions as to how one can actually stop overthinking. It’s like telling a non-swimmer to stop drowning. This is where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness programmes – those worthy of the name – give us the ability to more easily identify when we are reacting to stress in unhelpful ways. With lots of practice, mindfulness can lead to us developing a better sense of how to attend to unwanted feelings without making matters worse.

As a beneficiary of mindfulness myself, it is great to hear that the NRC’s school project will include the practice. I hope it also includes a focus on the teachers. Our own work with mindfulness in Zayed University has included faculty, staff and students and one of the things that those who take part report back is that mindfulness has helped them to be more patient, understanding and compassionate towards students.

This is a sentiment echoed by professor Martin Seligman, widely hailed as the founder of positive psychology. I was fortunate to run into Mr Seligman after his keynote presentation at the World Government Summit in Dubai last year.

During his presentation, he argued convincingly that the wellbeing of children is tightly bound to the wellbeing of teachers. He then went on to present his own recent research data, showing that when you improve the mental state of teachers through interventions such as mindfulness, student wellbeing improves as a by-product, along with academic performance.

After Mr Seligman’s presentation, I approached him with the question: "Why might teaching mindfulness to teachers improve student wellbeing?" His answer was simple: that it made teachers more likely to engage with pupils.

The American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Thinking back to my own school days, I can’t remember a single thing any of my teachers said. However, the way their optimism, kindness and encouragement made me feel comes readily to mind. Happy, approachable, open educators play a pivotal role in ensuring healthy schools and mindful societies.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University