From the end of the hall, strands of upbeat music drift out of counselor James Hamilton’s open door. Always ready with a warm smile, Hamilton is someone students can rely on for assistance. But who can teachers and other staff turn to when they themselves are in need of support?
Everyone grapples with stress, even those designated to provide support in challenging times. Guidance counselors can often find themselves caught up in their students’ emotional turmoil. Hamilton, who oversees and shares close bonds with many students, finds it difficult to help without sometimes becoming emotionally overwhelmed, himself.
“Particularly when you get to know students really well and you see them suffering, it’s hard,” Hamilton says. “You wake up in the morning and sometimes they’re on your mind. Or you go to bed at night and you hope they’re okay.”
This stress sometimes causes Hamilton to experience burnout in the form of compassion fatigue, a problem commonly experienced when those who help others in distress become overloaded by others’ struggles. Those who surround him may occasionally find him distracted after a long day at work, but Hamilton finds that such preoccupation can be remedied by an appropriate work-life balance.
At your service
The Employee Assistance Program (EAP), implemented at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, aims to connect staff to services that provide emotional, legal and financial support.
Science Department Instructional Leader Kelli Hagen says that instructional leaders sent out multiple emails informing staff about the EAP at the beginning of the school year. The Palo Alto Educators Association, too, has made an effort to ensure that teachers are aware of this valuable resource.
English teacher George Vuong utilized the EAP when he was struggling with stress regarding his father’s health problems last year.
“It was a heavy topic, but it was one I needed to talk about, and the Employee Assistance Program was a huge huge help and benefit when it came to that,” Vuong says.
Though Vuong benefited, many staff members do not take advantage of the EAP.
Just like students, teachers also fear the perception of weakness that can be associated with seeking help, according to Vuong.
“As your teachers, we’re expected to be those role models and to be strong for you guys and for ourselves, and to have all the answers, etcetera, so when it comes to weakness, we feel real fear if it comes to that perception that, hey, do we need help?” Vuong says.
“When it comes to weakness, we feel real fear if it comes to that perception that, ‘hey, do we need help?'”
— George Vuong, English Teacher
Hagen herself has faced struggles, grappling with the stress of motherhood combined with her difficult grading schedule.
“I get summers off, but I feel like those summers are my lost weekends all year long,” Hagen says. “So it feels equivalent to a normal job because I work all weekend. I grade all weekend, I prepare all weekend, I give up pretty much every weekend until school’s out.”
After many years of this demanding load, the stress can build to a breaking point.
“I’m on this eight-year cycle where I do eight years just fine and then everything is a lot,” Hagen says. “Like, okay, I am yelling at my kids, I’m not a very good teacher. I need a break.”
In response to encouragement from the PAEA, the EAP is included in teachers’ contracts. At no cost, they can call a hotline (found on the Human Resources website) or go through online channels to connect with an appropriate professional in person or through video chat.
“I work all weekend. I grade all weekend, I prepare all weekend, I give up pretty much every weekend until school’s out.”
— Keli Hagen, Chemistry Teacher
Teacher stress, student stress
Advanced Authentic Research, Early Childhood Development and Psychology teacher Hilary McDaniel experiences stress due to a rigorous class schedule and an abundance of students.
McDaniel expresses frustration at the daunting task of fully devoting herself to each student while juggling a demanding course load.
“I want to be the best that I can be at everything,” McDaniel says. “When you feel like you don’t have enough time, you get down on yourself and you’re constantly wishing you could do it better.”
Teachers who feel overburdened at work struggle to achieve the coveted work-life balance, according to McDaniel.
“I need to have the time that is for me and I do dance … that’s something I prioritize and stays in my life so that I can have that stress relief,” McDaniel says.
To reduce teacher stress, McDaniel envisions more on-site services that would help teachers handle problems like lack of time, and would serve as the intermediate step before reaching out to administration.
Often, McDaniel says she is hesitant to reach out to her instructional leader or the administration when she encounters a problem because she knows they are at their full capacity.
“I don’t want to take up their time, students need them,” McDaniel says. “[I want] someone who is more available, someone who is specifically for teachers and teachers know that.”
“When you feel like you don’t have enough time, you get down on yourself and you’re constantly wishing you could do it better.”
— Hilary McDaniel, Social Sciences Teacher
Helping teachers help students
Finding time for oneself amid many obligations is a challenge many teachers struggle with, but is a necessity that allows teachers to give students the education they deserve, according to McDaniel.
In Vuong’s words, “If we can take care of ourselves as teachers, the students will benefit as well because we’ll be in a better mindset to teach you to the best of our abilities.” v