High school teachers are undoubtedly some of the most important people in American society, equipping younger generations with essential knowledge and, most importantly, the tools they will need to succeed in their careers and life in general. A good teacher can change a student’s life in a multitude of wonderful ways, while a “bad teacher” can severely affect a student’s confidence in a subject and their overall mental health, both of which I have experienced firsthand.
What makes a teacher “good” or “bad,” though? Is it the subject they teach? Possibly, but some of my favorite teachers certainly were not teaching subjects I found particularly interesting. Could it be the difficulty of their class? Partially. A teacher who goes out of their way to make a class unfairly difficult most likely won’t be very well liked, which makes sense. However, just because a class is easy doesn’t mean the teacher is “good.”
Through my experience and chats with peers, I believe that I have found the common denominator, or the key to becoming a universally respected and adored teacher or professor. What exactly is the key? It’s simple: be a friend to your students! The absolute best way to contribute to positive mental health changes in students is to be an ally, and use the wisdom that comes with adulthood to prove to students that they are not alone and life gets better. These are broad statements, of course, so below I have outlined a few key ways to act like a friend for your students, rather than a strict boss or condescending adult.
Emphasize Your Availability as a Confidant
It is not at all uncommon for students to believe that teachers do not have time to talk with students about what is going on in their personal lives. Teachers are already busy and not paid enough to act as therapists, so students usually don’t bother talking to teachers. By explicitly stating the fact that you are willing to talk with students about their lives, in addition to students feeling comfortable with you because of your friendliness, the odds that students will be open to confiding in teachers will certainly increase.
Look for Signs of Depression or Anxiety in Students
This is a tip that can be difficult to execute in reality, so I think students understand why this is not something every teacher does. High school teachers see a lot of students everyday; at my high school, each teacher saw around 150 students everyday. It can be difficult to monitor each student’s mannerisms and pinpoint oddities that could suggest underlying mental illness. Below are ways that depression and anxiety manifested for me during high school, and ways I have heard they manifest in others.
Signs of Depression in the Classroom: Excessive tiredness or sleeping in class, frequent absences, poor performance on assignments and tests, zoning out or difficulty concentrating; inattention, crying spells, social withdrawal and isolation, heightened sensitivity to criticism
Signs of Anxiety in the Classroom: Restlessness and fidgeting, zoning out or difficulty concentrating; inattention, frequent absences, difficulty answering questions in front of the class; hesitating to answer questions or take initiative, avoidance of group situations, panic attacks
There are clearly some overlaps in the symptoms listed above, and the goal is not to diagnose students, but to recognize that students might be suffering in silence. If students display these symptoms for long periods of time (i.e., several weeks), it makes sense for teachers to approach students and check in on them, and in severe cases, to contact parents or guardians and mention concerns about the student’s wellbeing. Most importantly, do not go right to punishing the student for displaying any of the symptoms mentioned above. The goal should be to help students improve, and making them feel like they’re to blame for their disorders is certainly not a way to make things better; disciplining the student should be a “last resort” option.
Try to Give the Benefit of the Doubt to Students
This isn’t something I saw teachers doing very often or really at all, but it is worth mentioning as I have heard stories about it. Students rarely lie about their predicaments. If a student tells a teacher that they are depressed, anxious, having issues in their family, or whatever else they may say, the student usually is not lying. If the student is lying, it almost always implies that they are having personal struggles that they are not sharing. The best thing that I think teachers can do is believe the student unless they have reasonable evidence not to; however, even if there is evidence to suggest that a student is making up excuses, that should tell a teacher that they need to be compassionate and try to encourage the student to be honest. Most students do not actually hate school or learning, but are rather expressing negative emotions as a result of the stresses in their lives.
Praise Students Whenever Possible
Most people that know that even small compliments can make a person’s entire day, or possibly even a week. I know that I am definitely someone who appreciates compliments and whenever my teachers told me I was doing a good job, it was a huge motivator and sometimes helped me during periods of burnout. Low self-esteem is also something that many students struggle with even if they do not have a diagnosed disorder — it’s pretty much just part of being a teenager in high school.
Don’t Purposely Embarrass Students
This is an important point that doesn’t get brought up a lot. No one likes getting embarrassed, and when a teacher points out a flaw in you in front of an entire class of people you are constantly comparing yourself to, it can be devastating. Many students, especially those with mental illnesses, are constantly thinking about their flaws and what they’re doing wrong throughout the day anyway. It’s great to joke with students and be as casual as possible, but I would strongly advise against making comments that could embarrass a student. A good rule of thumb is to avoid comments that come across as passive-aggressive or sarcastic, as it can be difficult for students to recognize these behaviors.
Make Accommodations or Adjustments
The vast majority of students want to succeed just as badly as you want them to succeed, and sometimes students need extra help in order to find success. Some accommodations that could work are giving students extra time to complete assignments and tests, breaking up large assignments into smaller pieces, and helping students set up schedules so that each day is more manageable. It might seem like students could abuse such accommodations, which I suppose is possible, but I can assure you that almost no student would ever try to abuse them. Oftentimes students benefit just from knowing they have options in place, and they will not even need to use the accommodations all that often.
A Final Note to Teachers
I completely understand and acknowledge that the tips listed above might seem overwhelming, so I want to stress that nobody expects teachers to be perfect saints that can do no wrong. Teaching is hard, and I certainly do not envy teachers’ jobs, but I truly believe that just implementing a few of the tips on this page could make a world of difference for some students.
Ideally we will see a day where teachers actually receive the compensation they deserve for going into such an important and often difficult profession. Teachers must also take time for themselves and make sure that they are in a position where they can wholeheartedly give students the help they need. My hope is that if all teachers that read this page could implement my advice, we might begin to see a schooling environment in which teachers help students with bettering mental health, and students can reciprocate by helping teachers better their mental health.
Finally, to any teachers that might be reading this: Thank you! I will never stop advocating for you guys, and I hope you guys never stop advocating for your students. We can reduce the stigmatization of mental illness and work towards a mentally healthier society, but we can only do it together.