A Teacher’s Mental Health Story
One of the more enduring labor/management stories I have carried with me to constantly guide my work does not involve a union president and a superintendent. It doesn't even involve a building steward, or any official representative of my union or management. It involves a friend of mine and our principal.
My friend, a fellow teacher, had been late to school on and off for long enough that some of us noticed. The first couple of times, one of us would open her classroom and help greet students.
After this happened a couple times, our principal was the one who unlocked the door and waited for her to arrive. Her face would turn three shades of red; she would apologize profusely. He would patiently wait for her to set her things down, greet her students and tell her to have a good day.
After a couple of times, he called her into his office. She went in, sweaty palms, anticipating trouble from her boss.
"How are you doing?" was his first question.
"Fine. I'm a little tired, but I have a great group of students and we're in our poetry unit now, which is a lot of fun." She gushed almost too eagerly, getting out something positive to neutralize the anticipated reprimand.
He quietly followed up: "Is everything okay with you?"
She hesitated for a moment, then responded:
"I'm so sorry I've been late so much lately! I'm taking these pills for fertility, and I have to take them after food. They make me sick like clockwork about 30 minutes after I take them. We've been trying so long to have a baby and my family and his family both expected a baby by now and I hear about it almost every day and I finally went to a doctor and she prescribed these and they're huge and they're hard to swallow but I just have to take them. I have to try. We've tried everything else so I have to try this. Oh, I'm so sorry I've been late. I just knew I couldn't stay home because I'm new and I know I don't have any sick time yet and I really don't want to be fired because I love teaching! I promise I won't be late."
With that, she threw her hands up to her face, hung her head, and began sobbing.
"It's okay," her principal said. "It's okay. I knew something was wrong so I wanted to check."
She spoke through her hands, with the sting of shame softened a bit by the care in his voice, "Oh, thank you. I'm so sorry. I promise not to be late," she whispered.
He assured her that he wanted her well. He also wanted her to be at school on time. He offered her his cell phone number in case it happened again, given the circumstances. "Just call me so I can help. I know you want to be there for your students, and to do that you have to take care of yourself, but not alone."
I tell that story because that is where the labor/management collaboration begins, with a teacher and a principal doing what it takes to support each other and communicate to better meet the needs of the students they share.
I tell that story because so many of the stories I usually hear sound nothing like this one. They are devoid of all compassion and sense of togetherness in our work. Instead, they are stories packed with accountability frameworks, soft bigotry, and guilty-never-to-be-proven-innocent accusations.
I tell that story because one of the mandatory endorsement areas for keeping our Minnesota teaching licenses is maintaining current training on recognizing the signs of mental illness in children.
No such mandatory class, however, exists for recognizing our co-workers’ mental illness. Teachers want desperately for our students, co-workers and administrators to be well.
I tell that story because it has a happy ending. My friend is about to welcome another child into her family. Her gut-wrenching pain from teaching children, yet being unable to have children of her own, the ache to be more than the teacher of sentence structures or poetry--to be a mom, the physical sickness and mental pressure she tried to suppress because she had 32 students an hour whose needs she believed were greater than her own is all behind her now.
I am a teacher and a teachers' union president. With that said, happy endings for our teachers, students and administrators make for happy endings in our community. Therefore, happy endings are my job.
When an inaccurate story like "Some St. Paul teachers use medical leave to call timeout from scrutiny" in the Pioneer Press comes out it makes happy endings for anyone difficult.
To meet the needs of any student, let alone students who may ask you to meet some fairly profound needs, a teacher has to be on top of her game. This means taking care of your whole self: body and mind.
Let either one go, and we feel it. When a teacher exercises she gets accolades, pats on the back, and a break in her health care rates. If a teacher takes care of her mental health, she has to hide it, pay higher health care premiums, worry that she looks weak and face ridicule.
I am fully committed to healthy labor/management partnerships because I know it will lead to better meeting all of our students’ needs. I see the teacher principal relationship as a starting point, and recognize we can be powerful allies, supporting each other's work and health.
With so many students depending on us, we cannot be ashamed of addressing our mental illnesses. They should not be stigmatized as oddities, or even worse, less legitimate.
The stakes are too high when we do that, too high for the consequences that come when mental health is ignored, too high for our colleagues who feel powerless to support us, and most clearly, too high for our students, who we got in this business to teach in the first place.
Mary Cathryn Ricker is president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.