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A Teacher’s Mental Health Story

June 11, 2012 By Mary Cathryn Ricker, Guest Commentary

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.

None came.

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.

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  • John Tracy says:

    June 12, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Hey Ricker. Great story.

  • Bev says:

    June 12, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you dear MN Writing Project colleague, fellow teacher and leader of our union.  Your voice highlights the insight, human compassion and open communication needed by all educators to best serve our students.  It’s only when we can open up, collaborate and work to care for each other that we can do the same for our students in our demanding, high energy profession.

  • Strong Teachers says:

    September 14, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Then please help teachers of ALL ages stop the harassment. The mental health issues we face are caused by the district AND the union!  Why are you not helping these wonderful teachers?

  • MMC says:

    January 4, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Great article!!  I am one of many teachers seeking mental health services.  It is taking my all to get through this school year.  It must be my last in the classroom.  We do not have unions here…nor is my administrator supportive.  I have gone to him with needs and almost a cry for help.  We have been stripped of half our planning time, given additional responsibilities, required duties during breaks, and limited resources.  In turn, the students are not learning and teachers are depressed.  My class consists of 75% ADHD diagnosed students that are below grade level with poor motivation.  The curriculum is highly rigorous with little support.  I asked for assistance or a balanced class.  My request was denied.  My projections for state achievement scores are not good.  I was called in for a warning about them.  During my winter break, I was diagnosed with stress, anxiety, and depression….80% from my job.  This is not fair to me, my family, to the students I teach.

  • Sasha Merkel says:

    August 19, 2014 at 4:51 am

    Had I read this article prior to this past school year, perhaps I would not have resigned from teaching after 7 years.  Instead, I allowed administrators to intimidate me and strip me of all confidence in my ability to teach. 

    While I still struggle with my bipolar disorder, the moments of extreme paranoia and panic attacks stopped the day I resigned.  I am the type of person who normally fights for what I feel is fair and just, but once they decided to target me and continued to do so for years, I just didn’t have the strength to fight back.

    I know of numerous teachers in our district who share similar experiences/stories, yet nothing has changed. 

    Thank you for raising awareness!

    • linn says:

      September 25, 2014 at 9:13 am

      I literally had an identical experience to yours… same diagnosis… and the feelings you express… the intimidation and theft of confidence echo my own.  I was forced to disclose my illness after the demands on a new campus (lock step teaching, mandatory meetings almost every conference period, and constant walk throughs) caused me to have panic attacks… which I’d rarely experienced.  I was told in no uncertain terms that having panic attacks was unacceptable… and OF COURSE, at that point, they increased in frequency. Even after asking for accommodations, tensions were high and I felt devastated that I had been forced to disclose my illness after eight years.  I’d previously gotten top notch test scores and excellent evaluations, but the stigma overrides the years of student successes I helped produce.

  • LJ says:

    August 23, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    I have never sympathized with a teacher. School is a sham, a con. Most teachers are cruel, mentally unstable, and perverted.
    As for the above story. I had to read it quickly as I didn’t want to cry. I feel great sympathy for that a woman. The principal did what I would have done. But we all know that is not how school personnel act! This woman would have been yelled at, questioned as if she were a bad three year old child, after being humiliated she’d be fired on the spot. Then she’d be informed that this was going on her record and she’d better get her belongings out of the school by 3 PM.
    As she’d walk of the his office she’d find lots of staff and teachers clustering around. They’d stand motionless; each would deliver a sharp glance at her as she walked the gauntlet.
    She would become a legend! Those people would talk about her for the rest of their lives! She would never teach again.
    By the way, was this woman really trying to have a baby or was that just a story? What happened to her?