The Black Dog in the Classroom: Mental Health in ELT
Fernando Guarany has worked in multiple TESOL roles over 25 years. A qualified teacher, trainer and education consultant, he has held posts with BRAZ-TESOL and the British Council among other prestigious organisations. His interests include responsive methodologies, CPD and teachers’ wellness. Guarany is a founding member of the BRAZ-TESOL Teacher Wellness Special Interest Group.
There is a black dog in our language classrooms; its name is depression. We are not talking about it but we should. A recent survey administered to almost 5000 teachers across the United States showed that 61% are stressed out and 58% stated mental health is an issue (New National Survey, 2017). Yet, broadly speaking, we hardly ever talk about it in the ELT circle; and we must.
Indifference to mental health issues?
A quick look through last year’s IATEFL programme reveals that, out of the hundreds of sessions, only one was on mental health: “Improving the mental health of English language teachers” by Phil Longwell (IATEFL, 2018). The BRAZ-TESOL (largest English language teachers’ association in Brazil) International Conference in 2018 also had only one, mine (BRAZ-TESOL, 2018). Why? Why are we in the ELT community so concerned about teaching grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation but seem to care little about our professionals’ mental health. Systems and skills are important. But so are teachers’ mental health. We must talk about it.
Effects of mental health conditions
A poor mental health condition causes loss of sleep and excessive tiredness, hopelessness and helplessness (Bhandari, 2019). It impacts teachers’ performance and the quality of the instruction learners receive in the classroom – no matter which or how many awards they have on their walls. It leads to low productivity. It ruins relationships and it ruins life. People who are depressed wither and, on some level, those around them too. Depression isolates teachers and stigmatizes them.
Stigma, by definition, is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person (Oxford University Press, 2009). Nowadays depression could perhaps be likened to leprosy in the old days. Teachers suffering from mental health are often seen as weak, unfit and lesser people, and may often end up in ostracism. It has been said, “break your leg and people run to you. Say you have depression and they will run from you; or tell you to shake it off. But if you had a broken leg, would you just walk it off?”
What is making matters worse
Depression has several causes including psychological, social and biological (WebMD, 2017) – and many other complicators: ignorance, not knowing or being educated enough about it. Misunderstanding, which is having an inaccurate picture of the matter. Fear of somehow being affected by it and prejudice, which is a preconceived thoughtless opinion; and these are all fuelled by one element: our silence about it.
What we can do about it
If we want to change this bleak scenario, we must talk about it… constantly: at conferences, seminars, teachers’ rooms, publications, social media and one to one. We need to educate ourselves and others. As a community it is vital that we make a concerted effort to include teachers’ wellness into our discussions. As individuals we need to try to understand the challenge, raise awareness and our banners.
Language schools and institutions worldwide often invest massively in continuous development of their teachers. In-service sessions, appraisals and lesson observation are at the core of ELT management. We should be observing our teachers holistically too; not only their teaching practice, but their mental health. Individual conversations, counselling and self-care programmes should be encouraged and implemented by those in leadership; and we need to keep talking about it!
We often use the metaphor “the (pink) elephant in the room” to refer to “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about” (Oxford University Press, 2009). Winston Churchill, the famous British prime minister and WWII leader, supposedly used another mammal to describe his depression. He called it the “black dog” (Gray, 2011). There is a black dog in our classrooms, and it is crushing teachers under its heavy paw as read you this. We must act together now to overcome this predicament. If we really are a caring community, we need to start taming that dog right now and we must start by talking about it.
American Federation of Teachers, (2017) Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, (2017)., American Federation of Teachers (Online: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf. Accessed: 13 August, 2019)
Gray, J. 2011. Churchill, chance and the 'black dog,’ British Broadcasting Corporation, (Online: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-15033046. Accessed: 13 August, 2019)
ATEFL (2018), 52nd International IATEFL Conference and Exhibition Conference Programme (2018), IATEFL (Online: https://conference.iatefl.org/2018/downloads/programme/Full%20Conference%20Programme.pdf Accessed: 13 August, 2019)
Oxford University Press, (2009). The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, Oxford University Press
Web Medical Doctors (2015), Untreated Depression, (Online: https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/untreated-depression-effects#1 accessed: 13 August, 2019)
Please check the Wellbeing for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
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