Opinion | We Need to Talk About Teachers’ Mental Health
Updated: Apr 19
First published in The Jakarta Post (10/7/21).
Ever since schools have had to close down, Ibu Tersih has had to spend five more extra hours every day teaching online and preparing her teaching materials. She had been really looking forward to seeing some of her students in person again in the coming school semester but the imposition of the emergency public activity restrictions (PPKM Darurat) has now made her realize that things were not really going to return to normal anytime soon. She closed her laptop and sighed, “when will this end?”
In normal times, Indonesian teachers have already been reporting extreme stress as a result of work overload, poor working conditions and having to keep up with policy changes. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation further.
For teachers, the transition to online teaching has introduced additional mental pressures as they were expected to adapt, plan and instruct while having to deal with the constraints of distance learning such as miscommunications, student’s discipline, screen fatigue and more.
While it is true that mental health has already been a topic of discussion even before the COVID-19 outbreak, teachers have remained left out. Studies have shown that there was a significant relationship between teachers’ mental health, their efficacy and the quality of their student’s overall education experience. Child, Adolescent and Family Psychologist, Rosdiana Setyaningrum believes that the impact of home-based learning on students’ mental health is affected by their teacher’s methods and motivation.
Article 39 of Law Number 15 of 2005, stipulates that teachers are entitled to protection against occupational safety and health hazards, but the definition of health risks in the “work environment” has remained vague. The understanding of the term ‘health’ under this law suggests that it only pertains to physical health. This demonstrated the existence of a gap in the protection of teachers, as mental health is not being covered despite reports of mental burdens and chronic stress.
We talk (or rather, complain) a lot about the ‘low quality of education’ in Indonesia, yet we have, albeit perhaps unintentionally, overlooked the implication of teachers’ mental health on the overall performance and learning experience of the students. So, how can we support and protect our teachers, especially in times of crises?
Teacher’s mental health during the pandemic
Just as COVID-19 cases have been going up and down in Indonesia, policies concerning distance learning versus physical classes or their combinations have also gone back and forth. While distance learning is recognized as an effective measure in slowing down the spread of the virus, it has also led to a new set of stresses for teachers.
Last year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology launched Rumah Belajar and Program Guru Berbagi to facilitate the unprecedented adoption of online learning. Although the two platforms may serve as some sort of ‘support system’, Syahputri, Idami and Ismail (2020) found that teachers were still experiencing feelings of isolation from the lack of interaction. They were also extremely uncertain about the effectiveness of their online pedagogy, a novel teaching style that they themselves still had to learn to navigate.
Online learning (and teaching) is a new territory for the majority of teachers in Indonesia. They were unprepared to give their lessons online, and are continuing to struggle with the key elements of distance learning.
Teachers who are opting for minimal use technology tend to only give out reading materials and assignments and resort to fewer learning media. This has resulted with complaints of ineffective teaching and minimal absorption of materials, from students and parents.
Teachers have also come under mounting pressure to produce comprehensible lessons to students, whose capabilities and access to technology, internet connectivity vary. On the other side, the lack of direct physical interaction has demotivated many students, making it increasingly difficult for teachers to motivate and engage them in interactive discussions.
While the media has highlighted the long hours that students had now to spend on assignments in home-based learning, the plight of teachers who are also spending longer working hours creating learning content, distributing assignments and providing individualized feedback, has largely remained ignored.
In addition, pressure from parents has increased during distance learning, as they expected immediate assessments of their children’s performance. Consequently, teachers have reported increased feelings of anxiety, discomfort and embarrassment.
Efforts to support our teachers beyond facilitating their teaching have been limited and incomplete. Some school administrators have provided training sessions for teachers to identify and support students who are experiencing mental health issues. Yet, these types of programs have remained unavailable to the teachers themselves. This suggests that even as their duties and responsibilities are piling up, teachers are expected to deal with psychological distress and mental repercussions on their own.
A safe space for teachers: thinking long term
There are a few initiatives and programs that provide mental health support to those who need it, especially during the pandemic. Himpunan Psikologi Indonesia has a hotline connecting people experiencing emotional disturbances and mental health problems with psychologists.
Ikatan Psikologis Klinis Indonesia provides free psychoeducation and online resources to support people dealing with mental health issues as a result of COVID-19. It posted a guide for teachers on becoming educators from home. The platform also provides online counseling by psychologists from different areas so as to cover Indonesia’s diverse cultures and languages.
Another possible solution to address teacher’s mental health is for the provision of an employee benefit program that assists employees with personal problems and or work-related problems that may impact their job performance, health, mental and emotional well-being.
The department of education in countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, for example, have adopted Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which can provide teachers with a safe space to cope with, and potentially overcome, pressures, especially related to the pandemic. Seyle, Widyatmoko and Silver (2013) found that even low-cost interventions such as psychoeducation and coping exercises have led to a drop in teachers’ post-traumatic stress and depression that had followed as an earthquake.
But their implementation in Indonesia would not be without challenges. In addition to the financial and logistical burdens posed by these services, the stigma associated with mental health may deter teachers from seeking help within their workplace. The programs would require strict policies regarding confidentiality.
Furthermore, these intervention programs alone cannot alleviate the stresses teachers face, especially those due to burnout.
Ultimately, the mental health of teachers can no longer be ignored. As Indonesia continues to face surges in daily infection rates and deaths, and distance learning appears well set to remain for a while, it becomes extremely important to support and protect our teachers. They too are susceptible to the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.
Recognition is not enough. We need to address the mental burdens faced by teachers, as their consequences could affect the quality of education. In the long run, improving teachers’ mental health may in turn also empower them and increase their motivation, thereby providing them with greater confidence and resilience.