Study

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G

Stressed teacher

Why teacher mental health matters


Teachers often refer to their line of work as “a calling” — a profession that requires aptitude, passion and fire, as well as learned skills and a willingness to adapt. But what happens when the pressures of the job bring on mental and emotional stress, leaving teachers feeling exhausted and unwell? What happens when the fire burns out?

“From a classroom teaching perspective, I would see it as an unravelling,” says Dr Debra Phillips, an Education lecturer at ACU’s National School of Education. “And the symptoms of unravelling, such as short bursts of anger, not being able to get work done by the deadlines, are signs that many teachers are becoming burnt out.”

When a schoolteacher experiences this burnout, their passion for the job can be rapidly extinguished. 

We’ve seen this through the pandemic. Teachers have shouldered the enormous burden of educating large groups of students in less-than-ideal conditions, while also managing their own domestic situations, leaving their professional and personal lives transformed. 

Feeling fearful, tired and taken for granted, many have seen their mental health and wellbeing suffer. 

“When the fire goes, the desire to do anything is no longer there because there is nothing left to give,” Dr Phillips says. “You have lower staff morale in schools, and that feeds into the school climate and the school attitude, and teachers no longer have the energy to be innovative or creative.” 

The impact on students

Teacher burnout therefore doesn’t only affect teachers; students also feel the impact. 

Research has shown that educators experiencing a decline in their mental health and wellbeing tend to be less engaged in their work, which has a direct result on student engagement.  

“All the research indicates there is a direct correlation between teacher mental health and student academic achievement,” says Dr Phillips, who points to Australian researchers Donna Cross and Faye McCallum as two leading scholars exploring this link. 

“They’ve written considerably about the link between teacher wellbeing and student academic achievement, and this has been replicated in international data as well. Teacher wellbeing is absolutely critical. Quality student outcomes are dependent on teachers’ robust mental health, and without it, student academic achievement can come undone.”

Alarmingly, when teachers do encounter challenges that affect their mental health and wellbeing at work, there is often little support. 
 
“Many of them don’t recognise they are going through this burnout,” Dr Phillips adds, “nor do they even consider that there is time available for them to seek out what has to be done.”

In the worse cases, they opt to leave the profession altogether. 

“We know one in five teachers leave in the first five years of their teaching career, and that’s often because of a sense of failure, a sense that they’re not going anywhere, and also to avoid burnout.”

Meeting a need

In recent years, there has been a welcome shift to acknowledge the need for a stronger focus on student mental health in Australian schools. 

Universities have responded accordingly, offering postgraduate courses and undergraduate degree units that enable teachers to identify and manage student mental health and wellbeing.

Teacher wiping chalk across blackboard

At the same time, there has been little available for teachers themselves, leaving them unprepared for the crises of recent years – bushfires, floods and the pandemic – and the increased likelihood their mental health will be affected.  

Realising there was a need for a postgraduate course focused on the wellbeing of teachers, a group of academics from ACU’s National School of Education collaborated to design a series of units that would advance teachers’ knowledge of their own mental healthcare. 

Dr Debra Phillips was one of those academics. She says that the need for specialisation in this area was already becoming apparent before the crises of 2020 and 2021. 

“The pandemic actually triggered it,” she says. “It kickstarted us to research what was needed, to get something ready and put it out into public domain. This course is a timely, ethical response to the growing awareness around teacher stress and workload, exacerbated by the pandemic and its lockdowns.”  

As a result, from semester one in 2022, ACU will be among the first Australian universities to offer a multi-unit specialisation of Mental Health for Teachers in its new online Graduate Certificate in Mental Health for Teachers and Educators, and as a specialisation set within its online Master of Education.

The new subject units are designed for teachers, school executives, school counsellors and youth justice staff, early childhood educators who are seeking self-awareness and self-management strategies, and an understanding of the role of staff mental health and wellbeing within their school or workplace. 

“They will enable teachers to identify the workplace and socio-cultural factors that create unease and distress – to target the ones that individual teachers can control, and let go of the ones they cannot control,” says Dr Phillips, adding that the content of the subjects will be academically rigorous, steering away from “quick-cure activities” and instead focusing on current, relevant data about teacher mental health.

“This is a considered, holistic response to an increasing need within our community, tailored specifically for teachers. It’s about looking at the identity and the role of teachers from an academic perspective, with a sound theoretical framework.”

Reigniting the fire 

The new specialisation will aim to provide educators with a foundational knowledge of the factors that surround, impact and influence mental health and wellbeing over the many different stages of their teaching career. 

Rather than condensing the four units into a week-long or month-long course, the creators opted to design it to be delivered over a full academic year. This will allow time and space for altered thinking to occur, says Dr Phillips, an acknowledgment that “change happens slowly”.

Teaching during pandemic

“People’s understanding of who they are, of what change is, that tends not to happen very quickly,” she says. “If teachers are going to alter their thinking and behaviours, to integrate new content and skills into their understanding of the breadth of mental health self-care, it will take some time.” 

One of the goals of the postgraduate course specialisation is to help teachers to develop positive strategies for working with their community and their colleagues, and to be aware that the relationship they have with other teachers is often crucial when dealing with adverse circumstances.

Intertwined with this is the understanding that an individual’s mental health and wellbeing often has a close relationship with their spirituality.  

“Teaching, especially when it’s undertaken with a sense of social justice and the common good, it has in itself a spiritual core,” she says. 

“Its role is to ensure young children, young adults and their communities to have a good future and a socially just future … it’s not just about the self; it’s about our relationship with others and our relationship with the future.” 

She draws on the idea that burnout occurs when the overwhelming weight of an excessive workload erodes and diminishes a teacher’s spirituality, extinguishing their fire for the job. 

“One aim of the course is to ask teachers to reflect on why they came into teaching in the first place – and often it’s related to this idea that teaching is a vocation with a spiritual dimension,” Dr Phillips says.

“The units are structured to reignite that fire and to help teachers to locate it once again. Some will still have that fire, but we know that for many, the pandemic especially has eroded that desire, and the fire to teach has waned. We know that it can be rekindled.” 

Keen to study teaching or advance your career in education? Explore the teaching and professional education courses offered through ACU and ACU Online.  

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G