Skip to main content

The Mental Health Crisis of Teaching During a Pandemic

Several district teachers have had to seek inpatient treatment for mental health this fall. Here is one of their stories.

Stock Photo.Yan/Pexels
By Douglas Wilson
October 22, 2020

To be honest, teaching in 2020 didn't begin my depression and anxiety disorder, but the chaotic nature of online learning and ever-changing expectations exacerbated my pre-existing conditions.

My experience with remote learning is probably very similar to thousands of other teachers. Even though I was assigned to do remote teaching, my conversations with in-person teachers have led them to similarly dire mental places. None of us who have attempted to hold the attention of 6 to 10 year olds in 2020 have been free of the frustration and feeling of incompetence that this type of instruction brings. 

Last year, I knew my students picked their noses and put their heads down. Some even did things like dancing to the pencil sharpener or taking five minutes digging for their eraser in their desk, but to see all these behaviors at once, up close, in a focused 1-inch square of a Zoom class made me think my lessons, my voice, and my very existence were pointless.

The added pressure of potentially having an adult just out of camera range, taking notes about when I called a student out for distracting the other students, or when I could not manage the technology, made remote learning even more disconcerting. The inconceivable potential for inappropriate events broadcast from students’ homes worried me everyday.

How do you tell a 7 year old from China to click “submit” after taking a picture of their writing if you don’t speak Mandarin? Or a child with her parents working in another room to reboot the laptop that they got two weeks ago? Or make a tech-savvy 9 year old stop changing the backdrop from multiple violent cartoon images?

The expectation that I, as an ESL teacher, must reach five different grades of elementary students across 13 classrooms going from one small group of kids to another every 30-minutes, seven times in the morning then three more in the afternoon, sent me over the edge. Trying to support so many homeroom teachers without time to coordinate lessons seemed beyond my abilities.

I am proud to have remained a teacher for 33 years. I work diligently to make my practice meaningful to the students. 

This fall, I saw no integrity in my work. I had no way to coordinate with the teachers to make my nine lessons a day relate to the homeroom teachers who were struggling themselves. They were supposed to offer 2 1/2 hours of live instruction as well as an equal amount of independent activities daily. Most teachers were online continuously because we all know that 6 to 10 year olds are not prone to tolerating long stretches of independence, and need constant reinforcement and encouragement in the process of learning. 

That constant screen-to-screen switching between children, without actually seeing what the students were doing, left me frenzied in my efforts to touch each child personally as much as possible. It became too much for me.

I was working as hard as I could to respond to the constant emails from parents, co-teachers, and administrators. I spent hours upon hours scrolling through message-board posts, daily agendas, and other online tools trying to respond to student work in constructive ways.

Hundreds of questions about instructional delivery run through my head day after day and bled into my nights as I lay sleeplessly planning the next day.

It was exhausting. I was not doing a good job. It seemed pointless. My stomach was in turmoil. I lost 10 of the 15 pounds I had gained in the first months of COVID-19 isolation. My blood pressure had risen to the point of needing medication. I considered early retirement. I looked into buying an RV and moving off the grid if only my savings and credit cards had enough leeway to take a leave of absence. I yelled at my doctor for not knowing what to do about my stomach issues. I cried to my principal about not being able to fulfill the ever changing expectations of my position.

Ultimately, the pointlessness, the isolation from my colleagues and church family paired with the loss of my art community which was my outlet for stress, led me to believing there was no hope for positive change in any aspect of my life. 

I contemplated suicide. Yes, I said it. Publicly.

Luckily, I have a partner who said I needed help. Intense help. Help that was as intense as all the stressors coming from every aspect of my life. I checked into a mental health facility for six days. The separation from the situation and constant vigilance of trying to do a job under seemingly impossible conditions might possibly reboot my brain and reduce the very real physical manifestations of high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and depression.

Getting the right balance of medication and breaking the cycle of self-defeat and overwhelming expectations gave me an avenue to re-engage in remote teaching. I will not try to do everything possible because the possibilities are endlessly elusive. I will simply do my best. 

When my administrator asks me to do something that I am not prepared to do, I will say, “I am doing my best.” When a parent who has been watching and listening just out of sight of the Zoom camera questions my approach, I will respond that I am doing my best. When I, myself, feel guilty because the technology is not doing what it did so easily yesterday, I will tell myself that I am doing my best and just move on.

I will not be my best teacher online, but I will put forth my best effort. It will have to be good enough. I will likely disappoint my students, my administrators, my parents, and myself. It will just have to be good enough.

Fellow teachers, you may not be experiencing the extreme symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression as I am, but I feel completely confident that you are indeed under unprecedented stress in your job. Do whatever way you can to reduce your stress and separate your work from your psyche. I know it’s not what we usually do, but it’s 2020. 

Whether remote or in person, we are doing our best. When we “pivot” from one to another, as seems likely given recent infection changes, the stress and time demand will still be there. 

Your mental and physical health are vital during these times. Be aware of your body. Be aware of your self talk. You will be better at teaching and as a partner or parent when you take actions to mitigate the stress of 2020 learning from your life. 

And, of course, seek help when all the stresses become too much for you. If you tell yourself you can’t take it anymore or need to run away, believe it. Take action to help yourself find physical and mental strength for the rest of 2020.

Douglas Wilson is a board-certified ESL teacher at Romona Elementary School in Wilmette.


Jen (not verified)

I resigned from my job teaching kindergarten. I also have 3 small children at home. It was all too much to handle.

Thu, 10/22/2020 - 15:18 Permalink
Debra Manhoff-… (not verified)

Hi Douglas,
If you’re reading the comments—thank you for your honesty. Thank you for your dedication, hard work, and commitment. I’m a parent of a remote learner. I see you, I hear you. ❤️

Thu, 10/22/2020 - 15:32 Permalink
Jing (not verified)

I keep telling myself the goal for 2020 is to survive. Take care of yourself first, before you can take care of anyone or anything else. I truly admire our teachers for everything you do this year!

Thu, 10/22/2020 - 19:09 Permalink
Caryn Caffarelli (not verified)

Thank you for sharing your story. I’m a former teacher and current parent and I had a feeling this was a truth for many if not all teachers right now. Thank you for doing good enough teaching right now. I’m doing good enough parenting and my 5th grader is doing good enough learning from our dining room table. Be well and thank you.

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 08:20 Permalink
Annonymous (not verified)

I am not in teaching, but I have similar issues. This time period has hurt many people's mental stamina. I feel for you. Just do your best

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 09:49 Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Annonymous (not verified)

Thank you for taking the time to read this if you’re not a teacher. So many teachers feel like nobody in the general public hears us or cares.

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 23:32 Permalink
Jane (not verified)

I retired. This was the last straw. Too many changes over 30 years of teaching. No teacher was prepared for this, just expected to do it with minimal support. Necessary resources ARE NOT there for either online or in person teaching during this pandemic. I have colleagues doing each, I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy. I did it for 3 months in the spring, never again!!

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 03:43 Permalink
Amanda Yeager (not verified)

Thank you for sharing this. I can’t say thank you enough for all the teachers are doing through this difficult time. In addition to academics, you are teaching the kids compassion, you are modeling resilience, and you are offering a foothold of social connection and normalcy. Next year, we can do catch up math lessons if there are deficits, if this format is not ideal for kids who need more help. We can review science concepts that had to be sped through or glazed over when we are in person again. In my eyes, I m am very grateful for any learning they are doing, but even more so for the engagement with their peers. The teachers and administrators are showing the kids that they matter and that makes a huge difference. Thank you for all you and others in our district are doing.

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 07:51 Permalink
Lindsay (not verified)

I cannot imagine what y’all are going through and my goal is to reach out and help and listen to as many teachers as I can. I also suffer from anxiety and when I am upset I need to talk about it. So, I sit and listen and hope that small act can help my teacher friends and neighbors. YOU are amazing for even trying. The community appreciates you and we know you are working so incredibly hard. For the people who do not see it, remember, many of them are struggling too. Thank you for your hard work. I am sorry this all stinks. Oh, and thank you for your honesty.

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 08:09 Permalink
Kristin Alcala (not verified)

Thank you for your bravery in sharing your personal story. This shit is hard! As a parent of three under seven, all I can offer and say is that we are in this together. Trying our best to offer creative solutions to ever changing circumstances. The majority of parents in our community want to support our children and their educators. How can we best help? Sending lots of love and strength your way.

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 08:14 Permalink
Tammy (not verified)

Thank you so much!!! You have put into words what I feel. It is so hard to explain to people who aren't doing this job. They don't understand why it's stressful??!! I am close to retirement, but I don't know if I can do this much longer. Thank you again. I hope you are doing well and taking care of yourself. 💕

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 10:22 Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a fellow teacher in District 39. I am on depression medication, doing talk therapy, and have contemplated suicide in the last month too, due to the ever growing demands and constant changes of this school year. Thank you for sharing your story; you are not alone!

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 17:27 Permalink

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.