Warning: This piece contains graphic discussion of depression and may not be suited for everyone.
Let me begin by saying that I have seen many teachers cry for a variety of reasons, but all those reasons fall under the umbrella of Self-Efficacy. In the 2016 Journal Articles titled Sources of Self-Efficacy in Teachers by Fuentes, et. al. they begin by describing self-efficacy as, “Teacher’s self-efficacy is the judgment that teachers make about their own ability and skills in teaching, even in unfavorable conditions. A teacher’s sense of efficacy can be influenced by four sources of information: mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal or social persuasion, and emotional and physiological factors.” That definition may seem simple, but the reality is that it is much deeper and more painful than it seems. I have been in classrooms for the last 6 years and have been around teachers in my family since I was born. I have seen the same frustrations played out over the faces of teachers time and time again. I have seen tears, anger, betrayal, and disappointment make teachers question their professional career and their worth as a human being. Everyday teachers around the world pour their heart and soul into teaching children; this is why many of them joined the profession. We all know it was not for the money or fame.
Last year I changed schools and in doing so I found myself in an environment I was not prepared for. There was no single factor that led me to feel this way, but I felt lost, alone, and forgotten. As the year wore on I felt real heart pounding anxiety for the first time in my life. I experienced it as I drove into school, usually the calmest point of my day. Near the end of the year a new feeling crept in. I learned for the first time what it felt like to suffer from a case of major depression. Previously, I had thought I knew about depression, but it was not until I felt it take a hold of me that I truly understood how deep it can sink into you. I was doing my best to make it through the year and into the summer, I knew it would go away over the summer. I did everything I could to drown that feeling and bury deep in my past. Each day I got closer to going back to school the depression crept back in a little more. I could hide it at times from my friends and family. My wife would see me sitting on the couch and she could see the look in my eyes and knew I was looking at darkness. Let me be clear, I was never considering harm to myself or others and I had a clear discussion with my wife about that and what we would do if it got to that point.
I had made an appointment with my doctor to help me find something to break the hold depression had on me. I felt it sinking further into me and would waste hours trying to quiet it with mind numbing behavior that never seemed to work. I was counting the days to my doctor’s appointment the way my kids count the days until their birthday. In my head I was feeling fuzzy, a bit like when streaming content is slow, low resolution, and buffers frequently. I knew it was toxic to think about it, but I kept falling into the trap of thinking about not thinking about it. With the depression returned the anxiety. I wondered if people could see it when they looked at me. I was afraid to look at my professional correspondences because the thought of talking to people crippled my willpower. I knew something was wrong deep in my heart and I began to talk about it. I started telling people what was happening to me, not seeking sympathy, but to be open and honest. I knew I was afraid to be honest because our culture treats atypical mental behavior like a sickness that can spread; most people even call it mental illness. When I reached out to others and talked about what was making it so hard for me to connect with them I found understanding. When I got the treatment my body needed I saw that what I needed was no different than taking a vitamin because I was low on Iron; I was low on Dopamine and I needed to treat that. The treatment is working for now, but that is only part of the problem.
What does all this have to do with self-efficacy? The answer is in what was causing my body to have trouble keeping my Dopamine. The answer was at school. Self-efficacy has many factors that influence it and that it further influences. How your student’s teacher feels about themselves and their work as a professional can have a serious impact on learning. When self-efficacy is high student outcomes rise with it. When it is low there is a higher likelihood that your student’s teacher will be looking at job listings at night rather than preparing for the next day’s lesson. Just think of the impact this can have on the day-to-day experience of students. Over the course of last year, I found myself taking on new projects or responsibilities to try and keep my absolute lack of motivation to teach hidden. I still taught my classes and tried to improve my instruction, but it was difficult to do. I found that my drive to innovate was so low that I was struggling to just maintain where I was. I felt that I was terrible at my job and that I was letting my students down every day I stepped into my classroom.
Where did this feeling come from? In many ways it came from the teaching profession as a whole. Teachers find themselves under attack from all sides on a regular basis. Teachers are scapegoated by politicians, undermined by parents, and buried under administrative obligations. Last year we had 20 minutes a week to meet as a team and discuss what we needed to discuss to be effective. That 20 minutes would be consumed by pointless administrative tasks that took up nearly 16 minutes on average. We spent four-fifths of our time filling out forms about meeting rather than meeting. Meanwhile during the year, it was made clear to me that my district valued the content of my class so little that they had not reviewed the curriculum of what I taught in the last 7-8 years and did not seem to have a serious intention to do so in the future. I enjoyed the freedom of having no one understand what I taught, but that came at the cost of feeling superfluous. I even went so far in proving this point as to have one of my observations be of a class that was deep into a programming unit. The observer had no idea what was going on in class and was at a loss for how to evaluate content that the students were busily working on, but she could not crack. It was a petty lashing out on my part and I regret it. I missed an opportunity to grow and learn from the experience of my observer.
Beyond the pedagogical impacts of low self-efficacy, I also began to experience a darkening of my attitude and an uncalled for cynicism. I went through the motions at meetings and pretended to be professional, but I viewed it all as further proof that the administration did not value our time. Somewhere in winter of last year, I lost faith that my administration was guiding me to being a better educator. I began to feel that they were just as overworked as I was and needed to use the staff as materials to help them check off items on their to-do list. I mark this transition as where I began to truly feel my utter helplessness set in. I should have reached out, but I was afraid to tell others how I felt and possibly lose a job that I knew I was meant for. I was afraid of how they would look at me and what they would say. I quickly learned that people who rush to tell you about every secret they know are then rushing off to tell others what you said. I was alone and at my lowest. I suddenly understood why teachers cry.
It has taken me a long time to write this, not because I was scared of what people would think, no, I was scared of reliving the feelings that drove me to depression and made me mad at myself for feeling it. I urge you to reach out to others if you are feeling depressed or any of the symptoms I have described. Additionally, if you work in education I urge you to reach out to your administration and find out what they are doing to encourage positive self-efficacy among their staff. If no program is in place, I urge you to help them build one. The impacts of self-efficacy on education are severe and should not be understated. In order to change the cultural ecosystem of education we must all work together to improve the quality of our teaching environment.
Please, if you or anyone you know is considering harming themselves or others call 911 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
You can find a podcast of this article on the Honest Teacher Podcast.