Written by Pei-Hsin Li
“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.”
― Carl Gustav Jung
Why is Primary School Teachers’ Well-being Important in Taiwan?
Between the ages of 6-12 years, children spend majority of the time with their school teachers. It has been said that primary school teachers’ emotions are strongly correlated to their students’ reaction (Chou & Wang, 2013) including students’ emotions and academic performance. According to previous research, teachers’ mental health and wellbeing is associated with students’ mental health and wellbeing (Harding et al., 2018). In other words, when teachers have better wellbeing, the students tend to be happier and have less psychological distress.
Common thoughts and expectation about primary school teachers sometimes may be unreasonable. People tend to believe that primary school teachers play roles as a protector and a caregiver. However, even if primary school teachers are caregivers, they also need others to take care of their emotions and feelings. While teachers’ mental health status impacts the students’ wellbeing, it is worth noting that students’ feedback plays a crucial role in teachers’ emotions (Huang & Lai, 2015). Teachers might feel happy when students offer positive feedback; on the other hand, they might feel depressed or frustrated when facing students’ misbehavior. Thus, it is important to understand and promote teachers’ mental health to make schools a better place.
In different cultures, there are different expectations and demands on teachers. In Taiwan, the public tend to have unreasonably high expectation on teachers, which makes teachers feel stressful. The truth is, some teachers internalize the expectations of the parents and the public, thus they may have higher pressure because they need to adapt to multiple-roles (Chou &Wang, 2013). In addition, there are more and more one-child families in Taiwan due to the low fertility rate. Some only children may thus be overindulged and be unfamiliar with getting along with other children in an appropriate way in school, but parents tend to ask teachers to stand on their child’s side. This situation has caused tense relationship between parents and teachers, and put a great amount of pressure on teachers. In this sense, a question this article poses is: what is the current situation of primary school teachers’ mental health in Taiwan?
Teacher Wellbeing in Taiwan
Traditionally, the public has had high expectations for the role of teachers in Taiwan. When referring to the role of teachers, people tend to believe that they should be patient and nice in front of parents and students and should be flawless. For the past twenty years, Taiwan has experienced large scale educational reform which has aimed at developing a learning environment that is more plural and open. To some extent, this has caused heavier workload for teachers and deeply influenced their lives. In this sense, while the public and policy makers have started to notice the right and the wellbeing of students, teachers’ wellbeing seems to have been consistently ignored. In 2014, Kang Hsuan Educational Publishing Group conducted research about teachers’ sense of wellbeing in Taiwan and the results of this investigation were worth noting. The results showed that around 30% of primary and secondary teachers in Taiwan wanted to quit teaching because they feel stressful and exhausted, especially when they tried to build up the relationships with their students and parents. The high turnover intention rate in this investigation gave us an alert to notice the importance of teacher mental health issues.
Similar to the C. G. Jung quote, a feeling of senseless and emptiness cannot be defined as illness in medical terms, but it also cannot represent the healthy status of a person. Jung’s subtle observation occurs in the education system in Taiwan. Teachers who have lower levels of depression may also have a lower level of subjective well-being. That is, although teachers may not have serious mental illness such as depression or anxiety, their mental health status is not fully healthy. In research concerning the mental health of Taiwanese primary and secondary school teachers, Chung, Yu, Syu, Chen, & Chao (2013) categorized teacher mental health by their depression level and wellbeing level into nine types of mental state, namely: floundering, hovering, struggling, sentimental, popular, striving, languishing, contented, and flourishing. This research indicated that teachers’ mental health issues are important in Taiwan because results demonstrated that only 11.5% of teachers have high subjective well-being and low depression at the same time, which is the ideal status (flourishing). However, there was up to 21.4% teachers in the research who were categorized with a languishing mental health status, in which they did not feel depressed, meaningful or happy; in other words, they may experience a feeling of senseless and emptiness.
The Future of Teacher Wellbeing in Taiwan
Although in the past few years, issues related to mental health have become a global issue, there is still a long way to go to provoke the awareness of people in Taiwan. For example, despite the fact that some studies have started noticing the importance of teachers’ mental health, only a few of them emphasised the work happiness (e.g. Tadi, Bakker, & Oerlemans, 2013) or explored this with a positive psychology approach (Chen, 2015), not to mention a lack of understanding toward primary school teachers’ mental health. For Taiwan, research about teacher wellbeing needs to be extended to understand what difficulties teachers face during their work, such as student and parent issues. In addition, we need to ask how we can help teachers to deal with their stress and its corresponding emotions, all of which is crucial.
To conclude, the status of no illness but low well-being is not good enough for teachers who interact with students in the school every day. Indeed, according to previous research, compared with teachers of other types of mental health status, teachers with a flourishing status have better mental health and lower pressure (Yu, Chen, & Chen, 2018). Hence, directing teachers to cultivate a flourishing life rather than passively avoid their illness is essential to Taiwanese society. After all, the basic elements of a happy and an ideal school include healthy and happy students who are taught by self-fulfilled and happy teachers.
Pei-Hsin Li is currently a Dphil student at University of Oxford’s Department of Education. She is a certified primary school teacher and has received her master degree in Psychology and Counseling in Taiwan. Pei-Hsin’s research interests are in the area of educational psychology, with a particular focus on interpersonal relationships and well-being.
Image Credit: Sagan Bert
“Directing teachers to cultivate a flourishing life” is a poor measure to get “an ideal school [with] healthy and happy students who are taught by self-fulfilled and happy teachers”. There are three issues with this measure.
First, it is a false assumption that a flourishing life can be gained mainly by cultivating it. Cultivation contributes but is insufficient.
Second, being directed on a deeply personal matter contradicts gaining self-fulfilment. One cannot be told how to gain a meaningful, fulfilled and happy life. To find and maintain such a life is a highly subjective, life-long process of matching one’s potential, desires and preferences with the available environment.
Third, education of children involves a fair share of directing but ultimately aims to have them evolve into autonomous, independently thinking personalities who are such able to flourish in life. Teachers are adults and therefore we ought to relate to them as self-directed and autonomous.
Let’s apply some clear thinking on the arguments in this article to see if there is truth in the above statements. In the process we might tease out some more promising options for lifting emotionally languishing teachers out of their misery.
What’s the problem we are looking into? A fifth of Taiwan’s primary school teachers languish emotionally at work, such impairing their well-being. They deserve care.
Why do they deserve care? They deserve care not only because society is compassionate, but also because emotionally languishing teachers have a negative impact on students’ general well-being and academic performance.
What causes them to languish emotionally? Frustration over students’ misbehaviour, unreasonably high expectation on teachers by parents, overindulged only children lacking social skills, and probably a few other causes not mentioned in the article.
What do we know about emotionally flourishing teachers? They receive positive feedback from students, be it attention, respect, academic progress, prosocial behaviour, …
So it seems that there is a virtuous circle of causation at work in some cases and a vicious circle of causation in other cases. Flourishing teachers cause the flourishing of students while flourishing students cause the flourishing of teachers and so on in a virtuous circle of causation. With languishing teachers, however, arises a vicious circle of causation.
A teacher who is assigned to a class of overly unruly and overindulged students is prone to get into a vicious circle with his/her class while a teacher who is assigned a class of mostly cooperative students probably will fare much better in a virtuous circle.
What does a teacher need to break out of such a vicious circle? Teacher training that provides them with tools to handle unreasonable demands by overindulging parents and to turn overindulged, uncooperative students into cooperative, socially competent students. And resources (time, class size, …) provided by education authorities to be able to apply those tools effectively.
In short, proper pedagogic training and sufficient resources enable teachers to flourish emotionally. This approach is much more promising than “directing teachers to cultivate a flourishing life” because it addresses the root of the problem instead of just trying to mitigate the symptoms. This approach empowers teachers to address the problem self-directed, such providing them with a feeling of fulfilment and autonomous accomplishment. That gives more meaning to life than being treated as someone of challenged mental health.