“O” is for OK”: Mental Health for Preschool Educators
Written by Titus Ting
Picture this: It’s your 1 year anniversary at work. You are assigned for the closing shift, which is fine because you live nearby and you don’t really expect anything on your 1 year anniversary. But by lunchtime, you’ve been yelled at by an angry parent, your toe has been crushed by a heavy Paw Patrol water-bottle, your new theme board is already half destroyed, and there’s a lunchtime meeting which could have been an email instead. Happy 1 year anniversary:(
If you felt your heart-rate going up just reading this, chances are you’ve experienced something like this before, to a lesser or greater degree. Being a preschool educator is not just difficult, it’s crazy difficult. Because of the nature of your work, you will be pulled in many different directions, and there will constantly be things left undone, or tasks left unfinished, because of an accident or an argument or a situation which you have to step in to take care of. And to have to face this day by day - it’s no wonder that in a high-stress environment such as this, preschool teachers often face early burn-out or worse still, develop a “do just enough to get by” mentality, cruising along but mentally checked out.
This was a photo taken during a pretty good day at work - the kids were attentive, the parents were lovely, the lesson was well-prepared. But not every day gets to be this good. What do we do when we have a bad day?
As someone who has worked with children for over 10 years, here are some things I’ve learned about taking care of your mental well-being, as a preschool educator.
Firstly, taking care of your mental wellbeing is as much about the children as it is about yourself. To put in bluntly, taking care of yourself IS taking care of the children. And conversely, not taking care of yourself is not taking care of the children. If you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated and resentful about the school and the system, it won’t be long before these feelings spill over into the classroom. Even if you feel you are able to draw a professional boundary between your feelings and your work, I’ve found that often children are acutely aware and able to sense our commitment ( or lack thereof), much more than we think we are letting on. A preschool teacher who feels trusted, cared for, and supported in her school environment will inevitably convey these feelings as well to the children in her care.
Which leads me to the second point - children learn not just from what you do, but how you are and how you react and respond to situations and environments. If we want to raise children who are resilient, who deal well with disappointments and failures, and who are learning to develop a positive mindset towards mental health, then we as preschool educators need to learn a bit about it ourselves, and model it for them. If we huff at the slightest frustration, roll our eyes when we hear an announcement, mutter and bicker and argue about things during their nap-time when they’re supposedly sleeping, you can bet that before long these are the very things that we’ll see the children doing as well. If we want children to learn to have a positive mindset and a good mental health, they need to see us practising what we preach.
Lastly, taking care of your mental wellbeing is not just about yourself and about the children - it’s also about your colleagues and the environment you work in. As much as we like to think that we are independent of our work environment, many times inevitably we become a part of it. When we let the frustration and resentment that we feel influence the way that we talk and react to things at work and the way we treat our colleagues, then we become part of the problem as well. If you want to have a positive and uplifting work environment, you need to play your part in that as well - and that comes from taking care of yourself and your own mental wellbeing.
If we as preschool educators can learn to take care of our mental wellbeing, we would be looking out not just for ourselves, not just for our colleagues, but we would be looking out for the entire next generation of Singapore. So picture this - it’s your 1 year anniversary at work. You get yelled at, a bottle drops on your toe, your theme board is ruined and the email-meeting is still going on. But your principal backed you up in front of the parent, and the kitchen auntie passed you an ice pack for your toe, and you’ve reminded yourself that the theme board can always be redecorated another day. You’re multi-tasking by ordering Mr Coconut during the email-meeting ( but you’re still paying attention). It’s gonna be okay - you’re gonna be okay. Happy 1 year anniversary:)