Supporting educators’ mental health–with contract language and joy

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

With May being Mental Health Awareness month, let’s acknowledge that educators are charged with juggling it all: designing lessons that engage and expand, assessing student achievement based on learning standards, performing continual data analysis, individualizing instruction, cultivating positive student behaviors and strategically responding to those behaviors that aren’t positive, communicating with families and district colleagues, implementing activities that develop students’ social/emotional learning competencies, addressing the multiple mandates—such as Amistad, Holocaust and genocide, inclusion of LGBT people and those with disabilities—in addition to teaching a full schedule each day. And most do it all with just one prep period! 

It’s also a time of year when districts approach new curriculum cycles and local unions negotiate new labor contracts.  

As experienced teachers can attest, “unpacking” a new curricular resource is so much more than taking books out of boxes. However, without an articulated rollout plan, the unspoken expectation from districts is that teachers will volunteer their time outside of school hours to “unpack,“ analyze, appropriately modify and design lessons with a wholly unfamiliar curricular resource. This is even the case with a new curriculum that may—or may not—have teacher friendly materials that are ready-to-go for first period tomorrow.  

That unscheduled, uncompensated labor has costs: 

  • It pressures teachers to work, uncompensated, after contractual hours to meet district-issued obligations. 
  • It compromises our ability to address mandates and inhibits our capacity to provide support to marginalized members of our schools—like LGBTQIA+ students.  
  • It taxes educators’ mental health. 

Who expects attorneys, dentists, auto mechanics or store clerks to work extra-contractual hours without compensation? No one. Then why in the world would we do that to teachers? 

Because of this, it’s vital that contract language is put in place to support educators adopting new curricula so that we aren’t burdened by additional uncompensated work hours associated with the instructional rollout of unfamiliar resources.  

Contract language that includes calendared professional development (PD) for grade-level, subject-specific work without students is necessary for an effective rollout of new curricula and to avoid the pitfalls of labor exploitation.  

There’s no universal way that districts adopt new curricula, but what if contract language always included language for: 

  • Teams of experienced teachers on curricular resource selection and writing committees?  
  • Calendared days for authentic curricular readiness work prior to students’ arrival in September? 
  • Monthly scheduled time without students—separate from and in addition to regular prep periods—to identify gaps and assumptions and create necessary modifications for the resource, including time to revise, refine, and strategize best practices with colleagues?  

Experience has shown us too often that district decision makers can’t be consistently trusted to do right by teachers with regard to fair labor practices in this arena and, as such, local education labor unions must negotiate compensated curriculum on-boarding in each new contract.  

Why? Because: 

  • Unpaid labor is exploited labor.  
  • Students deserve teachers who are authentically supported as respected professionals, rather than exhausted by rag-tag after-hours preparations. 
  • It’s the ethical thing to do. 

The current gaps and incomplete foundations we may be experiencing aren’t our fault. They’re systemic, generated by decision-makers at the district level. But we are still held responsible. And those realities create real wear and tear on educational professionals—the teachers, librarians, and ESPs—who are the backbone of schools. 

How can we bring our full selves to education contexts that need us to be fresh and ready to support all the wonderful students before us—including and especially our most vulnerable students, like those in the LGBTQIA+ community—if our capacities and mental wellness is strained or harmed by the very districts we work for? 

At “Rainbow Connection,” we encourage everyone to demand labor practices and contract language that prevent educator exploitation and authentically support educators’ mental health so that we can bring the best of ourselves to school, supporting LGBTQIA+ students and others who need us the most.

Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson (both she/her) are out queer educators, leaders and activists working to make education affirming and inclusive for all of their students and colleagues. Moran has taught middle school for 29 years and was a high school GSA adviser for 16 years. Okeson is a 26-year art educator, GSA adviser for 14 years, local association president, and co-founder/program director of Make it Better for Youth.