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'Pulled in many directions' -- Maine teachers at risk of burnout during COVID-19 stress

Mental health experts say signs of burnout among teachers include irritability, draining of energy or motivation, and a loss of connection with others.

MAINE, USA — The first day of school usually entails some nostalgia -- glimpses of red pop through the trees, as an indication that summer is winding to an end, and fall is ready to begin. Parents live vicariously through their young ones, dressed up in new outfits with a renewed excitement, posing for pictures before piling into the car or onto the school bus.

These are the memories before the coronavirus pandemic, an obstacle that has been tough for families and teachers to navigate this year -- and that has changed life as we knew it for the foreseeable future. Now, face masks are a part of that new school ensemble for the people returning to classrooms. Others have opted to stay home, learning remotely through a laptop screen as an added health precaution.

RELATED: Real-time Maine coronavirus updates: Monday, Sept. 7

Whether to send children back to school in person this fall has been a tough decision parents have had to face -- but they're not the only ones dealing with a constant amount of pressure. Mental health experts say that burnout among teachers is a concern, as they manage unprecedented new realities and work long hours.

"We’re feeling pulled in many directions -- you know, our society, our nation, our communities," Robin Seeker, a K-2 special education teacher at Falmouth Elementary School, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. She has three children, two of whom are in college, but has made the decision to have her youngest son in high school learn remotely this semester. That's one reason why returning to teach in a hybrid format has been stressful for Seeker -- she wants to keep her own family healthy.

"It’s just been really disheartening to think about, you know, the safety of ourselves, our families; our students, their families," Seeker said.

Farther north in Brewer, Meghan Snook, a teacher and the co-president of the Brewer Education Association, says she also has some concerns, though she says she feels supported by her administration. The main issues for Snook -- the lack of ability to plan. 

"Things are constantly changing," Snook told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "I think for teachers who are often planners, the lead up to the school year has been really hard because we want to know how things are going to run and have those decisions made."

RELATED: Back to School: Every Maine school district's reopening plan, organized by county

That stress is a reason mental health experts like Chris McLaughlin, the associate vice president of Community and Pediatric Services at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, are asking teachers to keep a close eye on their own emotions and each others' this season. 

"Teachers have got to be aware of not just how they’re feeling in the moment, but how they’re feeling about what might be to come," McLaughlin emphasized to NEWS CENTER Maine. 

He says it's crucial for teachers to practice self-care this semester, which is more than an occasional massage appointment, manicure or pedicure, or brief vacation. Self-care should include little things you can do every day -- like making a cup of tea, taking a quick walk, practicing mindfulness, or focusing on breathing for five to 10 seconds during stressful times -- to try to relieve some stress. 

McLaughlin says teamwork is also important right now. Staff members can put self-care ideas in teachers' rooms and watch out for burnout in each other since it can sometimes be difficult to recognize in oneself. Signs include irritability, draining of energy or motivation, and a loss of connection with others.

"I want schools to be focused on accountability buddies for self-care -- so, who can you partner folks up with to hold you and them accountable?" McLaughlin suggested. "It might be that person where you feel safe enough to say, ‘You know, you really snapped at those kids today. You got to take a break -- what can I do to help you?’”

RELATED: Tips for parents to help their kids deal with back-to-school stress

Some administrations, like the Bangor School Department, are also trying to be supportive, by listening to teachers' needs and input.

"I think by having a voice at the table it makes a huge difference," Betsy Webb, the superintendent of Bangor schools, explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "I will tell you, sometimes they think of things that an administrator wouldn’t think of."

The main message is that we are all in this together.

"We’re all trying to learn how to be partners and parents and teachers and administrators in a new world," Webb noted.

"It’s worth persevering for the kids, you know, and for the job -- for the good of education," Seeker said.

McLaughlin says there are steps you can take if you're experiencing burnout. Try talking to someone who may understand how you're feeling to try to ramp up your self-care plan; take a day or two off from work to re-establish some routines, and find out if your district offers an employee assistance program for counseling.

RELATED: Millions of dollars over budget due to COVID-19, behavioral health care providers cut services, ask state for $35M in federal CARES Act funding