Teaching is not an easy job, and like any profession has its own unique stressors. Instructing special needs students is a departure from teaching in a traditional classroom environment, with particular circumstances and challenges that change the dynamic even more.
Dawn Yeselavage, program coordinator at the Bucks County Intermediate Unit 22, knows the importance of stress relief and assistance for educators. Yeselavage was a special education teacher for 16 years before moving on five years ago to program coordinator. She oversees 15 classrooms that include teachers who specialize in autistic support and emotional support.
The students in these classrooms have a wide range of learning and developmental disabilities, and teachers must be able to adapt, she says. However, a lot of educators don’t receive the necessary preparation that enables them to believe they are doing the best job they can do for their students, she adds.
“A lot of classrooms have ratio of quite a few adults in the room,” Yeselavage says. “Not only are they teach-ing but also managing adults. I think that becomes stressful. I don’t think a graduate right out of college realizes you are not only teaching, but having to manage different personalities.”
Yeselavage believes special education teachers are stressed because there’s a shortage of teachers and instructional assistants, and they don’t have enough support in the classroom. Teachers also must fulfill their students’ goals from their IEPs, pay special attention to monitoring progress and collect data throughout the day while instructing.
“They go to an awful lot of meetings,” she adds. “It is taking more time away from their teaching responsibilities and from their students.”
Yeselavage believes additional support staff would be helpful for teachers, in addition to making sure that they get consistent prep time; having additional time to work on collecting data and completing paperwork; and ensuring they have professional development opportunities that are relevant to the students they are teaching.
Fortunately for teachers in IU22, teachers have a support team to call on for assistance.
“In a crisis situation they have a large number of staff members that they can call upon: a supervisor, program coordinator, an educational consultant, a school psychologist, a social worker, behavioral analyst and also related service staff,” Yeselavage explains.
They also have health insurance that provides access to therapists.
“If there’s an issue, we support them with getting the help. The supervisor will direct them to whatever support they would need,” she says.
What Yeselavage has learned during her career when it comes to managing stress is to exercise, eat clean, and use essential oils and holistic type approaches to health. She recommends this to her staff, who are often amazed by her calmness, she adds.
“I can say in the beginning of my career I didn’t utilize them,” she says. “It is so important when I go home to de-stress and be present for my family and children. Sometimes as educators we don’t do that. It is important for educators to take care of themselves to be healthy and to be the best educator that they can be.”
Another piece of advice she gives her teachers is to walk away if they are feeling stressed and frustrated — and that is perfectly okay.
“I think it would be awesome if there are more Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for teachers,” Yeselavage says. “I haven’t come across many.”
A couple of years ago, she says, social workers trained staff members on the concept of mindfulness, which she found beneficial and useful.
“Sometimes I worry about our teachers,” she says. “There is so much on their plate. They are working non-stop and burn out.”
Julie Rossi, benefits coordinator at IU22, says there are two programs being discussed that could help special education teachers — Headspace and Talkspace. Headspace is an app that teaches you how to meditate. The app offers free access to all k-12 teachers, school administrators and supporting staff. Another program is Talkspace, which provides real-time access to a therapist through a mobile app on iOS and Android.
“The best resource available through the [Bucks and Montgomery County School Health Consortium] medical plan would be the behavioral health benefit to seek behavioral health care,” says Noreen Oswald, senior account manager at CEBS. “If the individual entities have an EAP in place this would also be a good source.”
One entity, Quakertown School District, implemented a program called Headspace for Educators in 2019. Quakertown People Services Director Janet Pallone and Technology Director Joe Kuzo spearheaded the effort.
“I personally enjoy Headspace and use it from time to time, but not daily,” says Zachary Garger, a k-12 instructional coach at Quakertown. “I work with our New Teacher Academy and we have passed it on to our teachers there as well as our elementary school coaches.”
Garger says teachers are using Headspace in their classrooms.
“Some teachers are using it to build mindfulness and teach calming strategies during morning meeting and before big projects or assessments,” he says. “These teachers project the Headspace lessons on their whiteboards and have students follow along.”
Headspace for Educators will soon be available at every district at no cost to you. Contact your HR administrative office to request more information on how to register!