As a teacher, Erin Jones felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. As a Ph.D. student studying school psychology, now she’s finding innovative ways to lift that weight off of fellow educators.
“We expect so much from teachers these days,” said Jones, who came to the UNC School of Education after several years working with Teach for America and AmeriCorps. “They model so much, so there are always eyes watching. If they don’t handle stress well, there’s somebody learning how to handle stress from them.”
Having struggled with anxiety and depression both in and outside of the classroom, Jones started to notice signs that her fellow teachers were experiencing burnout and other mental health challenges. Many would confide in her as the stress of teaching became overwhelming.
“I started to have this idea that I wanted to do something, not about what you should do as a teacher in the classroom, but about what you can do to take care of yourself in order to take care of your kids,” she said. “I wanted to be that kind of support for teachers.”
She dreamed of a web-based platform that offered coaching, resources and support for educators. As part of a social innovation course in the School of Education, she began to bring her idea — called TeacherBrain — to life.
“I really got a chance to flesh out my idea in that course,” she said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘Well, teachers aren’t being paid enough, or there are too many kids in the class.’ These things might not be in our control, but the research shows that there are some really helpful coping skills that one teacher might have that they can share with another.”
Jones is now part of CUBE, a social innovation incubator for entrepreneurs at the Campus Y, where she’s testing the effectiveness of peer-to-peer support, as well as interaction with trained coaches or counselors. Jones hopes that teachers’ anxiety and depression symptoms will improve with human interaction through the supportive environment TeacherBrain establishes.
“I want to create a community of teachers who will learn skills that will help them manage their minds and their classrooms,” she said, “and then help support one another in building and practicing those skills.”
One example is behavioral activation, or encouraging people to schedule activities that bring them joy both inside and outside of the classroom, Jones said. Those activities could range from exercise to learning something new to making a student smile. And the community she’s building at TeacherBrain can pursue that self-care commitment together.
Jones’s vision is even bigger than TeacherBrain, though. She wants to lead the way toward making stress management a standard part of every teacher’s education and training. That means bringing the TeacherBrain model offline and into the classrooms of every teacher in America.
Jones plans to launch the one-on-one coaching portion of her web platform by the end of the academic year.
“I want us to be at the forefront of the conversation on teacher mental health,” she said. “I want it to be part of every school program, so something that’s not just offered to every teacher but is a part of becoming a teacher.”