Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

Building Community Helps Us Cope in Tough Times

By: Mark Bernstein 07/18/2023
Learn how prioritizing mental health and interpersonal connections makes an impact in the classroom. 
An educator contemplates while her students are away.

Everyone is dealing with something—your students, your colleagues, your friends. Everyone. How do I know this? Because I’m human. And as a human, I’m aware that we all have our own struggles and challenges to face—big and small.

As educators, we hear about the importance of supporting our students' mental health and well-being. But what about our own? It's easy to get caught up in caring for our students while neglecting our own needs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. 

Teaching Is Hard

We all know how important teaching is. What’s more important than teaching a young person how to read or problem solve? But we also know teaching is hard. posted a story about the hardest jobs in America. Spoiler alert! Teaching made the list. It didn’t rank 50th, 30th, or even 10th . . . Teaching is the fourth most difficult job in America, surpassed only by healthcare professionals and military personnel. 

With a job that demands so much time and attention, it can be challenging to prioritize self-care. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, I understand firsthand the toll that stress can take on our mental and physical health. When we are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, it can be difficult to be fully present and engaged in our work.  

What Can We Do to Prioritize Our Mental Health and Well-Being?

  • Practice self-compassion: We’re often our own harshest critics. It's important to treat ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer to a friend.  
  • Take breaks: It's okay to step away when we need a breather. Whether it's taking a short walk outside, doing some deep breathing, or taking a few moments to move our bodies, taking breaks can help us feel re-energized. For more ideas, listen to this podcast
  • Engage in activities that bring us joy: Whether it's reading a good book, going for a hike, or practicing a creative hobby, engaging in activities that we enjoy can help us feel more fulfilled. 
  • Connect: As social creatures, human connection is crucial for our mental health. We need to interact with others to feel less alone. Even if it's just a brief exchange with a stranger, connection is at the heart of humanity.  

Connection Makes the Biggest Impact in Our Classrooms

According to Professor John Hattie, the relationships you share with your students have a greater effect on their academic growth than socioeconomic status, professional learning, class size, or any type of special programs. Supporting your students emotionally is crucial to creating a positive classroom environment. And it’s also important that they support each other. 

With an estimated 49.5 percent of adolescents experiencing mental health disorders throughout their life, it’s essential to provide spaces where students can build friendships, feel understood, and have somewhere to belong. To tap into the spirit of human connection, I created a “bag o’ questions” to spark conversation and help students connect. Try these simple exercises for building community in your classroom.  

Here’s How to Make It Work for Your Students

  • Whole Class Bag o' Questions Icebreaker: As a daily icebreaker or brain break, pull out a question to ask your class. Students raise their hand if they want to answer. You can limit the number of responses you’ll take.  
  • Small Group Bag o’ Questions Icebreaker: Pull out a question to ask your class. Students can share with classmates in a small group to answer a question of the day.  If students don’t want to answer or feel uncomfortable, they can pass. We never want students to feel obligated to share.  For this reason, you might want to consider . . .  
  • Journal Prompts: When you want to initiate a quick journaling exercise, choose a random question as a prompt. My mom always says, “Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves.” Therefore, this prompt is easy for students to engage with because they are writing about their own experience. Plus, this journal becomes a great keepsake for students to revisit later in life to remember who they were during this time in their lives.

The best part is that you don’t have to scramble to find hundreds of your own questions. You can find my ready-to-use document with 150 questions to start connecting with your students today at, my kindness project. 

We're all trying to do our best and make a difference in this world. By prioritizing our mental health and well-being, we’re better able to show up for ourselves and our students. So, let's all take a moment to check in with ourselves and those around us. And remember . . . if you’re trying to do good, you’re doing good. Trying is what matters—for you and your students. 

For more on mindfulness for fueling mental health, listen to this Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need support, text “empathy” to 741741, or visit, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry