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How many of you go home after a challenging and stressful day in the classroom and kick back with a few drinks or other substances to help you unwind? Are you finding this is happening more and more frequently? 

Mary*, a retired special education teacher from Massachusetts, told me: 

“In the beginning, my teacher friends and I used to go out on Friday afternoons to celebrate getting through the week. At first, it was like a celebration of sorts, you know, that we made it through the week, but then we started going out more and more frequently, and soon, it became on school nights. I can’t tell you how many times I worked hungover. The stress of the job, students who were highly aggressive, too much paperwork, and the overly demanding administration drove me to it was what I tried to convince myself, but the real issue was I had poor coping skills I later grew to find out.” 

Teachers are becoming dependent upon alcohol and drugs as their “go-to” coping mechanism. According to SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services),5.5% of all people in educational services have an addiction disorder. Some of the factors that are contributing to them seeking out alcohol and other substances to manage their feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed are: 

• The potential for school violence: Public school teacher Linda S., who teaches in a suburb of Rochester, NY area, said:

“I guess I really have to put stuff like that out of my mind when I’m there… or how else could I do my job? My youngest was going to go into teaching but changed her mind. Honestly, I was happy. It’s too much. I feel relatively safe at my school, but the possibility of violence is always in the back of my mind. I have two doors into my classroom, and I keep one locked at all times. [It] makes me feel somewhat safer, but I know it wouldn’t really matter.”

Teaching used to be considered a safe profession, but now it has become a dangerous and, at times, deadly one. In 2022, there were 51 school shootings, as reported by Education Week, which left 140 people killed or injured. In a survey given by the American Psychological task force administered between July 2020 and June 2021, all 50 states found 6 in 10 teachers experienced physical violence or verbal aggression. These statistics are both horrifying and sobering. 

The demands of standardized testing: Standardized testing continues to create a huge level of stress for teachers. Insurmountable issues outside of school, which teachers have limited control over, such as poverty, can make a student’s ability to perform on tests a difficult task. Teachers are left to wear many different hats, not only teacher but also counselor, social worker, and cop. 

Financial insecurity: Teacher salaries are not commensurate with all that is expected of them. The NEA (National Education Association) found in 2019 that one-third of new teachers take on second jobs to make ends meet because they just are not being paid enough. Meanwhile, tightening school budgets results in some teachers using their own money to buy what is needed for their students. 

The COVID pandemic: COVID forced teachers to find new methods to teach their students, which piled on more already existent stress upon them. 

These factors have contributed to creating the perfect storm, leaving teachers feeling exhausted, unappreciated, anxiety-ridden, frightened, and at an increased risk of seeking out relief. For some, that means resorting to unhealthy outlets such as drugs and alcohol. Abusing drugs and alcohol isn’t just unhealthy physically, spiritually, and emotionally for the teacher; it also spills over onto their students. A hungover teacher or a teacher in active addiction can result in an unsafe classroom environment for students should the teacher be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol while teaching.

Recognize the signs of drug and alcohol abuse

So, what are the signs of drug and alcohol abuse? lists these signs of alcohol and drug use: 

Signs of Alcohol Abuse 

• Craving a drink regularly 

• Being unable to stop or limit drinking 

• Needing greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect 

• Withdrawal symptoms when not consuming alcohol, such as nausea, sweating, shaking, anxiety, increased blood pressure, or seizures 

• Giving up activities to drink or to recover from a hangover 

• Continuing to drink, even after it causes health problems 

• Not being able to stop drinking 

Signs of Drug Abuse 

• Craving drugs 

• Being unable to stop or limit drug use 

• Taking greater amounts of drugs to feel the same effect 

• Withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug 

• Spending a lot more time getting drugs and recovering from their effects 

• Giving up activities so you can recover from using them 

• Continuing to use drugs, even after causing health or psychological problems 

• Want to stop but are unable to 

What can administrators do about substance abuse by teachers? 

School administrators can become more in tune with their teachers, observing how they are functioning while in the classroom. Administrators should make an effort to do frequent check-ins with their teachers that are not performance-based but out of genuine concern to see how they are handling the stressors of the job. It can go a long way toward providing emotional support. It may also aid in noticing a teacher in need of professional help. 

Schools should also have resources in place for a teacher who is struggling with substance abuse that is confidential and easily accessible, such as a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP), listings of community self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or a phone number available for them like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) which is a free, confidential, 24/7 365 day-a-year treatment referral and information service for individuals facing mental and/or substance use disorders. 

Administrators need to become better educated on addiction, beginning with accepting that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing or lack of willpower. A teacher who struggles with addiction needs to be treated with compassion, understanding, and empathy. 

What can teachers do about substance abuse by colleagues? 

Teachers can empower themselves by trying to engage in healthy ways to manage their stress instead of consuming alcohol or drugs. Physical activities like yoga, walking, hiking, and swimming are all positive outlets for stress, as are more sedentary activities like meditation, reading, knitting, writing, and pottery, to name a few. Talking with colleagues about the stress and anxiety you may feel, as well as a trusted confidant or therapist, can be beneficial. 

Colleagues can support each other by fighting the stigma in regard to alcohol and drug addiction. Teachers can attend a self-help group with a colleague, such as AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). While sitting them down and being honest with them can be difficult, it can also be the catalyst in helping them reach the first step, which is accepting that they have a problem. If you know a colleague is struggling with substance abuse, attending sober social activities with them that do not involve drugs or alcohol is a helpful way to show them you care and that they can have fun without drugs and alcohol.

Equally important is surrounding oneself with colleagues, friends, and family who support you if you’re trying to enter recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. The more people you have supportive of your recovery journey, the further away the addiction becomes. 

Practicing self-love is important. Acknowledge you have a problem, and then forgive yourself because a lot of shame and guilt accompanies addiction. Recovery is possible, but it comes with a lot of commitment and hard work. That means seeking help, accepting the help that is offered, and really wanting to get better. As an addictions counselor for the past six years, I tell my patients, “I cannot want your recovery more than you want it. You have got to want it more.” 

Addressing Alcohol and Drug Use By Teachers

Children are our future. The same holds true for our teachers. Addressing drug and alcohol use by teachers cannot be left to teachers alone. If our country passed stricter gun laws and banned assault weapons, for example, it would be a positive step to lower teachers’ stress. Teachers are scared that they could lose their lives. Raising teacher pay is another important tool we can use. Teachers take on a second job to make ends meet because they are not paid adequately. Overall, it will take a societal effort to end substance abuse in education. Educators deserve to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled as teachers, not dependent on drugs and alcohol in order to cope with the demands and circumstances of the profession.

*All interview subjects’ names have been changed to protect their confidentiality

About the Author 

Kit Fruscione is a 59 year old retired special education teacher residing in Rochester, NY. She has a Master of Science in Education, from Simmons College, a BS in Criminal Justice from Niagara University and is a Credentialed Alcoholic and Substance Abuse Counselor in New York State, where she currently practices.

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