After five years serving as a public school teacher in North Texas, Carlee Kumler simply couldn’t do it anymore. “It took every drop of energy I had to do even the bare minimum it takes to be a good teacher,” Carlee says. “It was emotionally and physically draining.” Though it was difficult to say goodbye to the students she loved, it became necessary in order to preserve her own mental health: “I wanted to have enough energy to be present with my friends and family, and have more time to focus on my own well-being.”
Unfortunately for our students, Carlee's story is far too common. Over 7,000 current teaching positions are available in the Dallas Independent School District alone, mainly due to teacher attrition, or burnout. It is clear that in-service teachers are struggling with the demands of the job and must be equipped not only with content knowledge but with internal management strategies that will ultimately help them achieve career well-being.
That is the goal of thirdspace, a first-of-its-kind initiative at the University of North Texas at Dallas beginning in the upcoming school year. UNTD has already established itself as a leader in pedagogy, collaborating with Dallas ISD to create several “grow-your-own educator” programs across the district. Now, they’ve created thirdspace (separate from home and work, and separate from pedagogy and student teaching) for their teacher and school leader candidates to cultivate competencies and skills that will allow them to flourish in their lives, especially as they encounter adversity.
“Teachers, whether they realize it or not, are modeling how to be an adult and how to be in the world,” Carlee, now a Master’s candidate in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at UNTD, continues. “If teachers are modeling unhealthy stress management and lacking emotional regulation skills themselves, how can we expect students to learn healthy habits?”
thirdspace is a literal space, occupying a 1000-square foot studio on the UNTD campus. But it is also a robust and growing set of curricular and extracurricular activities informed by student and expert input, including yoga classes, support groups, and creative arts workshops, as well as opportunities to use the room in a self-paced, individualized experience. It’s all designed to give current and future educators the tools they need to maintain mental and physical well-being.
“Once equipped with these new tools, pre-service teachers will not only achieve greater well-being during their time at the university but will be able to transfer those skills once they become teachers,” says Kathryn Mikeska, Communications Manager at the Commit Partnership and partner/collaborator of thirdspace. “This will allow them in times of stress, lack of support, and external churn to be able to access the body-mind-emotion coherence they acquired as a part of thirdspace and to persist in their chosen careers.”
Upon opening, thirdspace will be available to UNTD education students, as well as in-service teachers who were trained there. Eventually, university officials hope to expand thirdspace’s offerings to the entire student body, as well as practicing educators throughout the region. “A lot of this work exists solely in elite spaces,” says John Gasko, Dean of the UNTD School of Education and thirdspace co-creator. “We want to democratize wellness.”
Ultimately, by accounting for the psychological well-being of students, UNTD could positively affect persistence not just in the teaching field, but throughout the postsecondary process. The Best In Class Coalition also hopes to utilize this well-being research to prepare, develop and retain effective educators. Currently in Dallas County, only 28% of high school seniors go on to complete a two- or four-year degree six years after graduation. John and Kathryn see an increased focus on social-emotional health as a key lever to increase completion, as well as teacher retention and well-being. And Carlee couldn’t agree more.
“We only know what we know. We only do what we see modeled for us,” says Carlee. “By offering a place for self-discovery, thirdspace can help UNTD students manage their own needs emotionally and physically. And by learning to do so themselves, they can teach other people in their lives, whether it be students or co-workers, and our entire community will begin to feel the effects.”