Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Author: Betsy (page 1 of 6)

The Young Are at the Gates!

A 1917 speech by suffragist Lavinia Dock is just as relevant today.

This from Lavinia Dock, published in The Suffragist, June 30, 1917:

“If any one says to me: “Why the picketing for Suffrage?” I should say in reply, “Why the fearless spirit of youth? Why does it exist and make itself manifest?” Is it not really that our whole social world would be likely to harden and toughen into a dreary mass of conventional negations and forbiddances–into hopeless layers of conformity and caste, did not the irrepressible energy and animation of youth, when joined to the clear-eyed sham-hating intelligence of the young, break up the dull masses and set a new pace for laggards to follow?

“What is the potent spirit of youth? Is it not the spirit of revolt, of rebellion against senseless and useless and deadening things? Most of all, against injustice, which is of all stupid things the stupidest?

“Such thoughts come to one in looking over the field of the Suffrage campaign and watching the pickets at the White House and at the Capitol, where sit the men who complacently enjoy the rights they deny to the women at their gates. Surely, nothing but the creeping paralysis of mental old age can account for the phenomenon of American men, law-makers, officials, administrators, and guardians of the peace, who can see nothing in the intrepid young pickets with their banners, asking for bare justice but common obstructors of traffic, nagger’-nuisances that are to be abolished by passing stupid laws forbidding and repressing to add to the old junk-heap of laws which forbid and repress? Can it be possible that any brain cells not totally crystallized could imagine that giving a stone instead of bread would answer conclusively the demand of the women who, because they are young, fearless, eager, and rebellious, are fighting and winning a cause for all women–even for those who are timid, conventional, and inert?

“A fatal error–a losing fight. The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates!”

Thank you, Memory Palace, for bringing this speech to our attention in this time of clear-sighted youth who are fighting against the stupidest of the stupid.

A Motherless Nation

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

Yet another massacre at a high school.

Yet another breach of a membrane — the walls of a school — that is supposed to keep our children safe. Yet another horror that means inconceivable loss. Yet another reason for students, teachers, coaches, and administrators to feel unsafe, un-held, in an institution they are mandated to attend.

Yet more unraveling. Yet more stress, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, and just plain disbelief.

And more outrage. Over the years, I (like many others) have expressed my righteous anger and disdain for people who I believe are doing a bad job of running our country or are doing a bad job of being human. Throughout my life (I realize now), I have felt fundamentally “held” by a nation that I trusted, that stood for values I believe in, that I expected would always right itself because of the commitment to liberty and justice at its core.

But it is under the Trump/GOP reign, with its dismantling of agencies, laws, and norms of decency that protect us and our world from chemical, environmental, medical, emotional, and physical harm, that I cannot escape the feeling of being a motherless child.

A motherless child: a human being who lives in a nation that does not, will not, hold me with respect, care, or regard for my safety and well-being. A nation whose mother does not do her job because she is just. too. sick.

This is the nation that will not pass sensible gun laws LIKE EVERY OTHER NATION ON THE PLANET even as data show unequivocally that such laws prevent tragedies of the sort Americans are experiencing at a rate of FIVE PER MONTH. This is the nation that CUTS BACK on funding for vital social services like mental health care and food stamps, that fights raising the minimum wage, that condemns swaths of our population to ongoing poverty and neglect, that gives the freakishly wealthy a tax break, that is so “post-racial” that black male drivers are in MORTAL PERIL and Muslims are FEARED, that is “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.”

This is the nation that African Americans and immigrants from all over the world have spent generations living in. When this nation wasn’t/isn’t actively abusing people of color (or people of some other targeted category), it simply fails to hold them. It renders them motherless. It is under the Trump/GOP reign that I as a white woman am experiencing the chronic stress of living in a country run by unrelievedly untrustworthy, unraveled, self-interested, abusive “parents.” This America has rendered me motherless, and it SUCKS.

I have written about holding environments before. I fervently believe that schools and classrooms need to be healthy holding environments, places where students and teachers and administrators are safe to grow and change and develop. Teachers are not their students’ parents, but they are their students’ developmental partners. As such, they need (in my view) to be good, consistent “holders” who safeguard learning environments that promote cognitive and emotional and relational growth.

Living through these times, I realize that nations need to be healthy holding environments, too. Nations need leaders who “hold” us all, not just through their policies and thoughtful, responsible consideration of complex realities but through their character: their integrity, their kindness, their intelligence and perspicuity, their wisdom and groundedness and perspective. Their trustworthiness. Their genuine care. (This is, frankly, why I loved and still love President Barack Obama. And First Lady Michelle Obama. They epitomize such leadership.) Nations need limits; they need to face reality; they need to promote cognitive, emotional, and relational growth; they need to stand for the highest human values; they need to encourage people to care for each other; they need to model that care.

This has not happened for African Americans and so many other members of oppressed groups in this country. It is not happening for our schoolchildren or for our teachers. It is not now happening for any of us who believe that every nation’s and every person’s highest calling is the greater good. Our nation is parentless — worse, it is motherless. Worse, it is run by a group of men (our president, the Congressional majority, the NRA, among others) who are, frankly, insane.

A holding environment that is run by insane people is UNHEALTHY FOR ALL.

Voids I Have Known

There are so many ways we fill voids — to everyone’s detriment.

Here are just a few of the ways I and other teachers avoid struggle, our own and our students’.


I give a writing assignment; a student’s word choices are not quite accurate; I fill the void (between my choices and hers) by crossing off her words and substituting my own.

Why are my words better than the author’s? Will this act help the student become a better writer?


I assign a multi-week project; a student avoids every single opportunity I give them to work on the project; the day before it’s due I fill the void (between failing and passing) by helping them get something done.

What are the possible benefits of failing? What are the possible drawbacks of passing?


A student is receiving a solid C- in my class; they need to maintain a C+ average in order to participate in a sporting event; the coach is pressuring me; I fill the void (between the student’s academic reality and the coach’s athletic needs) by raising the grade.

What would happen if the student (and the coach) suffered the consequences of the student’s actual academic performance?


Someone’s dirty dishes are sitting next to the sink; I should be grading papers; I fill the void (between my desire to get the papers graded and my desire not to grade papers) by getting up and distracting myself with cleaning.

What is my dread about? What keeps me from committing to my work?


I am speaking to a group of students; I pause and look at their faces, which are largely blank; I fill the void (between my experience and theirs) by assuming I’m not making any sense; I lose confidence and realize I should not be a teacher.

Why do I assume the worst? How can I curb my assumptions in the first place to allow for richer possibilities?

I have known these voids and so many more! I actually meet new voids-to-fill every day. And I do my best to let them be. Why? Why do I claim that filling the void can harm everyone involved? As I wrote in an earlier post, doing things for other people is not necessarily detrimental. It can reduce suffering. It can show care. It can be instructionally appropriate. It can just be easier sometimes.

But filling voids defensively — as a means of managing our own anxiety — can mean we completely miss the mark:

  • Students’ writing will not improve when I give them the word rather than ask them to tap into their felt sense and find a word that works better.
  • Failing a student who has been completely avoidant reflects an accurate reality back to the student (who knows very well that he deserves to fail). Even better, it provides a meaningful opportunity to examine that avoidance with the student. Accurate reflection of reality and curiosity about that reality are crucial for students’ development — even if they are hard to do.
  • What a bummer to miss an athletic event because of a silly grade! But what an opportunity for struggle when poor performance is not rewarded but is, rather, remediated through sacrifice, extra effort, and commitment. And no one learns the crucial skill of surviving disappointment if they never have to experience it.
  • OMG grading papers is such a scourge! But it is essential. Is my dread related to my sense that I have to make every paper perfect? Is it related to my resistance to putting out the energy required to engage intimately with my students’ thinking (or lack thereof)? Is it related to a lack of faith that the students can — or want to — improve? Can I turn my avoidance into a more efficient approach to grading that helps me focus my attention and feedback (and, therefore, helps to focus my students)?  Bonus: Examining my avoidance will give me insight into my avoidant students, who might actually feel the same way I do.
  • Ah, assumptions! They can be so misleading! Perhaps being a teacher means holding respectfully to my reality while feeling curious about my students’ realities. And asking about them. And seeing what kind of Third emerges.

I think learning and growing necessarily involve struggle. I do not believe that struggle is bad. I think people need to figure out how to struggle well. I think we can help each other do that. A first step is for me to become comfortable with my own struggles.

Unfortunately, filling the void too often prevents that.

Filling the Void

The key is to scaffold struggle, not to fill the void.

“Filling the void” is a term I use a lot with teachers. Filling the void is what we do when we perceive that something that needs to be done – often by somebody else – is not being done. We sense the void, and we feel anxious. So we jump right in and kill two birds with one stone: We do the job (thus demonstrating our competence) and we tamp down our anxiety.

And make way for resentment. But I’m sprinting way ahead.

Here’s how filling the void might sound:

Student: I don’t know how to do this.

Teacher: Sure you do! We just went over it.

Student: But I don’t get it. I do this…and then…this?

Teacher: I’ll show you.

Where is the void? (Actually, I perceive two possible voids here.)

Void #1: The student doesn’t know something.

Void #2: The student can’t do something.

These are very common voids, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them on the face of it. In fact, one might consider not knowing something and not being able to do something as valid steps along the path to mastery.

How does this teacher fill the voids?

Tactic #1: Deny the void’s existence

The teacher fills the void by insisting it’s not there. “No, you don’t not know. You do know.” This is not a great tactic because it totally overrides the student’s own reality. And students really need to have their own realities validated.

Tactic #2: Do it yourself

Showing students how to do things is a perfectly legitimate way to teach. Watch out, though: If you’re doing something to fill a void, you may be helping yourself more than the student.

The reason I say this is that, if voids make you anxious – because somewhere way back in your history you learned that competence is better than incompetence or merging is better than separation or (perhaps more recently) your student’s performance is a marker of your own value — then filling the void might be a knee-jerk reaction to your anxiety.

It may be that what your student needs more than anything is to feel that void himself. Feeling the void, especially with a teacher who is comfortable with void-induced anxiety, might spur your student to actually start struggling.

Which is what students need to become comfortable with. Struggling. While being “held” (more about this another time) by a curious and confident teacher.

In short, when students don’t know something or can’t do something, they might be exactly where they need to be: poised on the edge of struggle. Allowing students to struggle their way from not-knowing to knowing, from incompetence to competence, is not only ultimately gratifying (for student and teacher) but is, in fact, an acceptable definition of teaching-and-learning.

What voids do you fill?


“It doesn’t serve anybody to pretend that we’re teacher-bots with no emotions, which I think sometimes teachers feel like they have to be.”

So says Alex Shevrin, a teacher and community facilitator for Edutopia who used to work at a therapeutic high school.

Here’s something else Alex Shevrin said: “If I had one wish for every school in the country, it would be that they made time for teachers to really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.”

Why? Why should teachers sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work?

Oh, baby! Let me count the reasons:

  1. Shevrin’s quotes appear in an Edutopia article about vicarious traumatization, or secondary traumatization, or compassion fatigue, or “the cost of caring.” The point of the article is that teachers who encounter traumatized students (and statistics cited in the article suggest that the chances of such an encounter are quite high, as “more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma”) are in danger of experiencing trauma themselves. What is a tried and true way to avoid secondary traumatization? “Talking it out” (as the article suggests). Talking to a peer, a therapist, a spouse, a peer group. So one reason educators should sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work is to prevent their own traumatization.
  2. Talking out feelings helps metabolize them. Not talking out feelings helps compound them. It’s better to digest feelings (and figuratively poop them out) than it is to allow them to build up into a thick constipated knot that erupts when you least expect it. And I think we’ve had enough of that useful metaphor.
  3. Just talking out feelings can be helpful. But talking about feelings in a particular way can be miraculous. That is, when teachers view their emotions as data, not just as inconvenient obstacles, they can learn a WHOLE HELLUVA LOT about their students and their classroom. They can learn
    1. how they themselves are contributing to bad behavior
    2. how their students might actually be feeling and why
    3. what kind of treatment their students expect from adults and others
    4. what they can do to correct misbehavior and attune classroom relationships
  4. Talking about feelings with a small group of peers (such as a Teacher Support Group) not only helps metabolize emotions and foster miraculous behavioral changes in the classroom but forges strong, reliable bonds among colleagues. As Micere Keels, an expert who is quoted in the Edutopia article on vicarious traumatization puts it, “Reducing professional isolation is critical. It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.” It also fosters deep connections that teachers can draw on whenever they need them — and most teachers need them.
  5. Talking about feelings makes people feel better. Plain and simple. Overcoming our fear of emotions and just letting them live is a very good way to let them go.

I share Alex Shevrin’s wish. I really really wish teachers would “really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.” I wish it because it would make teachers feel better; it would help them stay in the field; it would help them feel safe and healthy; and it would help their students learn.

Down with teacher-bots.




Only Connect

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

This is a quote from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a wonderful novel written in 1908 that is perhaps best known by its movie version, which is also wonderful. The quote is relevant to a hypothesis I’m working on, which is that we are living in a society in which technological innovation quietly encourages us to distance ourselves — to chronicle life — rather then to engage with each other — to practice life.

This hypothesis is important to me because my work, emotion work, requires willingness to engage with life. Yet I suspect that the momentum in the field of education, despite the increasing respect for “soft skills” and Social-Emotional Learning, continues to drive us towards the abstract, the disconnected: towards data, trends, scores, scripts, policy, programs, rules, legalese. Towards a chronicle, a narrative, about education that is quite distant from the lived reality.

Towards the thought, for example, that the quality of a teacher education program can be determined by the standardized test scores of the students their graduates teach.

Let’s step this one back: A group of students do not do well on a standardized test. Consider the many reasons why this might happen. (Hint: anxiety, inability to manage the test format well, cultural disadvantage, resistance to learning, fatigue, stress, lack of commitment, poor teaching)

If the reason or reasons for the students’ poor performance is any of the first seven, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the students’ anxiety and stress, their relationship (yes, that’s the word I would use) to the type of test and to the stakes it represents, their resistance and level of commitment to school or to their teacher? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

If the reason for the test scores is poor teaching, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the teacher’s experience of teaching: their fears, self-doubts, insecurities; their flashpoints and pet peeves; their negative self-beliefs; their relationships (again, that word) with the content they teach, the students they teach, and their colleagues? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

And the same goes for teacher education programs. It’s gotta be difficult to assess the quality of a program in any case, but how do you capture a program’s success in changing people? (especially when the expectation of most prospective teachers is that they will spend less rather than more time earning their credential. There is no teacher education program in the history of the world that ever demanded as much training for teachers as the most basic medical school program does. Why is that?)

How do you change people? Through a policy? A punishment? A ruling?

No. Emphatically no. People change through engagement. Not from policies or punishments or rulings. Not from forced conformity to an idealized, distanced narrative.

Here’s another E.M. Forster quote, this one from Howard’s End:

Only connect!….Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

Meaning, to me: Connect the abstract and the particular, the policies and the people, the chronicle and the practice. Bring the levels of experience together, let them inform each other, through connection. Just connect! Just engage! And we will all be exalted.

Unfortunately, in a world where desired “connection” is now overwhelmingly electronic, it is becoming much less likely that we will actually engage with each other as people. Instead, it seems we are free to objectify people, demonize people, anonymously act out on people, and legislate at all levels in ways that serve the legislators rather than those in need. Even in those moments when we do engage with people, it seems we are less and less willing to be honest in that engagement for fear of hurting and, importantly, being hurt back.

I am going to make a plug for engagement, for looking into people’s eyes, for reading data with our hearts, for surviving our hurt, for helping people change — whether to improve their teaching or simply to learn something new — by being in healthy relationship with them, by connecting viscerally, not electronically, with them. And I am going to shamelessly plug the value of emotion work in this fundamentally, inescapably human enterprise.

Only connect.

Bryan Stevenson

How teachers can change the world.

I had the good fortune to hear Bryan Stevenson speak last night. He is a lawyer who fights for the rights of death row inmates and is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

I enjoyed the talk. Mr. Stevenson is a riveting orator and masterful storyteller. His message was direct and fervent and inspiring. We must “change the world,” he said, by

  • being proximate: getting close to people in need.
  • changing the narrative: paying attention to the unconscious, unchallenged stories we tell about ourselves and others that we unthinkingly enact to everyone’s detriment.
  • having hope: because despair will get us precisely nowhere.
  • being willing to be uncomfortable: to do what is right, to buck the narrative, often means to find oneself alone or uncertain or in pain. BUT to stay comfortable is to promote what is unjust.

He had another message, one that haunts me this morning and got me out of bed way too early:

We are all broken.

This man, who tries to question a 10-year-old who has been in jail for three days after having accidentally killed his mother’s alcoholic and chronically, violently abusive boyfriend and discovers that the boy has been repeatedly raped in jail; this man, who is black, who has to put up with a sadistic prison guard who purposely points out that the truck he drives is plastered with Confederate flags and the bumper sticker “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own cotton”; this man, who deals every day with human cruelty, both in society at large and specifically in our appalling criminal justice system: This man says that what keeps him going is the realization that “I am broken too.”

As we all are. Some of us have basic psychic fractures from our upbringings; some of us are scarred by trauma; some of us simply read the news every day and feel our hearts break anew. I couldn’t sleep this morning for thinking about all the broken people in the world.

But quickly! Back to Mr. Stevenson’s message! And let us turn our thoughts, inevitably, to teachers.

Just like Mr. Stevenson, teachers are in a position to change the world. They are proximate to people in need, to students who are broken. They are caught in a nest of narratives, from the one that insists learning can be standardized and tested to the one that puts students in desks in rows in classes that meet for 44 minutes each day to the one that justifies disproportionately punishing students who have dark skin to the one that constantly questions teachers’ professionalism and personal instincts about what their students need and favors control over trust. Changing any of those narratives (and others) would offer teachers the opportunity to become uncomfortable. And, if they’re lucky, teachers have hope.

But teachers are broken too. And broken people, especially broken people in positions of relative power, can be cruel, or thoughtless, or self-protective, or unconscious in their clinging to comfort. How  how HOW can teachers be empowered and supported in transcending their own brokenness — their own psychic fractures, their own experiences of trauma, their own overwhelmedness and hopelessness and frustration and burnout — so they can help every broken student grow, develop — and heal?

The answer, for me, is that teachers need caring support. They need official acknowledgment that their jobs as developmental partners to broken people are extremely difficult, both deeply rewarding and grindingly wearing. They need to see how their own brokenness fits with and, at times, reinforces that of their students. They need help healing themselves so they can teach others.

In the field of education, changing the world these days is more than just doing a bang-up job of teaching content or delivering SEL curriculum to students. Changing the world must begin with the self, must begin with each of us committing to the ongoing task of healing our own brokenness and then committing to being the very best person we can possibly be — devoted to truth-telling, to disrupting oppressive narratives, to welcoming discomfort in the service of accurate seeing and faithful connection — in relationships with others. This work is indeed uncomfortable, and it is absolutely essential. As Mr. Stevenson would say, it is “brave brave BRAVE.”



Tend to the Tender

“If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who’s tending the child.”

I recently read this quote by Suniya Luthar, PhD, in the September 2017 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. I think it’s a great quote to start off the academic year with.

I have written about this before. But it bears repeating: Caring for people is exhausting, demanding work. It requires a whole list of skills.

  • self-control
  • empathy
  • patience
  • selflessness
  • presence
  • awareness
  • intelligence
  • discipline
  • understanding
  • curiosity
  • grit

Utilizing these “soft skills” day after day can take a hard toll on caregivers. Because “soft skills” tend to be taken for granted, especially in caregivers, especially in female caregivers, there often is very little recognition of this hard toll. But it’s there, and neglect of it can easily lead to burnout.

Teachers are caregivers. They are tenders (and many of them are also tender). They are crucial developmental partners to precious growing human beings. Their job as developmental partner demands the above soft skills (and more), and the above soft skills demand support. I wish all of you teachers reading this the wherewithal to get that support for yourself. Get tended to!

If you need ideas about how, look here.





A guest blog from Constance Ray of Recovery Well, a site where people can safely share their stories of addiction.

NOTE: Addiction is relevant to teachers because substance use and abuse exist in their lives and in their students’. Stories of recovery can be as inspiring as stories of teaching successes!


Mindfulness is a key element of addiction recovery — one day at a time, as they say. When substance abuse has been clouding your vision for so long, it can be overwhelming to look ahead to a sober life. You have to make a conscious effort to change your view of the world, and that’s often easier said than done.

Fortunately, it’s not impossible; just ask the addiction survivors we interviewed. Whether you’re in recovery yourself or are just struggling with hard times, the wisdom they shared is relevant to anyone in need of a life change. Here are a few of the things they shared with us about the importance of mindfulness in recovery.


Josh knew on some level that his pill addiction had gotten out of control, but wasn’t ready to accept or address it. The truth was, he enjoyed the numbness he felt.

“I liked the freedom, I liked the feeling of not feeling anything,” he confessed.

To reinforce his denial, he started spending less and less time with his loved ones.

“My family experience was really negative during active addiction because I didn’t want to hear the truth, you know? And I kind of avoided that.”

But when Josh decided to enter inpatient drug rehab at Serenity Recovery, he knew he had to face his addiction demons head-on. The task become a lot less daunting when he realized he didn’t have to fix everything all at once.

“[Addiction treatment] taught me how to step back and just live in the moment and take care of one thing at a time,” he said.

Looking at it as a day-by-day, moment-by-moment journey made his sobriety goals more tangible and opened his eyes to the true beauty of life. His biggest takeaway was simple, but wise:

“Calm down and enjoy it — enjoy life for what it is.”


Kenny found a similar comfort in mindfulness, noting that it takes a conscious effort to shift your way of thinking.

“Right now, I’m taking things day by day and just trying to get my life back in order,” he explained. “I often feel that when detoxing off any substance, you’re going through an emotional roller coaster. The main thing to do is to find certain things that take your mind off of the outside world, and off the facility and off of stress and tension — for me, that’s working out.”

Like Josh, Kenny said that finding happiness is an important part of recovery. It’s isn’t just about accepting the present moment, but truly embracing it.

“I feel like sobriety without happiness is kind of useless. I am working on finding my own personal happiness and lighting that flame inside of me, and I feel like once I find that happiness and it’s secure, then sobriety will be the least of what I’m worried about,” he said.

We’ve all made mistakes and have regrets — both big and small — but to dwell on the past is to miss out on joy in the present, Kenny said. You can’t risk losing even more time than you already have.

“I just feel like what a lot of people have a problem with when it comes to recovery is not being able to accept the faults and the flaws they have experienced in their lifetime. But I feel like if you have a second opportunity, you should take it and uplift it to the fullest because you don’t know when the opportunity might run short,” he said.

We all have a strength within us to overcome, though you must know how to channel it. Mindfulness can guide the way not only to lasting sobriety, but to a happier life overall.

Stress and Burnout

Teacher stress and burnout are deeply damaging to all — and there are antidotes!

I just came across a most interesting and — weirdly, you might say — reassuring document called Teacher Stress and Health. The report is weirdly reassuring to me because it boldly states the truth about teaching these days: that teaching is MEGA-STRESSFUL.

“Of course it is!” you might be thinking. “Who doesn’t know that?!?” I’m guessing a lot of people don’t, but that’s less important than some of the specifics the report contains as well as its recommendations.

Here’s a specific that I bet few people know: teachers tend to experience more stress on a daily basis than people in other professions. As the authors of Teacher Stress and Health put it (on page 5), “According to a national survey, 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year [here they cite a Gallup poll]. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, tied with nurses, also at 46 percent, and higher than physicians, at 45 percent.”

Wow. And yeah. But consider: Even if nurses and doctors have difficult patients or have to witness unbearable suffering, the exposure is generally time-limited. Teachers return to their students every day for 180 days and, unlike most doctors and nurses, do not always enjoy the trust of their “patients.” Being helped — or forced — to learn is not always as welcome as being helped or forced to heal and feel better.

Here’s another specific: Teacher stress can lead to a number of very undesirable outcomes. The authors again (p. 2): “High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.” This list is disturbingly gloomy, but what astonishes me is the researchers’ use of the word “cause.” The claim that stress causes such terrible outcomes is HUGE. Researchers rarely lay claim to cause and effect. The fact that these authors do pretty much obligates us to do everything we can to reduce teachers’ stress.

A few more facts, just to confirm what you might already know:

  • High-stakes testing contributes to teacher stress because it “limit[s] teachers’ control over the content and pace of their own work” (p. 3)
  • Teacher stress is highest and most damaging in the neediest schools: “Because turnover is most likely to occur in poorly performing schools, it leads to long-term destabilization of low-income neighborhood schools which lose continuity in relationships between teachers, students, parents and community” (p. 6).
  • It’s not just students who make teachers’ lives miserable; parents do, too: “Managing students with behavior problems and working with difficult parents are two other demanding interpersonal challenges that produce chronic stress and leave teachers more vulnerable to depression” (p. 4)

And, finally, this: stressed-out teachers don’t teach very well, which means their students don’t learn very much. On the other hand, “engaged” teachers teach better and their students learn better. Another quote from the report (p. 5): “When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance. Most strikingly, a survey of over 78,000 students in grades 5-12 in 160 schools showed that higher teacher engagement in their jobs predicted higher student engagement, which in turn predicted higher student achievement outcomes.”

Perhaps to point out the obvious: When the students of stressed-out teachers “show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance” — that is, act out and resist learning — those students behave in ways that add to their teachers’ stress. Which leads to teacher and student disengagement, which leads to more acting out, which leads to more stress and disengagement. Which leads to burnout and attrition for both students and teachers. And, by the way, the cost of teachers’ attrition could be over $7 billion per year (this from p. 6 of Teacher Stress and Health).

And just to hammer the point home:

When high job demands and stress are combined with low social-emotional competence (SEC) and classroom management skills, poor teacher performance and attrition increase [citation]. A teacher’s own SEC and well-being are key factors influencing student and classroom outcomes [citation]. Yet, few teachers have had training opportunities to attend to and develop their own SEC. If a teacher is unable to manage their stress adequately, their instruction will suffer, which then impacts student well-being and achievement. In contrast, teachers with better emotion regulation are likely to reinforce positive student behavior, and support students in managing their own negative emotions [citation, citation]. Teachers with high SEC also report more positive affect, greater principal support, higher job satisfaction, and a sense of personal accomplishment [citation]. (pp. 4-5)

Let us pause for just a moment and dwell on this profound paragraph. Teachers, it says, need to be socially and emotionally competent. I don’t know what percentage of people develop social-emotional competence on their own, but my experience of life says: not many. And even if a vast majority of people demonstrate social-emotional competence at work or in their families, where they’re dealing with one or two people at a time, how many of them are equipped to exercise SEC with a roomful of toddlers or tweens or raging adolescents? None of whom is related to them? Some of whom do not share their goals and values?

The report’s authors seem to have similar questions. They stress that, even as teachers are expected to deliver SEL curricula to their students, the teachers are not expected or trained to exhibit Social Emotional Competence (SEC) themselves. “[F]ew teachers,” the report’s authors state, “are offered professional development to nurture their own social and emotional competence” (p. 10). But, the authors claim, “[t]eachers receiving coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students have led to a significant increase in student achievement [citation], suggesting that systematic and sustained coaching supports may be a critical component of SEL interventions for teachers” (p. 8).

Bottom line: Teachers need support and training in SEL. They need it for their own sakes — for their own health and wellness. But they need it for their students’ sakes as well. And, given the importance to human society of well-adjusted, mentally balanced, productive citizens, they need it for the world’s sake!

So what would teachers’ SEL look like? What kind of “coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students” would teachers welcome? What kind of training would they seek out? What would their schools provide and for how long? Given its foundational relationship to effective teaching and learning, why isn’t this kind of support and training available on every school campus?

I actually offer this kind of support. And I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your answers!




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