COVID-19's brought home just how big a teacher’s commitment is to the kids in their classrooms. In early 2019, I spent time talking to two teachers to see emotional health from their eyes. I wanted to hear what they struggle with and how COVID was impacting them. These interviews are a great reminder of the challenges teachers faced then and now, with carrying the emotional burdens of their responsibility.
Teachers Express Emotion Differently
We have all positive and negative emotions, teachers included. However, expressing those emotions looks a bit different for teachers.
“You have to lock up [your emotions] in a sense,” one teacher I spoke with said when asked about her emotions and working in the classroom. “Not because you feel pressured to ignore them but because you don’t want the kids to pick up on your feelings. Kids are very empathetic, and I wouldn’t want them to take on my emotions because some may be too big for them.”
Teachers are tasked with managing their emotions to protect their students and foster learning. But teachers also take care of the emotional needs of their students in order to ensure they have a conducive learning environment. The same teacher said, “I sit with them in their feeling, helping them identify it and then talk about how it’s ok to feel them.”
Teachers may walk into the classroom with emotions that they have to put on pause for the sake of their class. At times, they may also leave with the emotions of their students.
The weight of their own emotions is enough to take a toll on them mentally, much less than the additional emotions of their students.
Sometimes it’s the struggles within the classroom they help their students with, but sometimes it’s something happening outside of it.
Beth, another teacher I spoke with, said, “We need to be there, to help families. We sit with them in their feelings, validating them.”
Beth said she feels it’s her duty to serve not only the child, but the entire family, sometimes beyond learning the curriculum.
Teachers take their roles to heart and that means taking their students into their hearts. Emotions on top of emotions. Some of joy and happiness that they are called to serve in such an impactful position. So much to process for them, how do they handle it?
How Teachers Can Cope
It’s important to properly deal with emotions because without addressing them, they can take a toll on mental health.
Both teachers I spoke with shared coping methods that have proven beneficial. The first teacher I spoke with talked about her experience with a counselor. She learned to express her feelings more freely, something that wasn’t modeled for her growing up. Refining the skill of expressing emotions has helped her positively cope with stressors in her personal and professional life, improving her overall mental health.
Beth told me she was taught from a young age about emotions. “I was taught to look at the positives, to find gratitude, but also then venture out and check on others’ [emotional state].”
Beth’s parents had instilled in her how to positively cope with emotions and encouraged her to stay connected to others and ask about their emotional state, which prepared her well for her role as teacher. In that role, she checks in on her students and their families – whether it’s in the classroom, with their feelings or with their faith. Serving others like this often leads to taking on their emotions, which can take a toll on her mental health. Her awareness of what affects her has led her to find simple things, such as walking and journaling, that help her to maintain a healthy mental state.
Appreciation: Be like Beth.
We’ve talked about how teachers are stressed just like the rest of us. And that they have their own challenges in their role that adds to their mental load. What can you do for your mental health this week?
Beth says she shows appreciation for any silver lining she finds in life. This serves her well and can serve you well too; appreciation is tied to positive mental health. Regular appreciation and positive thinking can take space over negative thinking and then, over time, it can become the default thinking pattern of your brain. (How cool, right?!?)
Get a jump start on building that positive thinking. We encourage you to show appreciation for workers (or really anyone!). This week, select a teacher that has positively impacted the life of you or your children, letting them know you understand their struggles and you want them to be encouraged and uplifted now more than ever. The sentiment will boost their mental health as well as yours.