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Teachers open up about their emotional challenges

by Sara Correnti, Manager, Health & Welfare Member Wellness Products
Globe with teachers in front of it - illustrated

COVID’s restrictions have caused many to shift from what’s normal to take on new roles. For many parents that means now being a teacher. I’ve heard parents singing the praises of their children’s teachers after being in their shoes the past 6-8 weeks. Some parents are realizing, maybe for the first time, just how big a teacher’s commitment is to the kids in their classrooms.

To kick off our Mental Health Awareness month, which also happens to start with Teacher Appreciation Week, 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 is impacting them. Undoubtedly, their job is challenging so I also wanted to hear how they cope and what they have to say to someone who may be struggling in the role they were called to serve.

Emotions of a teacher

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.

What a load to carry – their own emotions, those of their students and possibly the students’ families, too. They also aim to be advocates for healthy children and healthy families. That’s already a lot, but now, in this pandemic, there’s more…

Added challenges, added emotions

The COVID pandemic has added to the emotional load for teachers. First, the pressure is heavy on them to keep the classroom going, as well as keep students engaged and learning all while figuring out new technology. Teachers try to be a source of comfort for their students, and the teachers I spoke to said they try not to let the pressure show in order to not detract from learning or add to their students’ emotions during this time.

Then to miss the connection they have with their students and miss not being able to be with them through their own struggles takes a toll on them.

“These are my kids,” Beth said.

Teachers take their roles to heart and that means taking their students into their hearts. Not being able to be connected in person to the ones they love is an emotional challenge.

Additionally, the abrupt end to the year is leaving teachers to navigate even more emotions. Cathy described the feeling as grief when talking about the sudden end of the school year. “I don’t know which students or position I will have next year. Thinking that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my kids, that I may never see them again, brings on grief.”

On top of grief, there is the worry. For teachers that are being laid off, financial fears are creeping in. Not knowing where their paycheck will come from next week, next month or next school year inevitably plays into their mental health. And to compound it, if their teaching position provides the health insurance for their family, they worry that if the pandemic hits their family, will they even be able to afford the care they’d need?

Emotions on top of emotions. Some of joy and happiness that they are called to serve in such an impactful position. But some of anxiety and sadness around their financial security and caring for the whole child sitting in each classroom seat. So much to process for them, how do they handle it?

Coping

We’ve heard that teachers not only have their own emotions to process, but potentially the emotions of their students and their students’ families. Now the pandemic is layering on even more emotions. 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.