Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Who Is Taking Care of Teachers?

The emotional drain of teaching too often goes unacknowledged
By H. Richard Milner IV — May 08, 2018 3 min read
Illustration of a figure under duress.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I have been conducting professional development with teachers in schools for about 16 years. Most of that work has taken place in urban and rural communities—places where students and their parents may live below the poverty line, where schools are seeing increasing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, and where more and more students’ first language may not be English. Most of my professional-development sessions focus on curriculum and instructional practices that teachers might consider to more closely align with students’ cultural practices and needs.

Although many of the issues educators (and students) raise are similar to those I heard in 2002, what I hear and observe among teachers now points to their psychological and emotional strain. As the focus on student test scores increased over the years, teachers began to appear more emotionally drained by their work. I hear about this exhaustion both from teachers who are early in their careers and those who are seasoned. They teach in the core academic areas as well as elective areas. They are racially and ethnically diverse; they are male and female. They are both LGBTQ+ and not.

During a recent professional-development session in the Northeast, a teacher expressed that his high school students were unmotivated about their school work and did not “care” about school. Another teacher countered this view: She talked about the local factory that had recently closed, which resulted in the unemployment of many parents. She talked about the strain the families felt to make ends meet and how many students were working part-time jobs, caring for younger siblings, and helping to support their families financially. She was passionate and resolute in her desire to offer a counter, more nuanced story of the students they both taught.

Who is ensuring that teachers have what they need to remain whole?

She began to cry during her account of what was happening with her students. Other teachers, including the teacher who initially lamented his students’ and their parents’ disinterest in school, began weeping. More teachers chimed in, sharing what they observed among their students and their families. They, too, wept.

I listened and observed intently. The teachers seemed to struggle with classroom management. They talked about the strain of responding to students after their classmates had been killed. They talked about students’ academic gaps from elementary and middle school that they were expected to address now that the students were in high school. They talked about challenges with social media and how students were misusing technology. They talked about how some students were being bullied by their classmates. They talked about feeling undersupported, forgotten, and misunderstood by their local boards of education.

But they also talked about how tired and frustrated they were. The common theme among these accounts was a sense of emotional drain and strain. The teachers, like their students, were hurting.

As teachers are working to meet the needs of their students, who is taking care of them? Who is ensuring that teachers have what they need to remain whole and emotionally and psychologically healthy? Teachers’ emotional struggles have a direct influence on their practices and interactions with students. People who are hurting tend to hurt others, whether consciously or unconsciously. We must care about our teachers. This will help them, and our students will benefit.

Although not the focus of our professional-development session, it was clear that I needed to provide some concrete examples of how teachers could take care of themselves and support each other. I suggested they exercise, check in with each other on a regular basis, retreat to take regular opportunities to rest and recharge, talk with a non-evaluator about what they are experiencing, and keep a journal about their feelings.

However, it is increasingly clear that systemically and institutionally, schools and districts have not fared well in supporting the emotional, affective, and psychological health of teachers. Teachers are grappling with and working through traumatic situations. The same is certainly true for students. Much more attention needs to be placed on helping teachers identify emotionally strenuous conditions and offering methods for improving those conditions. As teachers develop a repository to address their struggles, they will be better equipped to support their students.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Emotional Drain of Teaching

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession What New Teachers Need
Ideas from the real world on making teachers' first years less overwhelming and more fulfilling.
5 min read
Illustration of a classroom diorama sitting on a student desk.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Teaching Profession Opinion This Year Almost Drove Me Out of Teaching. The Right Leader Made Me Stay
After seven years teaching and one class away from becoming an education specialist, I have seen the highs and lows of education leadership.
Samantha Richardson
4 min read
Illustration of woman sitting on a mountain top looking into the distant landscape.
iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Maryland Teacher Wins $1 Million Global Prize
Keishia Thorpe received the prize for her work teaching immigrant and refugee students and helping them attend college.
2 min read
This photo provided by the Varkey Foundation shows Keishia Thorpe. The Maryland high school English teacher, who has worked to open up college education for her students, has won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. The Varkey Foundation announced Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, that Thorpe, who teaches at International High School at Langley Park in Prince George’s County in Maryland, was selected from more than 8,000 nominations and applications from 121 countries around the world.
Keishia Thorpe, who has worked to open up college education for her students, has won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.
Varkey Foundation via AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Teachers Need Therapy. Their Schools Should Pay for It
You can’t have student mental well-being without investing in the adults around them, argues clinical psychologist Megan McCormick.
Megan McCormick
5 min read
Illustration of nurturing.
Laura Baker/Education Week and Ponomariova_Maria/iStock/Getty, DigitalVision Vectors