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