the emotional weight of teaching

Mood Meter (2)

It’s not quite over yet. The last day for students for us isn’t until Tuesday- but it’s finally the end of the school year. This was Year 5 for me, and I feel… tired. Drained, even. It’s not unusual to be exhausted and counting down the hours until summer break. But this year felt more emotionally heavy than previous years.

I know other teachers in other schools deal with a lot more emotional trauma than I’ve come across these past five years. I work in a school where it seems like everything is fine and great, and it always seems like most of our students have (relatively) stable home lives. I spent my first four years teaching focusing on the teaching – the lesson plans, the curriculum, the classroom structures. And sometimes, when you’re focus on those things, it’s easy to ignore things that may be happening underneath the surface. But this year, maybe because I’ve had to spend less time and energy on the day-to-day of teaching, I’ve been more aware of and more worn out by the things that may have just slipped under my radar before.

My colleague and friend started a student-teacher mentor program, where at-risk students in our school were paired with a one-on-one teacher mentor. Partly because of this program, partly because mental health just came more on my radar this year, I’ve become more aware of the issues that some of our students face, and more than once I found myself on the verge of tears as I’ve found out more about what my students are going through. I attended a Mental Health First Aid course this spring, which was super useful (and I would definitely recommend it to any teacher or anyone who works with youth), but also emotionally exhausting to think about all of the students who may need help and may not be getting it right now, for a variety of reasons.

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m having regular interactions with upperclass students. I had a junior homeroom this year and we implemented a more advisory-type thing in our school with social/emotional check-ins on early release Fridays, roughly 2x’s/month, so I had more regular interactions with students who are clearly stressed about their grades, test scores, and futures. How do I help students manage this stress, and also help them get some perspective that their high school grades are not the arbiter of their success as adults? How do I do this in a way that is helpful and authentic, and not patronizing or dismissive of their very real feelings in this moment?

There was also the never-ending news cycle of Something Terrible happening in the world. It seemed like every day, there was something new and (from my perspective, somewhat horrifying) happening and it was both hard to keep track of and hard to avoid. In particular, some of the stories that have come to light with the #MeToo movement hit really close to home in the school setting, and that’s been hard and uncomfortable.

And then, school shootings were both in your face and under the radar this year. My sister semi-joked after the Parkland, FL shooting that she was considering getting her young kids bullet proof backpacks and then suggested that actually, I might need it more. When the Santa Fe, TX shooting happened last month (only last month!), one of my students commented “10 people died and no one is talking about it.” There was a shooting at a middle school in Indiana, just a few days after the Santa Fe shooting, which hits close to home on a number of levels. A teacher tackled the shooter, and I’ve had conversations with my colleagues – would you or wouldn’t you step in front of a shooter to save your students? What kind of world do we live in that teachers even have to think about this? I used to think lockdown drills were just something you do, but this year, the possibility of a school shooting made our most recent lock down drill emotionally difficult for me as I found myself running through scenarios – what would we do if there was actually an active shooter in the school?

I can’t tell if there was actually more going on this school year than normal, or if it’s been about the same level of emotional turmoil and I was just more aware of it this year. I can see why teachers quit, particularly in the schools where students are dealing with much more overt social/emotional/mental health needs. Sometimes, the emotional weight of teaching feels like it’s too much, and we all (teachers and students alike) need a break.

And yet, I am hopeful for the next school year, despite the exhaustion of this one. In some ways, there’s not a lot I can do about the Terrible Things that are happening in the world at large or about the risk of school shootings. But I am hopeful that I can find ways to better address my students’ social/emotional/mental health needs. That I can better acknowledge them as people and all of the stuff they are going through (even if it’s “just” the “normal” experience of being a teenager, which can feel traumatic all on its own). And I am hopeful that the conversations that we’re having- at my school, with friends and family, in the world at large – will make us more thoughtful, reflective, and lead us towards positive change. Let us do the small things with great love.

We can do no great things — only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa

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