By the End of My Third Year, I Was in Therapy. We Must Start Taking Teachers' Emotional Health Seriously.

Jun 11, 2019 12:00:00 AM


We all know the female elementary school teacher stereotype, perhaps best portrayed by the iconic Jessica Day from New Girl: bubby, cheerful, exquisitely put-together, good, meek, nice singer, nice dresser...nice, nice, nice. And, most importantly: always happy.

But teaching can make a person feel anything but happy. Like most first-year teachers, I felt stressed and anxious due to the overwhelming workload. Though my wonderful students provided many moments of comic relief and deep joy, for most of my first year of teaching I did not feel happy. At times, I didn’t even want to introduce myself as an elementary school teacher, for fear I would be seen as “cutsie” and I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a professional.

Other pressures are involved, too. Teachers may experience vicarious trauma as they develop close relationships with traumatized students. They may feel sadness, anger and frustration, as they relentlessly seek to improve the educational outcomes of struggling students. These negative emotions can prove overwhelming, too. By the end of my third year of teaching, I was attending therapy—something I’d never felt I so strongly needed before.

On Top of Everything Else, Teaching Demands Emotional Labor

Teaching is profoundly demanding work: socially, intellectually and emotionally. With the exception of parenting, few other jobs expect a human to be quite so unconditionally kind and patient. And teachers must maintain patience daily with many, many small humans—humans who don’t always make it easy to express no-strings-attached love. In fact, of all the helping professions, some researchers have found that teaching is among the most emotionally draining.

Moreover, teachers feel pressure not to express negative emotions. Common sense agrees with the research: it’s better if teachers don’t scream at students or break down sobbing in front of them. However, [pullquote position="right"]teachers get very little guidance about how to express and regulate their emotions and little time or space in which to attend to the hard feelings produced by such a demanding job.[/pullquote] Oftentimes, what rules exist are not explicit directives, but social norms like the ones I feared my first year of teaching: teachers should always be bubbly and cheerful.  

In the 1980s, a sociologist named Arlie Hochschild examined these types of emotional pressures and coined a term for them: emotional labor. First observed among flight attendants, emotional labor is the concept that in certain jobs, emotions become a commodity that the employer controls. Employees must display certain types of emotions while working or face negative professional consequences. In response to these display rules, employees often suppress or fake their natural emotions, which is called surface acting. However, employees can also reappraise their emotional triggers and genuinely feel a different emotion: engaging in what is called deep acting.

Teachers everywhere face high emotional demands and often engage in both surface and deep acting to project “better” or “more appropriate” emotions toward the students. But these two strategies have very different results for teachers. Surface acting hurts teachers and leads to emotional exhaustion. Deep acting and genuine expression of emotions, however, don’t have the same effect. Overall, teachers who reappraise generally have more self-efficacy, better job satisfaction and are better equipped to help their colleagues.

Social-Emotional Learning Isn’t Just for Kids—Teachers Need It, Too

For teachers who are already emotionally drained, it may seem counter-intuitive to ask them to deploy the extra cognitive resources required to pause and ask themselves: why am I feeling this way? What’s another possible way to appraise this situation and understand my triggers? But taking a few seconds to reappraise actually saves teachers from emotional exhaustion and burnout in the long term, and allows teachers to reconsider the ways they are both receiving and delivering emotional cues to students.

Most pre-service training programs don’t include any work on emotions or psychology. Though social-emotional learning is gaining popularity as a strategy to help students, it’s time we also develop the social and emotional competencies of educators themselves. [pullquote]Teachers’ emotions, mishandled, not only jeopardize their own professional success, but can also contribute to punitive discipline, low academic achievement, and the exclusion of youth from the classroom.[/pullquote]

We need to stop viewing teachers and their emotions as meek, passive and “cutsie.” Teachers are warriors who need every possible tool to fight for students’ futures. Learning the vocabulary of emotional regulation and reappraisal is a useful tool they should have.

Kristabel Stark

Kristabel Stark is an educator and doctorate student in special education at Boston University. Her research examines the impact of teachers' professional identity and mental health on the education of students with disabilities.

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