I have been asking questions about this adventure called teaching a lot this year. Why is teaching so different from other professions? What sets teaching apart from all else?
And then, one afternoon, my answer was experienced. I had a momentary swirly eddy of stress that day – the kind that seems to pop up out of nowhere amid the general thrumming of my classroom. In the teaching world, these are much like a bull ride; wild and crazy, but usually much longer than eight seconds. I captured the moment in a conscious stream of thought during my lunch break that day. Here it is:
“Five minutes to lunch – a middle schooler is on full meltdown because her PowerPoint did not save and she will JUST DIE if she has to redo it. I begin the search on her very old, very slow computer. All the while, another kid is spitting mad that so-and-so stole his mechanical pencil lead (mechanical pencil lead…the bane of my existence!). Another student tips back and falls out of his chair and hits his head…yet again. He is sent to the office to get an ice pack, only after it is determined through a ro-sham-bo who gets to walk him down so he “doesn’t concuss and stuff” (his words, not mine). I make a note to check his pupils when he returns and to give his mom a call at lunch. PowerPoint girl is still melting down. “I HAVE TO HAVE IT!” Computer is Still. So. Slowly. Searching. An ironic counterpoint to the frenzy. A kid (you know the one) brings up a book that has the last 20 pages missing and the NEED to finish it RIGHT NOW to take a reading test – do I have the same book? (How did you not notice the gaping spot where the pages should have been?)
Teachers teach students far more than just content every single moment of every single day. There is a concept in neuroeducation called mirror neurons. This concept holds that when a person witnesses an action or emotional response to an event, areas of their own brains light up as if they themselves had participated in the action of event. It is one reason why athletes are able to use visualization techniques to perfect a move.
More importantly for educators, it is the reason why students sense our reactions and moods surrounding events and build these into their own schemas of emotional regulation as to how they should respond to such stress in the future. If we get angry and frustrated in dealing with the on-going stresses in our classroom, students learn to get angry and frustrated too when they feel stressed. If we approach stress as simply a part of teaching and can detach ourselves from its grip enough to just witness it as a response to events unfolding, we are far more like to respond calmly. Students “mirror” this calm in their own brains.
Teaching is unlike any other profession in that we must keep our game-face on the entire workday; there is no escape – no cubicle to retreat to, no office door to shut, no water cooler to take a quick walk to just to get some perspective. No, we must stand in our shoes and cope with the constant thinking/decision-making/problem-solving and the constant calling out of our names. There is no retreat.
We handle this all not to just keep our jobs or even to check a box on the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model. (There is no box for it anyway.) No, we manage our emotions because we have students watching us, learning from us and ultimately becoming us. That is a heavy burden to carry and is one of the things that sets teaching apart from other professions. When my Bored Teachers feed pops up on Facebook with its funny “stressed to the max teacher” memes, it reminds me I am not alone. This burden is carried by many hands.
Yet, there is always a grain of truth in humor. The Bored Teachers memes speak to the stress inherent in teaching that sometimes can be overwhelming. It is this type of stress that was examine in the Quality of Worklife Survey of over 30,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers. Some striking findings? Overall, 73% of respondents stated their workday was often stressful. With this high of a percentage of stressed teachers, it is not surprising 26% of respondents say that in the last 30 days, their mental health (stress, depression, emotional challenges) was not good for 9 or more days. Whoa. This is not good for teachers and certainly not good for students.
The world of learning has embraced the importance of teaching social emotional regulation for students. But what about teachers? Bearing in mind the aforementioned survey’s findings, it would be wise on many levels to allocate professional development dollars providing teachers with high-end stress management strategies for regulating in the moment. Imagine a classroom with a teacher at the helm who had learned powerful insights into their own emotional reactions to students’ behaviors alongside strategies for how to stay calm throughout the swirling stress eddies of the day. That is a powerful learning environment.
Phone rings – no more ice packs for chair tipper; sending him back with a Ziplock full of ice. (I know this will be leaking within minutes of the kid’s return and he will be eating the ice, which will irritate the kids around him.) Oh! Blessed relief! Pencil boy found his lead. But, now he refuses to apologize to the accused. Accused is red-faced mad, but sitting in silence, arms crossed. I make another mental note to pull both of them out of the lunch line for a quick chat to resolve this when everyone is a little cooler.And then the magic…THE POWERPOINT IS FOUND! A gush of intense joy! Big hug!
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mrs. C, you saved me!”
“You are welcome,” I say as I steal a peek at the rescued PowerPoint.
It consisted of one, single slide with a title on it. “Freinds” -misspelled and all.
The lunch bell rings.