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We See You: Recognizing the Emotional Labor of Educators

By Ashley Previte

Teaching is the way you have chosen to change the world — and kudos to you for teaching your heart out! But being so deeply invested also means being vulnerable. And that can take a serious emotional toll. Here’s the deal: The emotional labor of teaching is real. And when we don’t talk about it and release it, it can begin to fester into dissatisfaction, lowered performance, depression, and, ultimately, burnout. But you don’t have to let this happen to you! By learning how to cope with the emotional impact, you can keep your head up and your outlook bright. And we’ve got the top tips to help you do just that. 

What is emotional labor?

Teachers are faced with more than 100 decisions every day. And so many of those revolve around managing emotions. Emotional labor is the practice of managing one’s own feelings in order to manage others. It often includes managing feelings and expressions through both surface- and deep-acting. 

Think of surface-acting as the “fake it til you make it” mentality. Emotions are displayed even when they aren’t felt. 

Deep-acting requires the shift in internal feelings to produce a more genuine display of emotion.

It’s the great paradox in teaching: Students bring out some of the strongest emotional reactions in their teachers but, for the sake and sanity of the classroom, teachers must demonstrate an illusion of calmness and complete control. 

Deciding when and how to express those emotions is all a part of the effort of emotional labor. 

It’s work that is often beneath the surface and unseen, but it is important and very, very hard.

Teachers must perform emotional labor on a minute-by-minute basis in tone, words, and body language. 

Most emotional labor comes from sources such as:

  • Passion to continually improve
  • Student experiences with trauma and teachers’ secondary traumas
  • Seemingly useless meetings and trainings
  • Pressures of the state mandates, testing, and grading
  • Financial strain

Knowing the emotional requirements of your job can help you plan for them. 

It’s never written in the job description but the most complex and invaluable aspects of teaching are in the emotional management of your students. They will learn their ABCs but they will also learn about forgiveness, sharing, and developing emotional intelligence.

Teaching is a truly emotional practice. It’s no secret that to touch the mind, one must first touch the heart. Teaching and learning both involve emotional compassion and understanding to be achieved. 

So how do we navigate this web of emotion that tangles everytime we try to find our way?

Every day, students enter your classroom with a range of emotions and emotional baggage. 

Sometimes you may feel as though you need to be unemotional to make space for their emotions. But don’t let that be the case. Your empathy and vulnerability is crucial to your job — the trick is in finding the right balance so you don’t begin to take ownership of your students’ emotional lives.

The general rule of emotions in teaching is to avoid expressing overly strong emotions, but to also avoid being too weak in the emotional connection with and reactions to your students as well. 

In Ken Winograd’s 2003 study, he identified 5 emotional rules of teaching:

  1. To love and to show enthusiasm for students
  2. To be enthusiastic and passionate about your subject matter
  3. To avoid the display of extreme emotions like anger, joy, and sadness
  4. To love your work
  5. To have a sense of humor and laugh at your own mistakes and the small slip-ups of students. 

Work on your emotional labor. 

  1. Know you are not alone. If you are going through an issue at school, it’s more than likely others have dealt with a similar situation. Discuss your issues with your mentor or another colleague. Don’t just gripe. Explain your situation and ask for guidance and advice. Pay attention to how others deal with situations and implement those strategies into your own. 
  2. Stay consistent. The number one rule that all teachers strive to meet is consistency. Consistency really can be a valuable tool for emotional labor. It can reinforce to students, parents, and administration that personal feelings aren’t in control, the rules are. Parents will challenge and students will question but, if you stay firm and stick to your expected rules, there will be no leg for them to stand on. 
  3. Reward yourself with the success stories. Save those notes, drawings, and tiny gifts from your students. Keep those graduation and wedding invitations. Each one is a personal message of gratitude from your students and their parents. On difficult days, taking the time to sift through some of those mementos can help you remember why you do the work you do. And make the emotional labor a bit more manageable. 
  4. Recognize your allies. Administrators are your bosses but they are also allies to your career. They want you to be successful. Often they can offer guidance to difficult situations with students or parents. They can act as a buffer or mediator between yourself and a student or parent. They can recommend professional development, strategies and techniques for the classroom, including the frustrations of day-to-day teaching. They can be there to help you set realistic expectations and help you create a happy and healthy classroom. 
  5. Touch the heart. You wouldn’t be a teacher if you didn’t love helping young minds grow. Making connections with your students is an important step. It’s not going to fix all the problems, but it will help you carry the emotional load that comes with teaching. Without personal connections, your teaching will become unbalanced, lack that motivational fire, and, more likely, become unsuccessful. Bad days, difficult behaviors, and challenging situations can be forgiven and worked through when caring is the connection. 
  6. Focus on the positive and try to let the negative go. They never told you this in college but you will spend sleepless nights working about your kids. But letting go of the emotional and mental struggles of school is important to your overall well-being. Easier said than done, yes. Think of it this way: If you cut your finger, you wouldn’t keep poking at it with a sharp knife. So why continue poking at your emotional wounds. Find a way to break those negative thoughts and feelings when you are at home. Create a work-life buffer that signals your mind and body to let school stresses go and focus on your home life.
  7. Be proactive. Develop coping strategies in advance of stressful situations. Strategies can be as simple as allowing yourself some wait time by counting to 5 or talking very softly to a student when you really want to yell. Eliminate emotional, unhelpful, spur-of-the-moment reactions by having a plan. 
  8. Make a time map. There may be times in your day when you struggle with emotional labor more than others. Map out your school day taking note of the moments when you feel the most stressed. It could be midday when students start to lose focus, a particular class period that requires more management, or the morning as you are preparing for the day. Take a moment to assess what the cause of the emotional stress may be and then implement coping strategies into your schedule for those times. Perhaps you need to lead the class in a quick group stretch with some deep breathing. Maybe you need to give yourself 30 seconds of palming. Or find an easy, two-minute distraction. Whichever coping strategy you apply, do it each day to help alleviate some of the stress before it begins. 
  9. Take care of yourself. Teacher self-care should be in every teacher training program. After all, you can’t take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Strive for work-life balance. Respect your own time, learn to say no more, and love your family fiercely. Learn to recharge and rejuvenate yourself in the evenings, weekends, and vacations. Don’t worry, school will be there on Monday. 

As a teacher, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be everything to your students. But remember: YOU are already enough. You deserve the credit. Don’t forget that.

Ashley is an award-winning copywriter and content expert with more than a decade of proven results for national and local clients. From brainstorming high-end conceptual content to styling sentences that engage and convert, she’s got a knack for shattering the status quo. When she’s not in full-on writing mode, she’s hanging out with her rascal of a puppy and discussing the plausibility of unicorns with her 8-year-old daughter.

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