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Teachers Need Social-Emotional Learning Too

Teacher burnout leads to more student stress.

Source: Iofoto/Dreamstime

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest buzzword in the world of education is social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning refers to seeing teaching outside the realm of just content and helping students grow mentally, emotionally, and socially. In particular, it requires being in tune with the mental health and trauma of students.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a credible pioneer in the field, social-emotional learning refers to helping students apply skills to “develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals.” Recently, it has also encompassed making students more aware of what healthy relationships entail and how to make better decisions.

Social-emotional learning is a welcome addition to education that has been punitive for too long. However, a big frustration for teachers is that social-emotional learning applies to students, but not teachers. While we need to treat students with grace and understanding when it comes to their trauma and mental health needs, any teacher can tell you that multiple times in their career, they were not given the same luxuries.

To be fair, teachers are paid professionals who should suck it up and do their jobs, right? What do they need to complain about? Why can’t teachers stop whining and complaining?

While I agree that sometimes discussions among teachers can lead to too much negativity, a competition over who has suffered the most, and a therapy session in blowing off steam, those discussions are that way for a reason. According to the Department of Education, more than half of teachers in the United States don’t feel supported. Forty-four percent of teachers leave education in the first five years.

Right now, the culture for recruiting new teachers into the classroom and getting them to stay in the classroom is “throw them all to the wall and see who sticks.” It’s baptism by fire. New teachers are routinely given the hardest classes and most difficult kids in a way that feels like hazing. And then many teachers are penalized for not working miracles. Most teachers come into the profession idealistic, but those who leave feel incredibly disillusioned, cynical, and jaded. If you want to do a job to make money, you can do many other things with a Bachelor’s degree.

There is no virtue in being in survival mode all the time. There is no virtue in extreme suffering. There is no virtue in feeling like you’re being hazed. There is no virtue in being sick for a quarter of the year and being forced to come in anyway. There is no virtue in feeling extreme guilt about having to take a day off, wondering about how you’re burdening your administrators and co-workers. There is no virtue in being so tired and stressed all the time you can barely think.

So let me say it loud and clear — teachers need social-emotional learning too. And if you want a better education system, the best way to take care of the kids is to make sure that the people who interact most with the kids are taking care of themselves.

I want to give a concession first that there’s too much scapegoating and “who’s at fault for all of education’s problems” in education discourse right now. Teachers blame administrators for making their lives hell. Administrators blame teachers for not being able to work miracles. Parents blame administrators and teachers for not being able to work miracles as well. Politicians blame schools for not fixing systemic racism, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and not being the best daycare centers in the world.

To say teaching is a stressful job is an understatement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I need to call students to wake up to come to class. There are several students whose parents have stopped answering my calls because I call every single day, asking if they can log on.

As a special educator, I have 23 kids on my caseload. If you know anything about special ed, it is a whole lot of paperwork. Every individualized education plan (IEP) I write for one of my students takes at least two hours to get right for the students and to also make sure my school doesn’t get sued. This week, I had four IEP meetings to compound with my daily obligation to teach and attend meetings. I’m not saying special ed teachers have it harder than general ed teachers — we deal with smaller class sizes. But it is a lot more backend work and tailoring education to each student's unique needs. It is also the job with the most legal liability.

Research shows that less stressed teachers equal better teachers. And better teachers lead to better outcomes for students.

As noted in this McGraw-Hill post:

“When teachers struggle to manage stress and emotions, students’ academic performance and behavior are generally also weaker.”

And so, teachers need to build their own social-emotional learning because stress is often contagious. The above post cites one study where more teacher stress and burnout led to more student stress.

So what can teachers do to build social-emotional learning?

Everyone has a different way of dealing with stress. And no — the solution is not alcohol. Every teacher can probably tell you about the Friday afternoons at the bar that quickly got out of hand because everyone was so stressed out they could barely function.

I can talk about what I do, but what works for me doesn’t work for everyone.

One solution is simple — stop working so damn much. Teaching is a job that requires significant work outside the workplace, which includes grading, planning, and IEP writing. It requires outreach and parent phone calls, as well as engaging every stakeholder. Most of my veteran teacher peers have a separation between work and home. Once they leave the building, they don’t work.

Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic, that isn’t always possible. However, one thing that has worked for me is setting a cut-off time. After 6 p.m., I stop doing anything teaching related. I write. I watch TV. I play video games. I attend to whatever I need to do. But I won’t work.

According to Johanna Rauhala at Edutopia, teachers need boundaries. Rauhala says there are limits to teachers’ time and energy. Teachers, and especially new teachers, need to learn to say no. You won’t please everyone. And you won’t be a superhero. And that means divorcing yourself from outcomes sometimes.

“Sometimes, no matter what we say or do, no matter how many meetings or phone calls or emails we have about a student, no matter how much time and energy we put into adapting and consideration, things don’t improve. They may even get worse.”

Rauhala urges teachers to stop overextending themselves because they can only do so much. Recognizing you’re not a savior is essential, especially early on.

Another important thing to prioritize is sleep. While that might sound obvious, it’s easy to cut off 30 minutes of sleep to finish a report due in the morning or finish grading. But sleep is not important for only teachers' well-being, but for students' well-being too. Julia Watson at Optimus Education refers to sleep as a necessity, not a luxury. Most teachers need at least 7 hours of sleep a night, and if they’re not getting that sleep due to extenuating circumstances, research shows that taking naps around 26 minutes per day improved job performance by 34%.

And lastly, have a life. After new teacher training sessions, I will always remember when I got wings with my friends and peers at night, and we just talked for hours. No, I didn’t get much work done that night, but I don’t know how I would have made it through that first year without that solidarity and camaraderie; the knowledge that as bad as things were, I was not in it alone.

Social-emotional learning is essential for education. It's not just essential for students, but teachers, administrators, and anyone who works within the system. This is tireless and often thankless work. The kids need and deserve people who take care of themselves.

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