When Educators Learn to Safeguard Their Own Well-Being, Everyone Wins
December 3, 2020
December 3, 2020
If you’re an educator trying to make your way through life and school during this pandemic and you hear something like, “Just suck it up: Keep your head down and put your feelings aside,” you don’t have to listen.
Your emotions matter. Christina Cipriano and Marc Brackett, leaders of the Child Study Center at Yale University, have research to back it up. Here are five reasons they say educators should be paying attention to their emotions, pandemic or not:
Research by Cipriano, Brackett, and others has shown two possible protective factors for teachers’ emotional well-being. First, teachers with more developed emotion skills tend to report less burnout and greater job satisfaction. These skills include the ability to recognize emotions accurately, understand their causes and consequences, label them precisely, express them comfortably and regulate them effectively. But the challenge is that most teachers have not received a formal education in emotion skills.
Second, teachers who work in a school with an administrator with more developed emotion skills tend to experience fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions. These teachers also are likely to have better-quality relationships with their students. When students have stronger connections with their teachers, they, in turn, are more engaged and committed to learning; they’re also more willing to take risks and persist in the face of difficulty.
We need to be paying attention to educators’ health and well-being now, not only so we all get through this pandemic in as healthy a way as possible, but so we’re psychologically ready to get back to school and school buildings afterward.
Getting a handle on our emotions sounds great, and we’ve probably all heard various suggestions on how best to do it. There are, in fact, time-tested things you can do to keep or regain your emotional balance. Experts encourage you to take it slowly, not looking for miracles right away. Here are some good approaches, created for educators and drawn from several National Education Association sources.
Dwell on positives. Stop and think about things you’re truly grateful for. In the midst of even the most difficult times, there are still sources of gratitude to be found. Even small things count, like being grateful that two students are communicating or a way that you found to be encouraging to a student or colleague. Look around where you are, whether at home or in school, and find something to be grateful for. Writing down reasons for gratitude is often helpful, too.
Reframe negative thoughts. For example, you may think, in this example from Delaware teacher Wendy Turner, “Online learning is so hard. I hate it compared with regular school.” This thought can be reframed as, “I can get better at technology when I learn how to create online learning experiences for my students”; “I have more time for self-care when I work from home and don’t have a commute”; or, “I get to work in comfy sweats today.” Practice reframing, Turner says, and it will become automatic for you.
Build resiliency, just like you try to do with your students. California educator Melissa Holland suggests several ways you can do this, including setting realistic goals/expectations, not getting so set on a particular method or event that you lose your flexibility, build acceptance around some of the hard parts of your job, and use humor and kindness on yourself.
Schedule time for yourself. Do everything you can to make this a non-negotiable. Taking time out for whatever helps you stay regulated, which helps you be the very best version of yourself. This can be meditation, mindfulness exercises, or just some quiet time alone. It can be time to enjoy physical activity in a way that makes sense for you. Or try journaling, engaging in art activities, or listening to your favorite music several times a week, or daily, if you can. You can even turn car time into relaxation time if you try (this can be something as simple as bringing along your favorite tea or coffee for drive time).
“When I get home,” says Turner, “I check in with the kids, and, if no one needs anything urgently, I tell them I am off limits for an hour while I take care of me.”
Don’t allow yourself to become disconnected from others. Feeling alone is almost never helpful, especially when times are hard. Stay in contact with the important people in your life—family, friends, colleagues, neighbors—especially if you live alone. Schedule a phone conversation, video chat, or marathon texting session with a loved one or favorite friend at least once a week. Try to do so when your tank is closer to full than empty, so it’s a positive experience. Seek to encourage and build others up and it will likely have the same effect on you. A peer support group is also an excellent idea.
Breathe. Yup, just breathe. You may be surprised how your perspective can be affected by slowly taking several deep breaths, elongating your exhales as if you were blowing up a balloon.
Move. Walking, running, swimming—any activity that will get your heart pumping can be a real mood-shifter. A quick stroll in your neighborhood can work great.
Cut yourself some slack. Forgive yourself for anything that didn’t go well today, and move on. It’s a bonus if you can identify one good aspect of your day upon reflection. We regularly teach our students coping strategies for handling difficult emotions. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to embrace them yourself.
It’s OK to ask for help. When situations at school become difficult to bear, reach out for help. Tell a trusted administrator or colleague that you need a break or support. There are so many caring individuals in schools who will support you. You just have to ask. When physical and emotional symptoms begin to interfere with your ability to do your job and maintain positive relationships with friends and family, seek professional support from a licensed therapist or medical doctor.
According to Yale’s Cipriano and Brackett, putting our emotional needs in writing has a way of making them real. They say it can be a reminder when we’re anxious or frustrated and also play the part of a “contract” between ourselves and our colleagues (and even students and families) to help when we’re struggling.
Here are their thoughts on one method they use:
As part of RULER, our center’s approach to SEL, thousands of schools across the nation have gone through the process of creating an “Emotional Intelligence Charter” with their faculty and staff, with positive results.
The process of building a charter or agreement requires us to be vulnerable, and that can be hard, especially in times like these. And some educators are somewhat self-conscious and apprehensive about the process of asking colleagues how they want to feel. It can be scary. Often, how we want to feel is an indicator of what hasn’t been working at our schools. But we’ve found that when schools have the courage to ask, the benefits outweigh the risks.
A charter starts with a deceptively simple question: How do we want to feel as a faculty/staff? A principal or group of teachers can pose the question to the faculty and staff at their school. Once everyone shares their top three or four hoped-for feelings, the goal is to narrow them all down to a “top five” list reflective of the entire faculty.
The second question is: What do we need to do for everyone to feel this way? Here, faculty and staff share specific ideas that would support them in experiencing each of the feelings. The goal is to come up with two or three observable behaviors that are realistic and attainable for each feeling. For example, in order for teachers to feel supported around distance learning, what exactly will everyone agree to do differently so everyone feels supported? If teachers want to feel more valued, what are the specific things schools can do? Perhaps everyone can agree to respond to virtual inquiries in a timely manner.
Once the five feelings and related behaviors are compiled, the charter can be created and distributed to each member of the faculty and staff. In this virtual world of education, be creative about ways to disseminate it to everyone.
Importantly, the charter should be a living document—it will evolve as your learning community does throughout the pandemic. Consider weekly reflections and opportunities for teachers to share ideas based on their hoped-for feelings. For example, if teachers want to feel more engaged, perhaps create opportunities for them to share their best virtual lesson of the week and why it worked so well. Even weekly quotations that remind everyone about the desired feelings can help to sustain a positive climate. And when we are all finally able to return to our schools, it will be important to revisit the charter. How we want to feel and what we need to support our health and well-being is fluid.
In these difficult times, we must be proactive in caring for ourselves and our colleagues. No one has ever been an educator in these exact circumstances, and anxiety, stress, and burnout are becoming common.
The time has come for all schools to address the missing link in what will help educators thrive—a greater focus on all adults’ health and well-being. If we want our educators to be successful—both personally and professionally—schools must be places that bring out the best in them.
Materials from Christina Cipriano and Marc Brackett of the Child Study Center at Yale University used with their permission and that of EdSurge (edsurge.com).