The emotional toll of teaching.

I was in the #edchat on this past Tuesday evening (you can read about my reflection on that chat HERE) and the topic of the day was all about rejuvenation. How do teachers rejuvenate themselves during the school year. It was a great conversation and I found many interesting, useful ideas to use in my own practice.

What no one mentioned, and what I would like to talk about today, is why teachers need to find ways to rejuvenate themselves during the school year. Why is that in a profession like teaching, where most people get into it for the passion they have to help others learn, that they are overworked, stressed out, physically and emotionally drained so quickly? We are taught growing up that to achieve satisfaction in your career you must look for a job that you love. One that you look forward to each and every day. If you ask a teacher if they feel that way about their profession they will most often reply that they too love what they do and look forward to going in and working with their students.

Why then are teachers so wiped out and in need of rejuvenation?

To me it comes down to a combination of factors.

  1. New teachers getting into the profession don’t fully understand the rigors and demands of teaching so they overwork themselves (personal experience)
  2. The lack of time to create meaningful experiences for students leaves teachers constantly working overtime.
  3. There is no such thing as “leave work at work”. Grading becomes a part of every teacher’s family life.
  4. The constant indignation of parents, friends, general public and media who bombard teachers with the notion that they can teach better (because it’s soooooo easy). They constantly impose solutions for what is ‘wrong’ with education.

While these all contribute to the drain on teachers’ batteries the single most draining factor that I can think of is this:

Teachers care too much

Teachers are in many ways a surrogate parent, counselor, friend, mentor, et al. for each and every student they have ever taught. They sit with them through difficult math problems. Work with them after school in a sports team practice. Model how to carry yourself through difficult life lessons of disappointment and disillusionment. Going to school recitals when you don’t have children of your own in them. Provide comfort and support when a friendship breaks down or a fight with a parent or sibling. The amount of energy it takes to genuinely care for each student that has ever walked through the classroom door is truly overwhelming. Most people don’t realize that the real teachers are the ones who are always there for their students beyond what content they teach.

When people are working as part of the work force, there is little ‘failure’ on a daily basis. You have trained for your profession and have tasks to get done. That’s why you were hired. Once those tasks are done you go home, have a beer, eat some dinner and watch some Netflix. For a teacher what we have been trained for is to have patience with students who encounter failure on a daily basis. The energy it takes to sit with someone day in and day out, often with tears in their eyes, while they work through yet another perceived failure until they overcome that obstacle has the potential to drain every bit of energy from you. Now imagine having over a hundred students that you do that for every single day.

Teachers give their compassion, their empathy, their patience, and their heart to each and every student. Every day. They give without expectation that any is given in return. They give of themselves so much that there is often very little to give at home to friends and family. I didn’t get into education right out of school. I spent almost 8 years in the professional workforce working for a big bank, a high tech recruiting firm, waiting tables, National Park Service and working in a bar. I can tell you from my personal experience that teaching leaves me so tired at the end of each day that I often crash on the couch before most prime time shows come on. Yet I find myself excited to go in every morning and see the kids who want so much to learn.

The reward and the rejuvenation often comes from the smallest of things. For me it’s when a former student comes back to visit class and just says “Thank you”, or turns to my current class and says, “Listen to Mr. Spiegel, he is still one of my favorite teachers and I’m in college now”. The best though is when a student comes back to visit who had a hard time in 6th grade and just wants to come in and tell me that s/he is O.K. now and that they appreciated that I never gave up on them. That instantly recharges all of my reserves and batteries to dive back into the trenches for each of my one hundred students.

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