"Teachers need social-emotional support too." 

We have finally reached an era where we can speak openly about providing students who need it some extra social and emotional supports. In some ways teachers have always quietly tried to do so in their classrooms and beyond. But what about those teachers who give support. . .work hard. . .give more . . .work harder and give yet again over and over, year after year? How can schools and teachers address SES needs to stay relatively happy and continually growing as professionals?

Every teacher struggles with overwhelm sometimes. Every year we are asked to implement new strategies that may or may not be of our own choosing. Many of us in international teaching are already trying to adapt to new schools, cities, languages, grade levels, curricula, clubs, and teammates along with our normal responsibilities.

Every teacher thinks all summer about the new units and strategies we want to try, yet by October our motivation can wane from the marathon nature of our daily grind. And of course, challenges occur outside of work, too. In 24 years of this I’ve helped teacher friends live through cancers, deaths, divorces, mental illness, abuse, and more. I’m not implying people in other fields don’t have similar stressors; just that we have a particular situation. We must prop ourselves up 100 times a day to be there for our students, a scenario in which we are always the providers of Social-Emotional Supports instead of the recipients.

These ponderings were jump-started by a podcast episode, “Managing Overwhelming Expectations,” from Teachers’ Aid, with Jon Harper and Mandy Froehlich in the Flipped Learning 3.0 Magazine. The discussion was in the context of teachers adopting blended learning strategies. The hosts Jon, Mandy and their guest, The Zen Teacher, Dan Tricarico, make some excellent points in their discussion about how challenging it can be to help anyone innovate, learn, change, or step outside their comfort zones when they are already working past capacity. We see this in students but why don’t we honor it in educators?

This following section of the article really resonated with me because of some other reading I’ve been doing about brain research and observing my own habits and thoughts. Not surprisingly monitoring our work habits and our self-talk seems to be a big part of what giving ourselves SES could be all about:

I think one really important thing that I’ve learned, and it’s going to sound like crazy talk to teachers, is the idea of single-tasking. You know, we all like to think we’re super smart, and we’re multi-taskers, and we can do all these things at once, and sometimes we have to. But what I’ve learned is if you stop and just concentrate on one thing and get it done, you feel this great sense of accomplishment, and then you can move on to the next thing and get it done, and then you get to look back on all these things that you’ve done well.  You feel like you’ve accomplished things, and you don’t feel like you’re not getting it all done, and maybe you can work a little bit less.

The other part of that is something that’s called context switching. And when you’re working on a project or something, and you switch off to look at Facebook or Twitter or email or talk to the kids or pet the dog, science says that it takes many, many minutes — I think last I heard, it was about 20 minutes — to get back into the groove of the project you were working on originally. But if you had just kind of blocked off that time and tackled it and gotten it done, you would have accomplished that thing, and then you actually get more done.” (Tricarico).

Going further, the hosts discuss how to get ourselves to start single-tasking in spite of our 100% normal fear that the important things won’t get done that way. The talk touches on some of the most popular time- and task-management systems of the day, then turns to one of my favorite topics: bullet journaling! (I even run a Bullet Journal Club at my school, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any way.) I grew very curious when I heard this next segment because I’m always trying to tweak my systems—to figure out what to track, what to leave out, which lists are useful, and which to throw out. Here’s Dan:

I’ve started working with a new system, and it sounds very much like what you’re talking about. I have something called a Bullet Journal, and you know, people can Google it, I won’t take up time explaining it. But I do just what you said. I call them MITs — Most Important Tasks. And I got that from somewhere, I don’t remember where, but I’ll write down my whole to-do list in the journal, but then I’ll write MITs, and I’ll pick three. And those are the big things; those are the big rocks I have to get done. Anything other than that is gravy. And then if I get to more of them, awesome. And then I migrate those to the next day, and then from that list, then other things will pop up, but then I pick the three MITs again. Sometimes it’s four; sometimes it’s five. And sometimes I don’t get to all of them. But, you know, if you pick those three most important tasks, that’s a good start I think (Tricarino).

He goes on to say how true 50/50 work-life balance is impossible; that we will be dividing our time and energies differently every day, every week, every year. Finally, Dan tells us how he makes peace within himself in this ninety-to-nothing, tech-frenzied world we live in:

Because even if things are crazy, if I know I’m making decisions that are based on where I wanna go and are in alignment with who I am, I feel better, because the guilt, resentment, and stress come from doing things that we just don’t want to do (emphasis added.) You know, we begrudge the committee we were on because we don’t have a passion for it or it’s not who we are. And that disconnect and discrepancy is where the stress rises.

Speaking of doing only those things we choose to do and those we carry a passion for, I wish I could agree with him 100%. However, so much of what teachers are required to do is definitely NOT our choice and passion, like high-stakes testing, constant meetings, clunky learning management systems, classroom discipline issues, and so on. Are all the initiatives that your job chooses the same ones you would choose for yourself? Is the curriculum or method your school demands always a good match with your beliefs about best practices? What’s the task-management system for that dissonance?

I am not being critical of Dan, Jon, or Mandy; they gave some great advice. I think their advice for getting unstuck and shedding teacher perfection guilt is spot on. However, I’m thinking of just how much deeper this runs.

Personally, I am lucky to be in a place where I mostly choose to be, within an organization that often coincide with my values and morals. It’s a pretty good match and I have some options should it stop being a good match. I am teaching internationally, which was a goal I waited 18 years to pursue. There were some really bad matches in my teaching career but as a single mom in a shrinking district, I had no choice but to make it work. My son is now grown and I am single, so I have more freedom than most to let that guilt burden go. (Now I have a new sort of pressure: can’t you stay longer, do more, sacrifice much—since you don’t have anyone at home? But that’s another blog post.)

In all seriousness, I feel deeply for the thousands of teachers who are not in a good place. My heart goes out to the thousands of public school teachers going through so much back in my home country — lack of respect, pay cuts, hurricanes, strikes, and school shootings. Their SES needs go so very, very far beyond the positive self talk, single-tasking and Getting Things Done systems.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with each of us to set goals and build frameworks that bring us to our happy places. Yes. We cannot blame the world if we stay too long in situations that don’t nourish us. But if they are to stay in the profession and find fulfilment there, teachers DO need socio-emotional help and support. They do need to hear respect and affirmation. They do need all the Employee Assistance Programs, paid sick leave, friends, loved ones, safe daycare, and appropriate prescription medications they can get. They need to take the occasional mental health day without getting shamed or having to fake physical illnesses. And they need to be able to actually take that day of rest without using it for marking, lesson plans, and curriculum mapping.

  • Perhaps you might share your personal solutions for self-care, emotional balance, physical health, mental stamina, and professional agility.

  • Maybe you might share what supports, if any, your own schools offer?

  • How do you think educational organizations can best provide SES for their teachers?

    “Managing Overwhelming Expectations.” Teachers Aid from The Bam! Radion Network, 17 Sept. 2018, flr.flglobal.org/managing-overwhelming-expectations.