To the emotional resilience of educators

I remember coming home from teaching in the evening, and changing clothes. I would sit down in the darkness of my bedroom, and pause. Sometimes, I would sit there for several minutes. Embracing the silence. The stopping of to-dos. Those few short minutes when no one needed something from me. After attending to the emotional, educational, and social lives of 23 sixth graders, I sometimes struggled to settle into my family life. I wasn’t quite ready to be present, to listen, to make dinner and help with homework.

Emotional labor

Caring for children is what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, first called emotional labor: managing one’s own feelings in order to manage others.”

Teachers engage in emotional labor every single day, all day.

They are constantly managing the feelings of their students, and then managing their own feelings in response. It’s how we react, what we do, what we say, and how we feel, that is a constant changing landscape for teachers. And, according to this Edutopia article by Emily Kaplan, “It’s work that is often invisible and under-compensated — and it’s also really, really hard.”

Hochschild continues, calling teachers the “shock absorbers of an overwhelmed system.” When systems fail — family, school, or society — students feel it. And teachers absorb the shock.

“People can blame the teacher because too much expectation has been placed on the school system,” she said. In other words, when students fail to get what they need—from their families, from schools, from society as a whole—teachers are expected, unfairly, to pick up the slack. And when they inevitably fail to do so, they feel personal and professional guilt, which they must suppress for the broader good: Emotional labor begets more emotional labor.”

So, what to do. The system places too much on educators. And so much of teaching is relational. Relationships with students, colleagues, families. It is emotional, relational, in a system that is often overwhelmed.

It is time to recognize the emotional labor of teaching, as, well, labor.

Too many choices

Have you ever stared at all of the choices of shampoo, completely at a loss for which one to pick? Did this happen at the end of a teaching day? That is no surprise, according to new research that points to the dangers of overwhelm that is decision fatigue. A situation in which the brain simply gets too overwhelmed from having to make all the choices.

Cue Dave Matthews: “It’s a typical situation / In these typical times / Too many choices, yeah”.

Teachers make 1,500 decisions a day. That is a lot of decision-making. And, according to the New York Times:

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.”

This is probably why, “What do I make for dinner?” Seems like an insurmountable decision at the end of a teaching day. It’s not just the fatigue of being on your feet, being on and being available. It’s decision overwhelm.

Compassion fatigue

In addition to decision fatigue, teachers often face something researchers are calling compassion fatigue. This is often related to secondary, or vicarious trauma, that teachers experience from working with students who are facing trauma in their own lives. Educators live alongside with students, hearing them, finding ways to help them, interpreting their behavior, and being a first responder and mandated reporter. Their stories, their feelings and life experiences stay with educators long after the school day is over. This is very real and impactful.

Educator and writer Alex Shevrin Venet has written a great deal about trauma informed education practices and compassion fatigue. In this piece, Shevrin Venet reminds us:

“Social and emotional support for teachers also helps buffer the effects of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma—when teachers experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder because of the stress of bearing witness to others’ trauma.”

We see this often invisible and undervalued work regularly when in schools. While we have lots of societal work to do to reduce the pressure on the educational system, as Hoschild notes, we have to work in our spheres of control to make this job of teaching more sustainable.

We see you doing this work. 

And we want you to feel your best when you return to the classroom. How? Well:

By building resilience

For this I turn to the work of Elena Aguilar, author of the book Onward, a month-by-month guide for building resilience for teachers. This book would be an incredible focus for staff meetings for the whole school year. Her thesis though, moves beyond individual resilience, toward having the strength and resources to improve education systemically as a result of personal work.

“If we boost our individual resilience, then we will have more energy to address organizational and systemic conditions — to elect officials who will fund public education, organize against policies that dehumanize educators, and push back on punitive assessment policies and scripted curriculum that turn teachers into robots and students into depositories to be filled.”

Building resilience often involves helping educators establish routines of self care and boundary setting. These can help teachers recover, rebound, and reset after days of emotional labor, decision making, and responding with compassion to their students in ever evolving situations.

By setting boundaries

Teachers care. Often they care so much that they might not set boundaries. They might respond to emails when they should be sleeping. Or they might carry the emotional labor of their jobs well into the night. You can help.

School leaders? Show what it looks like to set boundaries. Clarity is kindness (credit to Brene Brown!). You can ask folks to mute email from 5pm to 6am unless emergencies/urgent. I have been scheduling email sends until the next morning instead of sending them at all hours of the day or night. I must consider– is this worth interrupting a teacher’s free time over? Or could it wait until the next morning? Usually, it can wait.

Teachers? Decide what you need and schedule those things with no guilt or negotiation.

  • Is it outdoor time?
  • Quiet time?
  • Knitting, catching up with a friend?
  • A decent bedtime?

Put it on the calendar. Make it a priority. And decide what hours you are “open” and “closed” for emails, phone calls, collaboration. What timing works for you? Do you work best fitting in self-care in the morning, or later in the day? Play with your schedule until you find something you can arrange to support you fitting in routines that support *your* wellness.

Then try to honor these commitments as much as you can. You are worthy of this level of management and support!

Education work needs boundaries or else teachers’ lives can get absorbed. I’ve seen this happen. Educators can burn out like shooting stars. It is everyone’s job to support educators building boundaries around self-care, family time, and protect their ability to live full lives.

And by pausing.

A friend of mine pauses at the door to her house when returning from school. She looks at the doorknob, takes a breath, and says, Leave It Behind.

Transition to home, to the roles of caregiver, spouse/partner, friend. It is a small moment of mindfulness, but the visual of the doorknob works for her, every day. I took a few moments each day after school when changing, and prioritized spending time outdoors.

How can you pause? What might it look like?

Is it yoga? A digital detox break? Tea and a riveting book? Crossword puzzles, or skiing in the Vermont woods?

Pauses are brain breaks, and we know kids need them, especially in our 24/7 world. But so do educators. The world can be too much: loud, needy, constant.

I remember hearing the wise words: put yourself at the top of your to-do list. As in, how will you take care of yourself today?

We all could use a pause.

We see you and we are so glad you’re about to take a break in the action of the school year. And while some of you have side hustles and caregiving requirements and travel planned, tell us some of the ways you plan on giving yourself a little self-care for during the break. Because really, for ourselves, for our students, we all need to come back in the new year rested, relaxed and rejuvenated.

emotional resilience

What works for you to build resilience, boundaries and pausing? We’d love to hear about it.


Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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