The Sustainability of the Empathetic Teacher

By Shaina Lane

At 6:30 on a snowy Monday morning, I click my key into the lock of the school office to start my day.  There is never anyone there before me, which I prefer because it gives me enough time to get myself together before adolescent bodies start streaming through the door.  I set my stuff down, change out of my snow boots, and open up my daily classroom slides to go over what I have planned for the day.  In the thirty minutes between when I get to school and when the next human shows up, I gather myself to put on the best show I can.

Or at least that’s what I used to do.

When I first became a teacher, I viewed it as “being on stage”; my students are my audience, and I am their humble host.  This thought was both terrifying and thrilling for someone who, prior to her teaching career, never considered herself much of a stage presence, but it gave me the opportunity to really come out of my shell and become someone that the students were entertained by.  I had always been someone that thought was funny, but, as we all know, that doesn’t always translate to other people. I viewed teaching as the perfect opportunity for me to make jokes, tell stories that pertained to the material, and overall be the P.T. Barnum the students had longed for (without all of the exploitation).  Before I actually had my own classroom, I was under the impression that I could bring some of my personal life into the classroom, but only the stuff that fueled my performance.  

For example: When discussing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the power of a crush, I would tell the story of how Middle School Me used to pass notes between friends, wondering whether my crush liked me back and creating a world of possibilities and sorrows from thinking the feelings weren’t reciprocated.  I would go on and on to my students, in ever increasing desperation, about how I was so enamored by my middle school crush, so “in love,” that I would have cut off a leg just to get him to notice me.  I would walk around my classroom, switching back and forth between my “middle school” thoughts and my “adult voice” explanations, dramatically putting my hand to my forehead in a classic oh woe is me gesture, and exaggerating my every middle school emotion to prove a point: while many students think that it Romeo and Juliet is a dumb story about teenagers overreacting to someone they just met (which it is), it is also a timeless statement about the power a simple crush can have on a person.  This is the sort of personal-life stuff I would bring into the classroom to fuel the drama and engagement of my students (and I still use this when teaching the play), but anything I was actually struggling with would be off limits. I thought that I needed to be a spectacle in order to make my students like me and succeed, but only a certain kind of spectacle; a ridiculous, funny, over-the-top spectacle.

What a load of crap.

It’s hard to say where the idea of my being a “show” came from.  I suppose I could tie it to growing up with my father, a true performer who still makes everyone he meets fall in love with him because he’s such a ham.  I also could try to make a connection with my Midwestern heritage—how it was taboo to talk about more serious subjects in relation to yourself, but talking about them in a larger, funnier sense was perfectly fine.  Growing up, it was not the norm to be totally “real” about yourself, and you were expected to put on a show because that was what everyone else was doing.  It would be easy to say it came from those things, but I think the word “show” for me really came from myself. I have always been putting on a show, even though I have rarely been on stage.  As with most people, it is difficult for me to let people totally “in,” and so I have always put up a front of joviality, humor, and overall spunkiness to keep the masses from thinking that anything else was bubbling underneath. It is the age-old idea of “show the best, hide the rest,” and I have always done it well.  If I was having a bad day, I’d be especially peppy that day, my performer hat never tilting even an inch. Never let them see you sweat, right?  Even if it isn’t healthy.

This idea of performance carried into my teaching career.  I was convinced that it needed to be all about me, my actions, my thoughts, and my performances. I needed to put on the best show I could, sell out the box office every hour, and collect all of the roses at the end.  Even typing that makes me wince, because anyone who has taught for more than a few days quickly realizes that it’s not about them at all.  It never is. 

It is always, always about the students.

That sounds like it should be self-explanatory, right?  Every one of us has, at some point, heard the same joke from a non-teacher: “Well obviously it’s about the kids.  You sure didn’t go into that profession for the money!” Then it’s followed up by a hearty ha ha, snort-snort, I-know-what-teaching-is-like-because-I-was-a-student-once grin. All teachers have a conversation like that with one of their non-teacher friends, and if you haven’t had it yet, don’t worry—I promise you that you will.  The most frustrating part about those conversations is that they’re right. None of us entered the educational field for the money.  We entered it to help mold students, which brings me back to this statement: it is always, always about the students. Of course it is.  But, that being said, I have found myself asking a tougher question, a question that seems like it may be a bit unpopular or a little taboo, but one that also seems important: Yes, it is about the students, but this is also my job.  I live and breath this, therefore shouldn’t at least some of it be about me, too?

This is a question I have struggled with ever since my first day in my own classroom. The question of it “being about me” has shifted over the last five years from me wondering if I should “be a show” to me wondering how I can “be sustainable,” and whether that is even an attainable goal.

This profession we have chosen as our life’s work is not an easy one.  That statement alone could win me the Understatement of the Year Award, and yet it is something that isn’t necessarily mainstream information.  I hear about teachers making a difference, and many adults have referenced their various educators as pillars in their self-discovery, but the personal hardships of teachers are so rarely touched upon that they’re easy for someone that doesn’t personally know a teacher to forget about.  

With this idea of the secret struggle of teachers in mind, my thoughts have begun shifting from my day being all about the show to my day being all about the sustainability.  Yes, my students being engaged matters.  Yes, my students learning the material matters.  Yes, of course, my personal well being also matters, but it is incredibly hard to tell myself that when I have students approaching me with suicidal thoughts and actions, students who get beaten at home, and students who honestly don’t know where their next meal will come from.  How can I possibly be worried about myself being sustainable when my students can’t do the same?  How can I say to myself, “Okay, you need to take a step back and take time for you” when these lovely, incredible humans are dealing with all of this stuff outside of their school day, too?  Who am I to complain about being screamed at, called explicit names, and threatened by some high school student who simply has their emotions coming out sideways because of the things they are dealing with?

We teachers are some of the most empathetic people on the planet.  We have to be, right?  Our days revolve around making sure our students feel loved and supported, establishing healthy boundaries, and focusing on providing students with the love of knowledge in order to create lifelong learners.  The very nature of our job requires us to be compassionate human beings, but more and more often I find myself wondering if we are, on occasion, compassionate to a fault.  Do we take enough time to give ourselves a mental check-in to make sure that we are also doing okay and thriving?  Or do we instead tell ourselves that what we are dealing with isn’t nearly as bad as some of our students (even when that is not true) and so we need to suck it up?

More often than not, I find myself rationalizing not taking time for myself because I work with at-risk high school students who deal with so much on a daily basis that I cannot even imagine what it is like.  Sure, sometimes their dealing with those things comes out sideways at me, and I have a student screaming in my face that I’m a bitch, but I navigate that moment in the best way I can and I move on.  No more self-care is needed, right?

Right??

I had been feeling burnt out as of late and I was struggling to figure out why. I was getting enough sleep.  I had all of my lessons planned and was, miracle of miracles, caught up on grading.  I had a fantastic group of friends and family whom I go see as often as I please.  I was relatively healthy.  So what was the problem?  Why was I feeling that I no longer wanted to go to work, even though most of my students were dealing with profound emotional turmoil and they still made it on time?

Then it hit me: I was an emotional sponge that had never been wrung out.

My days were about lessons, yes, but they were mostly filled with personal connections with students I cared for unloading all of their problems on me.  I always tell my students that they can email me at any time with problems and I will do my best to be there for them. I once had a junior girl email at midnight telling me about her self-harming thoughts.  Hours were spent trying to contact the right people during the middle of the night to see if we could get her the help she needs because her father could pay for the schizophrenia medicine she needed in order to feel okay.  Phone calls were made, tears were shed, and I properly freaked out until finally receiving the call that she was okay and everything was being handled.  A coworker has had to cover a few classes of mine because another student was being bullied because of her weight and race, and she was having a mental breakdown in the hallway that was much more important than my lesson on commas for the day.  Money has been freely given to students so they can go to a wrestling camp for the weekend and get away from their drug-filled homelife, even though that student is incredibly proud and would never actually ask for money themselves. I am now on a first-name basis with the school psychologist and talk to them at least once a week about a few students. If I had to guess, it would be safe to say that 70% of my week is helping with emotional/home issues and 30% is actually teaching.  I always, always try to help those students with resources, contacting the right people, or being a shoulder to cry on, but I never unloaded what I was taking on.  I pride myself on being someone students connect with and feel comfortable enough talking to that they will tell me about the issues they’re dealing with. After all, I’m there to help!  However, I never took seriously the idea that I need to help myself, too.

After breaking down over and over in private, I started wondering if other teachers had the same feelings I did.  I began asking my coworkers, former colleagues, and teacher friends.  Did they feel the same way?  Did they feel overworked and emotionally exhausted, but never did anything about it because our burdens were “not as bad as our students”?

The answer was a resounding and overwhelming YES.

This is something that every teacher I spoke to was dealing with.  I felt vindicated that I was not the only one feeling this way, but also very sad that all of us were taking on this burden and never setting it down.  How exhausting it was to be carrying such a weight, unable to unload it simply because we knew that someone else’s weight was heavier.

Since then, I have made a change.  Before, I would have never thought to take a day off simply “for me,” but I have started to take one every few months just to have the day for myself to relax, unload, and unwind.  It may sound ridiculous and grandma-ish, but I have started to cross-stitch as something to occupy my busy thoughts and busy hands.  Get this: I have started to leave work AT WORK.  I now set boundaries for myself, too, and I not to bring any work home at all because otherwise I can’t shut my mind off.  I’ve started trying to run.  Now, I feel like I need to say this: I hate running.  I absolutely cannot stand it; it feels pointless to me because I’m not running from anything.  This being said, I wanted to see if I could learn to love something I hate and have really tried to get into it.  As of right now I still hate it, but I at least know that I can do it now!  

The biggest thing I have done, though, is this: I have stopped thinking of teaching as being something I’m “pigeon-holed” in and started thinking of it as something I “get” to do.  Can I say for sure that I will teach forever?  No, I can’t.  No one can say that they will do something forever.  I’m not sure where this life will take me, but I can say for certain now that thinking of teaching as something I “get” to do has been a hugely healthy shift.  I have tried to stop thinking of it as an emotional burden on some days and start thinking of it as an opportunity I get to help every single day.  On the days when it’s simply too much, I take time for me to unload and unwind.  I no longer put everything else above myself.  That’s simply not healthy; it’s not how to sustain myself as an empathetic teacher. All of these things have helped immensely, and I have now started telling myself over and over, “Your feelings also matter.”

My feelings also matter.  It is a little reminder throughout the day, when I start to rationalize that I need to just suck up whatever I’m feeling because some of my students are feeling more, that no, that is not correct.  I care so much about my students and their well being, but I also need to care for myself so I can continue to be there for them.

So, to all of my fellow teachers who are feeling like a full sponge, I am here to tell you to wring yourself out. You do not need to continue on simply because you know some of your students are dealing with a lot.  You are also dealing with a lot, and you are just as important to take care of.  Please, please love yourself and take care of yourself first so you can continue to do the work that you love.  If you are there for yourself first, you will be able to give the best version of yourself to your students and, just as importantly, to yourself.

 Your feelings also matter.