Over the last year or so I’ve been able to articulate a dream of mine in a way I haven’t before. My end goal is to develop a component to teacher preparation programs that help teachers develop the emotional competencies to 1)meet the emotional needs of children in the classroom 2)meet their own emotional needs in the classroom 3)in meeting these needs create livable environments for everyone involved. The end result of this would be reducing the number of teachers that quit within the first five years of entering the profession and increasing morale in schools.
I’ve heard people say that they quit teaching because there wasn’t enough money in it. That there were aspects to the job that weren’t worth the money. But really, who goes into teaching thinking about the money? It’s pretty widely known that teachers don’t make that much.
Other reasons I’ve heard for teachers quitting are the bureaucracy and the “system.” No doubt bureaucracy is a pain in the behind and the system is a faceless but powerful force that seems to block success at every turn. But again, isn’t this something people know about before they enter the profession? Almost every job, especially ones in public service, have to work with bureaucracies and systems.
I think the reason people leave the profession early is because of the emotional burden teachers have to bear. No one prepares us for the students that just won’t cooperate or who are outright defiant. No, that’s wrong. We do talk about techniques on how to deal with kids with problems. What we don’t talk about in college is how to deal with the anger that naturally arises in us when a kid calls us a name, or throws over a chair or refuses to move, or refuses to do work, or hits another kid etc. We don’t talk about what to do about the feelings that arise when a parent blames us for their child’s struggles or is rude or degrading. There are lots of books and workshops out there about what to do with those situations but not what to do with the feelings that follow us home and keep us from sleeping.
So how does a teacher stay in the profession for 30 years? Are these just the few that know how to ignore their feelings, or how to deny their feelings, or how to not have feelings, or have the money for good therapy? My mom used to say “Water off a duck’s back, Margo.” So maybe these are the few that know instinctively or have the personality or have learned how to just let it roll off.
It seems to me that if we could identify those who do allow themselves to have the feelings and know how to deal with the feelings in a way that doesn’t cause high blood pressure we could maybe help others develop those competencies. (I wonder what percentage of teachers struggle with stress related health issues compared to other professions.)
Last Friday, I planned a Writer’s Celebration. I invited parents. The students wrote something in response to a book I read aloud. It started well. A small number of parents came. This I expected since it was the first time I had held this kind of event and it was still during the work day. I had already explained to the students what we would do and reminded them to be on their best behavior.
After everyone was settled I read the book that had inspired their writing. Then I invited the students to go to their tables and share their writing with the adult that was there, while I prepared the food. They were finished sharing before everyone had food, so there were a few students (the regulars) who were out of their seat and causing some chaos. But once all of them had their food, it settled down for a bit. After they ate though, it became chaotic again. I really don’t have a clear picture of what happened. No one got hurt and no real harm was done but I watched my hopes for a relaxed and enjoyable afternoon fade like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. I know my stress levels were high. I tried to keep everyone together but even students who are normally well behaved had to be strictly redirected more than once. All this in front of parents whom truthfully, I wanted desperately to impress.
I’ve reflected some on the afternoon and realized that the procedures I have in place for misbehavior were not used effectively. For some reason, I resorted to verbal re-directions over giving the normal consequences. But what is more relevant to this discussion is that it is an example of how high stress can get in the way of making the best decisions and then get in the way again of even remembering clearly what happened. As I was standing there, frustrated over the state of affairs in my classroom, two moms were visiting happily it seemed. And one, who had volunteered earlier in the day, even commented on how well things were going. Stress blurs my perceptions. This I know.
The only thing to do is reflect, learn and go back tomorrow. Try to stay focused on the present and clear about what is happening in front of me. Monitor the feelings that ebb and flow during the day. And when those feelings begin to intensify, stop, think and breath.
I know I’ve grown because I no longer think to myself that I just need to quit when I feel like I’ve failed. (Watching the Olympics I’m struck by how many of the athletes would never have achieved their medals if they had quit after their early, or even later, failures.) But there is still more growing to do – which is a blessing I guess. What else would I do for the rest of my life?