George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

Giving Teachers Permission to Feel

A new book argues that if we want children to flourish, we have to support teachers’ emotional well-being.

September 6, 2019
An illustration concept of emotional contemplation
Michael Austin / Theispot

How are you feeling?

It’s not a trick question. But it’s more complicated than it sounds. We’re always feeling something, usually more than one thing at a time. Our emotions are a continuous flow, not an occasional event. Inside each of us there’s a river—placid and contained sometimes, but raging and overflowing its banks at others. There’s a lot to navigate.

We humans have a long history of disregarding our feelings. It goes back millennia, even before the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece argued that emotions were erratic, idiosyncratic sources of information. Reason and cognition were viewed as higher powers within us; once, the idea of “emotional intelligence” would have seemed inconceivable, a contradiction in terms. A great deal of Western literature, philosophy, and religion ever since has taught us that emotions are a kind of internal interference that gets in the way of sound judgment and rational thought. It’s no coincidence that we still like to think of intelligence and emotion as coming from two completely separate parts of our bodies—one from the head, the other from the heart. Which of the two have we been taught to trust most?

But emotions matter. In a survey we distributed to more than 5,000 teachers, we found that 70 percent of the emotions they reported feeling each day were negative—mainly “frustrated,” “overwhelmed,” and “stressed.” This is especially troubling because teachers who experience more negative emotions are also more likely to have sleep problems, anxiety, and depression, be overweight and burned out, and have greater intentions to leave the profession.

Those negative emotions also have serious ramifications for students: Teachers who are stressed offer less information and praise, are less accepting of student ideas, and interact less frequently with students. If we want children to flourish, we have to begin taking care of our teachers.

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In an experiment we conducted at Yale, teachers were divided into two groups. One was told to remember and write about positive classroom experiences, and the other was assigned to recall a negative memory. Then all were asked to grade the same middle school essay. The positive-mood group marked the essay a full grade higher than the negative-mood group. When we asked the teachers if they believed their moods affected how they evaluated papers, 87 percent said no. Judgments that entail a greater degree of subjectivity, such as grading a creative essay, are generally at a heightened risk of emotional bias compared with judgments that are more objective, such as grading a math test.

Research shows that teachers with more developed emotion skills report less burnout and greater job satisfaction; they also experience more positive emotions while teaching and receive more support from the principals with whom they work. The presence of emotionally intelligent leaders also makes a difference. When school leaders have emotion skills, the teachers in their buildings report feeling more inspired, less frustrated and burned out, and more satisfied with their job. In turn, teachers’ relationships with their students are warmer; their classrooms are better organized and managed, and more supportive; and they use more practices that cultivate creativity, choice, and autonomy. And when children have better relationships with their teachers, they are more engaged and committed to school, adjust better socially, and are willing to take on more challenges and persist in the face of difficulty. They also disrupt less, focus more, and perform better academically.

We have evolved to handle short-term stress—hormones are released, allowing us to respond successfully to the crisis, and then turn off at the tap. That’s not what happens at some schools, where teachers may spend hours and entire days under emotional duress, until it becomes a chronic condition. Our brains are bathed in a constant flow of stress hormones, for which evolution has definitely not prepared us. We don’t suffer only emotionally in those instances—our physical health is affected too.

“Stress leaves you in a fight-or-flight state in which your body turns off long-term building and repair projects,” said Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford University, in his book Behave. “Memory and accuracy are impaired. You tire more easily, you can become depressed.”

Emotional suppression is a major force in schools, and it’s not just the students who are discouraged from showing their feelings. An old adage that circulates among teachers tells us, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” meaning that educators should start out acting like strict, uninviting taskmasters to maintain tight control over their classrooms.

But is that how educators can best demonstrate their standards and expectations? Is smiling—or making any sort of kind, genuine gesture, even telling jokes—going to hinder the educational process? Though it is the responsibility of teachers to maintain sufficient control and set expectations for student performance and behavior, our classrooms are not meant to be ruled. Teachers are guides, not dictators. The research is clear: The best way to engage students is to develop relationships, not prevent them, and the currency of relationships is emotional expression.

Editor's Note: From Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett. Copyright 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

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