EP11: When you’re experiencing deep personal loss or serious problems at home, it’s difficult to be the teacher you want to be. Learn how to minimize the negative impact of your stress on students and manage your energy levels so you can bounce back more quickly.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.
A special thanks to this episode’s sponsor, SnapLearning. SnapLearning is a provider of fantastic digital reading resources, including materials for close reading. You can get a free demo of the product at snaplearning.co.
If you stick with this profession for any real length of time, you’re going to experience low-energy periods that last for weeks or even months, such as when going through a divorce or dealing with a family member’s terminal illness. Maybe you’re having difficulty getting or staying pregnant. Maybe you’re about to foreclose on your house, or you found out your spouse is cheating on you, or you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy, or your child is in serious trouble.
When you are really going through a lot emotionally, you are not going to be the best version of yourself or the teacher you want to be. You’ve got to come to terms with that and stop beating yourself up for not being a bubbling fountain of joy every day for your students.
And for that matter, we’ve got to stop beating each other up for this, too. I have to fit in a small little tangent here. Whenever people talk about lazy teachers or mean teachers, or rude teachers, why is it that no one ever stops to ask, What is going on in that teacher’s personal life? What is causing him or her to be unable to do a better job for those kids?
In almost every instance I can think of, the so-called lazy teacher was a person who was dealing with long-term, debilitating health issues, caring for an ill spouse or an elderly parent, or experiencing deep financial hardship that became all-consuming for them. I don’t know anyone who intentionally does a poor job teaching and doesn’t care about their students. They’re just incredibly distracted, worn down, and exhausted. When we see teachers who are ineffective, we really need to come alongside them, figure out what is going on, and how we can support them.
So if that’s you right now– if you’re not doing the job you wish you were doing for your students– would you show yourself some of that grace? Would you recognize that there is a real reason why you’re not giving 100%? Would you acknowledge that you are a human being with emotional needs and physical limitations? Even if no one in your school acknowledges that, I’m acknowledging it, because it’s true. And I want you to acknowledge that, as well.
Now, these losses and hardships and periods of grief are not a license to do a halfway job of teaching your students. They are an opportunity to recognize that you are not at your best, show yourself grace, and plan ahead in order to minimize the impact on your students.
I think of these periods of life as low-energy seasons. Grief and pain and stress are all-consuming. They drain your energy so you don’t have anything left to give in the classroom. So, think about this whole situation from an energy management standpoint. You always have a finite amount of energy to give, and right now, you’ve got a lower amount than normal.
Narrow your focus to what’s truly most important and channel as much of your energy as possible into those aspects of your work. Cut out the “extras” and don’t put pressure on yourself to go above and beyond in areas that don’t really matter. Permit yourself to do a little less by remembering that the situation is temporary: you will be able to work at the level you’re accustomed to again, and in order to get to that level, you need to allow yourself a time of less pressure.
Even though you might feel like you’re on your own, you can’t be afraid to reach out to others for support when you’re in a low-energy season of life. Drop the superhero syndrome, swallow your pride, and ask people for help. See if a colleague can pick your students up from lunch for you or ask if a team member can run off extra photocopies or gather lesson materials. You can return the favor when you’re feeling better, so don’t feel guilty about asking for help.
When other people offer to take responsibilities off your plate or ask if there’s anything they can do, avoid the knee-jerk response to just say, “It’s okay, thanks.” Instead, have a prepared list of tasks that can be delegated, and tell people, “Thanks so much for offering! I would really appreciate your help with ___.”
I also highly recommend that you just level with your students about the fact that you’re not at your best. Even the youngest students can tell when we’re just putting on an act and our hearts and minds aren’t really with them. They don’t know what’s going on, but they know something is wrong.
So share whatever you’re comfortable with. Tell them you’re feeling sad because someone in your family is very sick, or say that things are hard for you right now at home, or if you don’t want to reveal that much, just say you’re not feeling your best. Your students are going to relate to that, trust me. Most of them are not frolicking in fields of daisies and riding pet unicorns. They know struggle and pain. And it’s good for them to see that successful role models in their lives are also experiencing problems and are persevering through them.
Don’t be afraid to reveal to your students that you are a person, just like them, and ask them directly for their support and cooperation. When you tell your students that you aren’t feeling great for whatever reason, most of them are going to be eager to help take on some of your responsibilities. You might even find that you were doing tasks that should have been turned over to them a long time ago! Entrust them with more responsibilities, let them know their contributions are really needed in the classroom, and they will generally rise to the occasion.
I’ve also found that a handful of kids will usually help out with reminders to the rest of the class. I’ve gone through a couple of low-energy seasons in life and a bunch of my kids were fantastic about it. They’d help keep order in the classroom for me: “Hey, guys, be quiet, Mrs. Watson doesn’t feel good, remember? Don’t make her shout! Come on, guys, don’t argue, just do it, Mrs. Watson is counting on us!” The kids that say stuff will just make your heart sing. Grab onto those moments and let them motivate you to keep going.
That’s really, really important, because in addition to managing your energy, you’ve also got to do things that replenish your energy level. You know, energy is not like time: you don’t wake up everyday with more it. You have to choose to do things that replenish energy– things like sleeping, resting, eating healthy foods, exercising… all these things we tell ourselves we don’t have time to do, especially when we’re in a low energy period because of stress.
But there is a reason why people keep telling you to take care of yourself. You keep telling them you can’t, you have to take care of everyone else, as if taking care of yourself is a selfish endeavor. But caring for yourself is the LEAST selfish thing you can do. Because when you take care of yourself, you are giving the best gift you could ever give your family, the best gift you could ever give yourself– the healthiest and happiest version of YOU. That’s what your students really want and need, too– a healthy, happy teacher. You owe it to them and yourself to pursue that.
You are strong, and you can get through this. Please leave a comment below if you’d like to talk more about this topic–I would love to help you in any way I can.
Next week: How to cope when a student’s parent just doesn’t like you
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