After seven years as a full-time teacher, serving as my school’s director for the last three, I found myself THIS CLOSE to burnout. I had nothing left in the emotional tank. The challenge was that I loved the field of education and didn’t want to leave it, but I knew something had to change.
So what did I do? I enrolled in a Ph.D. program and spent the next five years figuring out what the heck happened.
After deep introspection and a broader understanding of human development, I made the following diagnosis: My own lack of social and emotional skills had been leading me down the precipitous path to burnout.
Developing social and emotional skills—particularly at the adult level—is a complex process. For starters, we weren’t necessarily taught these skills as children and may not even realize that we can or need to develop them. The science of emotions is very new, and schools are just now beginning to understand how emotions impact students’ learning and well-being; back when I was a student, this science hadn’t permeated schools at all.
So unless we were lucky enough to have socially and emotionally competent teachers or parents growing up, our explicit training in the development of empathy, compassion, gratitude, and other social-emotional skills was nil.
For teachers, these skills are imperative not only for their personal well-being but to improve student learning. According to Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg, leading scientists in the field of social-emotional learning, teachers who possess social-emotional competencies (SEC) are less likely to experience burnout because they’re able to work more effectively with challenging students—one of the main causes of burnout.
For example, instead of quickly resorting to punishments, teachers with SEC recognize their students’ emotions and have insight into what’s causing them, which then helps teachers respond with compassionate understanding when a student is acting out—and re-direct the students’ behavior appropriately. If, for instance, a teacher knows that a student is acting out because of problems at home, that teacher may be more likely to treat the student with kindness. This sort of response promotes caring and supportive relationships between teachers and students—a key to reducing both student behavior problems, possibly by as much as 30 percent, and teachers’ emotional exhaustion.
Educators with SEC also create warm and safe classroom climates, fostered by strong classroom management skills. In these kinds of classrooms, the teacher and students practice respectful communication and problem-solving; transitions from one activity to another run smoothly; and lessons are designed to encourage student engagement and love-of-learning—all of which promote academic achievement and create a positive feedback loop for teachers, sustaining their passion for teaching.
But even once we recognize the importance of these skills, we have to consider a tough question: Which social-emotional skills do teachers need?
This is a tricky question to answer because different situations call for different skills. For example, when I switched from fourth grade to Kindergarten, I found that I needed to develop a lot more patience for those moments when the whole world stopped because a shoe was untied. Teachers who transfer from a warm, caring school environment to a more challenging one may also find that they need a whole new set of social-emotional skills.
So while there’s no one-size-fits-all checklist of required skills, Jennings and Greenberg write that teachers who have SEC are high in both self- and social awareness. In other words, they can recognize and manage their own emotions as well as understand how their emotional responses impact others. They also know how to build strong, supportive relationships with students, colleagues, and parents, deal effectively with conflict, set firm but respectful boundaries, and regularly demonstrate kind, helpful behavior to those around them.
Here’s my barometer for knowing whether you have these skills: if you’re able to create positive relationships with those around you and not feel emotionally exhausted as a result. When I was teaching, I thought one of my greatest strengths was developing good relationships with students and parents, so it took me awhile to figure out why I was teetering on the edge of burnout.
My Achilles’ heel? I thought it was my responsibility to meet everyone’s needs and to make sure they all were happy. Impossible task, to say the least, and one that revealed my complete inability to set boundaries.
Because teacher education and professional development of in-service teachers do not explicitly develop teachers’ SEC, most educators are left on their own to determine if they need certain social-emotional skills and how to actually develop them. Here are two suggestions for where to start:
1) Know for a fact that it is possible to teach without burning out. The skyrocketing rates of teacher burnout make it seem like an inevitable consequence of the job. While there’s absolutely no question that teaching is hard work, I strongly believe burnout is not inevitable. Realizing this can provide a wake-up call to figure out what needs to be changed.
According to one researcher, the first step out of suffering is realizing that there is another way to live. To teachers feeling emotionally drained after dealing with that angry parent or defiant student or demanding principal, I think that realization can be incredibly empowering.
It’s important not to forget self-compassion during this process. The foremost researcher of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, experienced her own wake-up call in this regard. Upon being introduced to the idea that she could actually be kind to herself, she started on her own deeply transformative path both personally and professionally—one from which many people (including teachers) have subsequently benefited.
2) Cultivate self-awareness. It’s very easy to think that our problems are everyone else’s fault: students, colleagues, principals, parents, schools systems, society—the list goes on and on. There’s usually some truth to that, of course. Yet quite often, we’ll also benefit from looking inward. When we can identify the emotional patterns and tendencies that keep us from being kind and compassionate and understanding, we get a huge boost toward fostering those skills in ourselves—and in others.
I saw this in a teacher I knew, who grew up in a house where angry outbursts were a regular occurrence. So, as you can imagine, the students with whom she had the hardest time were the angry ones. She had no tools to deal with anger and was actually quite frightened of it. As she learned more about how emotions actually work through science-based books and practices, she became more self-aware, and her fear of anger went away—she learned to deal with it effectively. As a result, her relationships with students are much healthier and more positive.
Cultivating self-awareness also helps us recognize when we’re feeling emotionally drained and need to take a step back by practicing mindfulness or self-compassion. It also helps us recognize when we do not have the ability to change an unhealthy relationship or situation and need to step away from it.
Ultimately, there’s a tremendous amount of emotional freedom that comes from developing self-awareness because our emotions no longer control us.
As teachers, one of the best things about developing our own social-emotional skills is that we can then turn around and help our students do the same thing. And instead of feeling exhausted after getting “emotionally dumped on” yet again, we feel uplifted because we’ve learned how to manage our own emotions and compassionately work with someone else’s. We become the teachers we’ve always wanted to be.
Throughout this next school year, watch for articles on specific, research-based steps teachers can take to develop SEC.