It’s a hard time to be a teacher.
Four months into the school year, many teachers are emotionally drained, depleted from weeks of extra work and worry. Surveys of their well-being and emotions tell the anxiety and emotional pain they have endured since the spring. They are stretched beyond their limits, many feeling ineffectual in the virtual world and stressed having to put on their “happy face” when so much feels out of control.
Yet that is only the opening paragraph of a longer story that includes the personal resilience of teachers, the adaptability of school leaders, the compassionate response of many organizations. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence we have spent two decades supporting educators through our evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning, RULER, that has been adopted by over 2,500 schools across the U.S. And due to the emotional upheaval related to the coronavirus and the social unrest associated with murders of Black people, since last spring we have provided them with additional tools so they can both cope with their own difficult feelings and help students manage uncertainty and stress.
The stresses teachers have experienced this year are different from anything we have seen before, both in type and intensity. They have persevered through not only the stresses of the changing classrooms, but also the emotional upheavals of COVID-19, racial reckoning, the election, and economic pressures.
At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, we asked thousands of teachers how they were feeling. “Anxious” was at the top of the list. At the beginning of the fall, facing the school year, we asked another couple thousand teachers how they thought they would feel in the fall. “Overwhelmed” topped all other emotions.
These emotions are understandable. Consider the circumstances that teachers have faced since March, when schools closed and then opened, then, in many cases, repeated that cycle multiple times, often on very short notice. Teachers often faced a lack of PPE, lack of sanitation, and poor ventilation — all of which fell short of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 safety guidelines. This fall schools were pressured to open despite many failing to meet the pre-conditions set by the CDC. Many veteran teachers who love their work and used to find joy in being with their students tell us they are more disengaged and are not prepared for remote learning, which involves new technology and new skill sets that many must learn on the fly with very little support.
The way that teachers feel about the challenges they are facing compounds the impact of the challenges themselves. Many are afraid — afraid of getting sick or of bringing the virus home to their own children, immunocompromised spouses, or elderly parents. They are angry, believing their lives and well-being are the last to be considered. They are envious, feeling overlooked when other organizations close down to protect their customers and employees alike, yet they are expected to continue to show up and take risks. The conversation about parents needing to work and students needing to be in school to learn simply leaves them out.
Among those teaching virtually, many feel the lack of personal connection with their students, who they now see through a screen or wearing a mask. Veteran teachers say they flourished for years teaching students, but now they teach content, staring into a computer screen — and they feel alienated. Teachers are also worried about their students’ abilities to learn under the current conditions, whether that is virtual or under new in-person. Teachers note that some students say they “can’t do it,” some are just disappearing, and some — often teens — don’t want to be seen on camera.
All of this is taking a huge emotional toll. Educators are frustrated and losing motivation.
Teachers we’ve spoken to this year have told us of the pain of holding two sets of emotions almost every day: One is the feeling of hopelessness, feeling like it is all too much – shifting between in-person to virtual classrooms, trying to parent and teach at the same time, prepare hybrid lessons. At the same time, they are also grateful — for their jobs, their health, and the opportunity to do the work that is their calling.
One school leader told us of her staff’s need to feel hopeful, that an end is in sight. Her teachers have kept themselves afloat thinking about “after the pandemic,” finding inner strength they didn’t know they had even as the finish line moved, and moved again. Now they feel at a breaking point. They know they have to pull it together; they just don’t know how.
Teachers are also missing their colleagues. One veteran educator told us that for 20 years before the pandemic, she had lunch with a close colleague every day. Now, what was an ordinary part of their lives seems extraordinary. She longs for the simple pleasure of sharing a meal face-to-face and talking through issues that come up in a typical school day. She is not alone — loneliness and a sense of isolation have been rampant. For teachers who are living alone, the isolation is even worse.
There are tools that can help.
We cannot change the external pressures that challenge our teachers, but we can help them cope with the difficult feelings that arise from these circumstances. Healthy emotion regulation promotes psychological well-being, which in turn helps educators with everything from increased focus to supporting students with trauma. Dozens of studies detail the benefit of a social and emotional education for educators and students.
In September we released a course on emotion management for educators and staff in Connecticut. It was made free by a grant from Dalio Education, and was supported by Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona, and the Connecticut teachers unions. Last week we released the same course, Managing Emotions During Stressful and Uncertain Times, nationwide, for free on Coursera, to anyone who wishes to take it.
The course explains how high stress affects our bodies and brains, offers tips on how teachers can best take care of their own feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed, and provides practical, culturally responsive strategies that teachers can employ to help their students manage their own challenging emotions, such as frustration, fear, and boredom.
As of today, over 24,000 educators in Connecticut have registered for the course. Teachers report how a deeper understanding of the science of emotions and trauma as well as research-based strategies to support their own and students’ healthy emotion regulation have been helpful to calm their surges of anxiety.
Our offering is one of many resources made available to teachers this fall. Organizations such as the Greater Good Science Center as well as social and emotional learning program providers have made materials available for free online. Individual schools stepped up to send out resource-rich packets to their families. We encourage educators to take advantage of any offering that speaks to them.
Our course supplements these efforts. It provides teachers the opportunity to move at their own pace and learn the basics of basics of trauma, toxic stress, and the power of resilience, as well as offering the mindset and skills of emotional intelligence for adults and how to teach them to children.
None of these resources can solve every challenge educators are facing right now. A robust social and emotional education does not negate the need for competent institutional support, adequate PPE, clean facilities, or quality technology and training.
But the research is clear that this kind of education does make a difference. Indeed, a solid foundation in emotional intelligence is its own form of protective “equipment.” And in challenging times such as these, every bit of protection helps. As more and more teachers are equipped with these skills, we are increasingly hopeful for improved well-being in classrooms – both in person and virtual.
Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She writes about research on children and families on her blog, developmentalscience.com