Reflection · Teaching

The Emotional Labor of Teaching

I first heard the term “emotional labor” when I read an NPR article about how women in heterosexual couples end up completing not only the majority of chores in a household, but they are the ones who often notice and delegate what needs to be done (Harper’s Bazaar also has a great explanation of this). I was reminded of this article last month when talking to my mom, and realized that this idea of emotional labor is what tends to tax teachers so heavily.

As I neared the end of the school year, I kept thinking about this idea. How even though I was not doing an exorbitant amount of work — I was in the last unit of the year, so I didn’t have much planning, and grading was light since students were mostly working in book clubs — but I felt so incredibly tired all the time. What was going on?

Thinking back to the idea of emotional labor, I realized that had to be it. The buildup of nine months of constantly thinking, worrying, and caring about the 125+ kids in my care was taking its toll, along with a few other end of the year worries. I was still trying hard to reach those students who had been pushing me away or meeting me with indifference all year. I was trying to make sure all students were really making some modern day connections to the Civil Rights Movement through their book clubs choices. I was stressing about not being there on the last day of school (and not getting to say a final goodbye) because I would be judging a writing tournament out of town. I was anxious about getting my room packed up since I would be moving to a new one in the fall. I wanted all of my students to know that regardless of how the year went, I truly wished them well in high school and hoped that they could take some of what they learned from my class with them. That I wanted them to succeed. That they still have people who cared about them.

All of these emotions would repeat on a constant cycle over the last few weeks of school. I tried to maximize my time before school and during my planning period. What could I pack up? What could I get rid of? Which students did I need to check in with during study center? Whose parents did I need to contact because they hadn’t turned anything in lately and currently had below a 73%? Had I tried my best this year? I definitely didn’t do my best teaching this year. This thought cycle was exhausting. It reminded me of that line in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Hermione describes Cho’s mixed emotions about Harry, and Ron says, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”

By the time I got home every day, I would feel too tired to make dinner or work out, even though I would usually push through and get it done. I thought part of my lack of energy was because I ran a really hard, really hilly half marathon at the beginning of May that just wiped me out. Even though that was probably part of it, I knew the main culprit was really the emotional labor of closing out the school year. Even as I write this more than a week after school let out, I am exhausted still thinking about it.

When most people think of teachers, they think of how great it is that we get summers off. (Side note: we all know that most teachers spend time in the summer taking classes or participating in professional development; some even working another job.) After reflecting on this connection between emotional labor and teaching, I feel like I am finally starting to articulate why this summer break is so crucial to teachers, and why we keep coming back for it year after year.

Summer gives us a chance to rest our minds. We still think about those kids who sat in our classroom over the last year, but since we don’t see them each day, we have a chance to worry a little less about them. To entrust that the other adults in their lives are taking care of them, and as they get older, they are taking care of themselves.

Once we have a chance to rest our minds and (hopefully) let go of the worries from the past school year, we have a chance to read and plan for the next year like we never have time for during the actual school year. I try so hard each school year to read professional books while I am actively teaching my class — and I usually fail. Unless I will be using that book immediately in my teaching, it is really hard for me to compartmentalize new ideas in the “save for later” section of my brain while I have all of the normal parts of teaching running at full speed. Summer is the time when I can finally dive into professional learning and make the most of it.

I am not saying that other jobs are not challenging and those professionals may need extended breaks as well. From my experience as a teacher though, there is so much of that emotional labor that we are constantly holding in our minds that it is often hard for us to shut it off. I find myself thinking about students as I’m out for a run, or how I can tweak that new lesson as I’m falling asleep at night. I know I often feel like I am not doing enough for the kids that I teach. There is this notion that I can always do better, but in the chase for perfection, I know it is impossible to teach every kid in the way that I want. To give them the true attention they deserve. When there are more than a hundred of them on my mind each day, it feels like the work is never-ending.

And that takes a toll on teachers. This constant thought process that what we do could always be better is great for reflective growth, but if you’re like me, then you just look at all the things that went wrong. I am working on changing that mindset, but it is a process. All of these pressures coming from so many different angles really can be exhausting — and a big reason why it seems that emotional labor affects teachers more than most other professions.

As I begin this new school year with only a month under my belt, I am already feeling the force of this emotional labor. I have nearly 20 more students in my care this year, many with differing needs, and I am still figuring out how to make time for each of them. I am currently working on finding ways to make this easier — asking for help, surrounding myself with positive, supportive colleagues, and taking breaks for my own self-care. It’s no wonder why so many teachers burn out early in their careers; it’s a lot to handle. But when I am my best self, I know I can do it by relying on those around me, and continuing to take time for myself.

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