I still remember my first day of work as a fourth grade teacher.
My classroom had a green chalkboard, an overhead projector, one large wooden teacher desk and rows of student seats. I entered ready to present my lesson and engage with students. But within the first few minutes I recognized I was prepared to give a lesson but outside of that really had no idea what I was doing. It would be an understatement to say I struggled my first day as a new teacher.
At the end of the day, I went to visit the veteran teacher who was assigned as my mentor. After sharing the struggles of my first day, she gave me this advice: Treat the students how they treat you. If you’re too nice, they will run all over you. You need to be stern and yell to get their attention. And above all- don’t smile too much; you need to show them you’re the boss.
The advice she was giving me was in total misalignment with how I treat all people, regardless of age; but moreover, it was a way of being that meant I didn’t have permission to show up authentically in my classroom and certainly no space to emote.
I had no permission to feel.
But here’s the caveat. I do feel. And so do you. We can’t separate who we are from our emotions.
And herein lies one of the problems within our current education system: There’s been a huge shift towards recognizing the importance of social-emotional learning but minimal steps taken to create space for adults to grapple with their beliefs around expressing emotions and showing up (for themselves, their colleagues, and their students) authentically.
Why this matters right now.
Educators have always been expected to do more with less. However, since this pandemic started in 2020, there’s been a significant increase in the amount of stressful and traumatic situations educators face. Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist from Rockefeller University, told brainfacts.orgthat, “Stress changes the way the brain’s neurons communicate with each other, chronic stress can cause our brains, nervous systems, and our behavior to adjust to a vigilant and reactive state.”
Simply trying to live through a pandemic can cause chronic stress. Educators are people first, and they’re having to find an impossible balance between taking care of loved ones, students, and the ever-changing demands of teaching during COVID.
That’s why this is a critical time for school and district leaders to be thinking about how to best care for adults.
What’s validated is what gets expressed.
For many people, the emotions that were validated in childhood are the only emotions you’re comfortable outwardly expressing. For example, if you were raised in an environment where crying wasn’t accepted, it’s more likely you avoid showing that emotion and become distant with others who show it. What does this have to do with you as an educator?
Social-emotional learning requires you to first put the mirror before the magnifying glass. That means you’ll need to go inward and reflect on how your life experiences shaped the way you view and express emotions.
Feelings vs Emotions
Ignoring your feelings doesn’t mean you lack emotions. Emotions are bodily reactions activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain. Feelings are the actual experience of emotions. Which means you can hide your feelings from other people but your body still carries the emotion.
When you don’t make time to reflect on your own emotions, it is more difficult to express them which makes it challenging to model social-emotional skills. This is true for educators needing to teach SEL to students and school or district leaders delegating this instructional task to teachers.
Boundaries don’t have to mean walls.
Let’s return to my mentor’s advice from my first year of teaching. I truly believe this person thought she was being helpful. She thought if I could create very clear lines between me and the students, I’d have a successful school year.
But we know that’s not what makes school worthwhile for adults or students. As Plato said, “All learning has an emotional base.”
Attuning to our emotional needs is what allows us to create a container where healthy relationships can form. When we take care of ourselves, we’re in a better position to care for others.
There isn’t a checklist for heart work.
We are in the business of taking care of and educating students. That makes our work complex because humans are complex. But unlike a mathematical equation, there isn’t a universal checklist for how to “do” social emotional learning. And yes schools need systems and structures, policies and procedures; but people are not systems, they make and reinforce systems.
SEL work done with care and consideration for all human needs is what makes it heart work. This is about a way of being. This is about how you show up, communicate empathy, and build relationships.
The purpose of social emotional learning is to help people be socially and emotionally well. And that includes you.
Rebecca is a Lead Partner at Transforming Education, where she collaborates with school and system leaders across the country to promote whole child development.
Rebecca is an educator with thirteen years of experience. Starting as a classroom teacher, her commitment to supporting all students, educators, and working diligently to serve as many as possible led her to multiple roles in public and charter schools, including: Student Support Services Coordinator, Instructional Specialist, Curriculum Writer, and Assistant Principal. In addition, Rebecca founded her own instructional coaching company where she consulted with large school districts to help enhance their impact on student learning. She also trains teachers in the art and science of becoming empathic listeners while better understanding their own attachment style through her work with FuelEd. Rebecca obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas A&M University and her Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Houston. She is certified in elementary and special education and has a Texas principal license.