There is no doubt that the hardest part of teaching is the emotional labor we perform, day in and day out. That is, the lifting of our students spirits, keeping a straight face when they do something bad, even though it was really really funny. Doing our best to not get visibly angry and frustrated when our students misbehave. Understanding that everyone has a bad day, and doing our best to not punish our kids for pushing our buttons, knowing full well, that we may be the only person in their life who will hold their ground, and give them a safe boundary to live in.
This emotional labor will usually compliment the culture and mindset of our school and of our immediate peers. I teach at a Magnet Math, Science, and Technology high school with a population that runs very near 3,000 students. Even though we are a magnet school and we have various STEM related programs, we also teach students who are not in these programs and are taking on-level coursework. Often times I pick up clues from various teachers and students that these on-level students are not “worth their time” to invest energy in. The main reason being that these students will not go above and beyond what others expect from them. This is by no means the culture of our school.
The majority of our teachers make it their priority to see every child, no matter what their background or story, as their own; and to build affirming relationships with every student.
This is the meat of our profession.
The relationships that we build with out students, and with each other, makes this thing we call education, flow and function. And if we are to perform emotional labor, we must be aware of our emotional fitness. For teachers, we can define emotional fitness as:
The ability to understand our emotions in our classroom and engage our students with the most appropriate emotion at the moment.
I want to emphasize this very important point: Emotional fitness is not a reaction.
To respond to a negative situation is a reflex; which is not thoughtful and more instinctual. It is also not intuitive, nor is it evaluated thoroughly to make sure the negative situation is given the appropriate response. Reactions and reflexes work like that.
However, just like a muscle, our emotional fitness must be worked out consistently. And just like a muscle, our gains and strength come from resistance.
There are too many adults (teachers included) who easily dismiss children and students for a variety of reasons. Children are not always easy to understand, they do not listen, and many adults do not have the patience or the emotional fitness to understand them. The resistance to ignore and dismiss is a sign of your emotional fitness. Are you fit enough to put your own negative feelings and frustrations aside in order to help a student?
Sarcasm is used quite a bit in the classroom, but deploying sarcasm effectively also requires an affirming relationship. Mainly because the safety net of knowing that a sarcastic teacher really does care about his/her students makes the sarcastic hit seem not so rough. Without really knowing the receiver or thrower of a sarcastic comment, those comments can be difficult to catch and deal with.
Resistance then becomes the standard. But not a resistance TO someone else or their need, but rather a resistance to OUR OWN shortcomings and misgivings. You see, the truest test of your emotional fitness in the classroom is to continue to support the unsupportable student. To show kindness to the least kind. To not display anger to the angriest in your group. To show compassion and appropriate attention to those who would prefer to be hidden in plain sight. And to display unconditional love to those who for many, have already been deemed unlovable.
My emotional fitness is why I make friends with the roughest kids in my classroom; why I place an extra emphasis on making sure that these kids get the appropriate attention and affirmation that they deserve. Because resisting the urge to throw in the towel, to judge, and to prosecute a child who (more then likely) already has a difficult time is to be compassionate and kind is to say to the unloveable; you are worthy.
And it sends the message to the rest of my students. If I put this much energy into the “difficult” kid, then that means he will put that much energy into my own relationship with him (you). Which leads to feelings of safety, agency, and care. Which leads to a nurturing classroom environment.
We should never, ever, dismiss or ignore any of our students. We must always resist the impulse to throw in the towel. Even if it does mean we have to repeat ourselves 11 times, or bring extra pencils to give away to “those” kids, or tell that child for the 4th time to put away his phone, or stay that much longer after school to listen to what “that” child wanted to tell you. It is the emotional labor you put into your classroom, to make sure every single one knows they can, they will, and that they can and will do for themselves, that makes one emotionally fit.
Growth comes from resistance.
Model resistance for your students, and watch them grow.
And at the end of every lesson, every classroom, every experience…
Seal It With YOUR Smile