outline of a head with a heart on the brain

By Kristen Stevenson

Let’s face it: teaching is hard. It is emotional, it is exhausting, and it can make you burn the candle on both ends. It is also rewarding, exhilarating, and worth the effort.

Teaching requires emotional labor, “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” as we see performed by service-industry and medical professionals (Hochschild, 1983, p. 7). Emotional labor can happen at work, such as keeping stressed-out students on track, or at home, when you may have to remind a child for the fifth time without having your own meltdown. Mahoney et. al. (2011) studied several forms of emotional labor for teachers, including suppressing negative emotion, faking positive emotion, and expressing genuine positive emotion. Of these, the greatest job satisfaction and lowest rates of emotional burnout were found with high levels of expressing genuine positive emotion.

What strategies can we incorporate to improve our well-being while performing the emotional labor of teaching? Harvey (2021) provides seven tips for us.

  • Acknowledge emotional labor. Acknowledge out of the gate that teaching is hard work and give yourself permission to take care of yourself.
  • Increase self-awareness. Increasing self-awareness provides room to improve self-regulation. Recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are, particularly when you are stressed out. If you are aware that you become critical when you are stressed, you will be more likely to be cognizant to not snap at a colleague or student who asks you a question in the hall before class.
  • Examine beliefs about challenging behavior. What are your hot button topics or triggers? Practice empathy for yourself and others. If you are already stressed, running late, and trying to get to class, you may forget that a student is afraid of asking you for help in the hallway. In this case, you may need to take a deep breath, remember where the student is coming from, and be able to help more mindfully.
  • Reframe beliefs about students. You may hear grumbling about students. This may be about not turning on their camera, being late with assignments, or writing emails with inappropriate language. It is beneficial to remember that students don’t know better in many cases. They may have never written to a professor before and are unaware that they can’t write to you in the same manner as they would a friend. They may be working two jobs to help support their family and have a limited time to complete their homework. They may also be living in conditions that they are embarrassed about and cannot turn on a camera. Reframe to consider that most students, like us, are doing the best that they can.
  • Practice positive rehearsal. Rather than having a doomsday approach in your head about why you don’t want to go to class and how today’s students are so different than when you were in college, flip the script. Look at the positives that this generation has already contributed to society, such as record levels of participation in community service.
  • Identify guidelines for responsive relationships. This works much like the Golden Rule in that you are modeling good behavior, communication, and expectations with your students. Treat your students as you wish to be treated – by them, your colleagues, and those in positions of power above you.
  • Cultivate a prevention mindset. If fielding student questions and emails about course logistics is one of your triggers, use transparent design in your courses, from the menus to the assignments. Proactively create a class where students will be able to easily find the content and complete the assessments without being overwhelmed. Even after you’ve written the best, most detailed instructions you can, be open and willing to clarify when necessary. It’s not a sign of inattention if students want to validate their understanding of the task—especially on high stakes projects or assessments. Asking questions is a sign of their prevention mindset at work, as well.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for coping with the challenges we experience in life, let alone during a pandemic. But there is help. These tips are a starting point but stay in communication with those who support you – your colleagues, department chair, loved ones, and more. Seek professional help if you need to; taking care of yourself is the best way for you to help take care of others.

October is National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month, ADHD Awareness Month, and more. Mental Health Awareness Week is October 3 – 9, 2021. National Depression Screening Day is on October 7 and World Mental Health Day is on October 10. Take time for your mental well-being today.