How to manage emotions when teaching
December 31, 2013 1:03 AM   Subscribe

How do you keep yourself from getting too emotionally invested in your students and your teaching? My day can be made or destroyed by my students and the extent to which this happens makes me uncomfortable.

I'm a first year teacher, and maybe I'm not "hardened" enough yet or something. I find I am quite attached to my students and care about them, sort of like a distant family member would. Their behaviour in class is usually quite good and I genuinely enjoy teaching them.

The problem comes when something goes wrong. We had an incident where several of my students made a silly teenage mistake and got in trouble - actually, I noticed it and reported it. It ruined my entire day. I took it personally, for some reason, then moved on to anger at the students, then disappointment. It took me several hours to stop thinking about it constantly but I was okay with everything the next day.

Today, I noticed that one of my students had previously engaged in self harm. I don't think it's current. My heart broke. I still feel legitimately sad about it and I keep thinking up things I can do or say.

This sort of thing is weird for me, because generally, I don't let things bother me this much. I find I'm quite rational about most things and can work through my emotions healthily. I feel that my responses to these things are out of proportion. Obviously, as their teacher I should care about them, but I feel like I care too much - to my detriment. I feel like I'm prone to devastation by things that I would normally be able to respond to without so much trouble.

So my questions are: why do these things affect me so strongly? how can I detach myself and keep my mood a bit steadier when things inevitably upset me? any suggestions about how to approach the self-harm (if at all)?
posted by sarae to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I teach college, which is easier than school, but I have a similar experience. I'm in my second year now, and I find I I'm a bit more detached than the first, so perhaps it just takes time? I've also been consciously making an effort to spend time on my own life (which includes other work-related things like research), and realize that I have things going on that are more important than my students.
posted by redlines at 1:14 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: With regard to how to handle self-harm, I think drawing attention to that part specifically is bad. I would have found it humiliating. And, honestly, it's a symptom, not a disease. Cutting and the like--you know, it's ugly by normal social standards, but infection risks aside, it's not usually that damaging. It's the underlying problems that are damaging. As a teenager with mental health problems, I would have very much liked it if any of my teachers had just asked now and then: How are you doing? What do you care about, what do you want to be doing with yourself, how can we help you figure out who you are right now and who you want to be? Not, why are you so sad and why don't you cheer up already and why don't you do your homework you're smart geez. That said, ask about whether there are ways for you to make referrals for mental health care, I would imagine today's schools are more likely to have those resources. I didn't trust therapists much at that point, because until I hit 18 all I got were parent-approved counselors who were terrible, but I wouldn't have hated someone for bringing it up. I did eventually get a lot of benefit from therapy and medication.

I'm not always perfectly functional now but I'm doing pretty well. I think I'd be doing better if people had reached out a little more instead of just chiding me for screwing up all the time. You are absolutely there to help them learn, but in a pinch, remember that it is way better for them to be making mistakes and acting out in high school than as adults. That's learning, too. I often got overwhelmed by things and nobody really stepped in to help me figure out, like, how to make a plan to recover once I was two weeks behind on the homework, so two would become eight, and eight would become a semester, you know? More intensive guidance on how to recover from mistakes would have gone a looong way and might also help you feel more constructive about problems.

(I think everybody would benefit from CBT and that Feeling Good should be required reading just for life, but I suspect it would help specifically here with emotional processing. Can't speak to that personally, though, because I am not a teacher, just a former adolescent screwup.)
posted by Sequence at 1:28 AM on December 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I won't threadsit, but I will say this - It's absolutely my priority to not upset or humiliate the student. I won't bring it up specifically with them. I'm planning on doing something along the lines of wellness and stress relief with their whole class. The student in question is not a "screwup" by any means - they're an overachiever. I also have a basic understanding of the issues behind self-harm and realize that it is a symptom. As a teen, I could have easily turned to self-harm in this way, I just "chose" another coping mechanism.

Unfortunately, I'm in China, and I don't have a lot of faith in the mental health care system here. What truly scares me is that there are almost certainly others who are struggling in related ways, and I'm afraid that nobody will help them. I worry.
posted by sarae at 1:42 AM on December 31, 2013

You're part of a team at school. I don't know who is on the team where you are, but I'm guessing you might feel a bit isolated and unsupported. In any case, find out who you can talk to and then do it. Maybe a psychologist, nurse, guidance counselor, other teachers, etc. Sometimes you're not the right one to be doing the worrying about a certain student. Sometimes you just need to hear a different perspective from a teacher who has been there twenty years and has dealt with a couple dozen cases just like the one bothering you at the moment.
posted by pracowity at 1:46 AM on December 31, 2013

This is a really hard part of teaching, I find. I teach some really difficult kids and have a challenging job but I still love my students dearly. It's hard to not take things personally or get too absorbed in their lives. When I find myself getting upset over something that happened at school, I try to take a step back and remind myself that if I am overwhelmed, upset, or stressed out, the kids will pick up on that. I try damn hard to be a positive, upbeat teacher (which is something else I have to work on all the time because I have to deal with disciplinary stuff a lot) and I don't want negative feelings or stress to weigh me down. Sometimes it takes a deep breath and a minute to myself to let it go, and sometimes it takes a little bit more, like talking it out with a more experienced colleague (even if it's just to vent and not necessarily to "solve" the issue).

As well, this might seem kind of harsh, but you have to remember that you will have different kids next year. You'll still get attached and things will still affect you, but ultimately, the kids are going to move on after this year, so it also kind of becomes a This too shall pass kind of thing.
posted by gursky at 1:50 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're not used to being in a position where you're tasked with caring for people, especially kids, it can really do a number on you. You're in an almost-parental role, overseeing lots of vulnerable young people. It's a lot of responsibility, and I'm not surprised it's draining as hell.

I've always been shy and anti-social, and after years of working from home circumstances forced me into a career in healthcare. I thought I'd do well with the technical aspects and suck at dealing with the sick people, but it was quite the reverse. I was totally inept technically, but I found I really connected with the patients and I loved helping them however I could through the difficult times. That being said, it could be emotionally exhausting, even when it went well.

In our normal lives, we get by with so much small talk and nonsense... but when you're taking care of vulnerable people a lot of that stuff falls away, and you find yourself dealing with pains and frustrations that we don't normally have to confront. Kids also don't understand themselves or the world all that well yet, so as an adult you can probably see through a lot of their bullshit, and you know when they're hurting or they're starting down a bad road.

You'll get a bit calloused soon enough, it's probably inevitable. They'll graduate, and as new generations of kids come in you'll have to take a longer view. For now, maybe work on being as present as you can at school, but letting it all go when you walk out the door. Maybe try to draw a sharp line between school-you and home-you.

I think this is the kind of job where you just have to find your way by doing it. Right now, you are probably doing a lot of good for these kids. Give yourself some credit. Not everybody could do this, and not everybody would care this much. If your problem is that you care too much, these are fortunate kids.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:19 AM on December 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I teach college, and my own research helps with this. I'd imagine having other meaningful projects would do the same.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:20 AM on December 31, 2013

I agree that time will help, but there also seems to be a touch of resistance (in your post) to the idea of becoming more detached- as if this is necessarily a sign of cynicism or callousness. I think you should work out whether and if so , why, a less emotionally involved response is the one you are after and then remind yourself of that when you think through your day as your students. Fwiw I think it is entirely possible to be caring and to maintains some level of detachment for your private life. In fact I think it is important to remember that you are ultimately there to educate these students, and not to parent or counsel them. You are not trained or equipped to do those other things. Of course the line is often not clear, and that is sometimes necessary , but I have also seen much well intentioned but ultimately unhelpful action taken by teachers who do Not know when to Pass the baton on to someone more senior, experienced, or appropriately trained. Not least the damage done to the teachers themselves , which of course is detrimental to their students in the long term.
posted by jojobobo at 3:08 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a feeling that you'll find that a lot of people who self-harm see themselves as screwups in some fashion or another, regardless of whether they're actually having problems with classwork. And that's part of the thing to watch out for. I was a perfect student in every possible way until everything fell apart one year. It's a risk, but it's something that really is mitigated a lot by people just checking in and showing some evidence of caring and valuing you for more than just your grades and good behavior, is all I was trying to say. Provide a model where mistakes are things you can recover from, not disasters, probably better for both you AND the students.
posted by Sequence at 3:26 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Remember that you can't care that much about everyone all the time: if you're preoccupied with worrying about one pupil, then you're doing the others you teach a disservice. You might find it helpful to make a deliberate effort to take one lesson at a time - there is nothing uncaring or callous about deliberately putting one set of pupils out of your mind as soon as your next class comes in so that you can completely focus on them and their needs. I don't know what subject you teach, but I find that getting really involved with my subject distracts me from the emotional.side of the job (at least during the school day - I've been teaching for years and I still sometimes struggle to switch off at the end of the day).

One thing that really helps me if I'm worried about a particular pupil is discussing it with someone else - as gursky says, this may not solve anything, but a) you will get someone else's perspective, b) they may have a better idea what to do next, and c) you'll feel like you've taken some sort of constructive action by informing someone rather than just sitting on the problem yourself. At your school, is there someone who deals with pastoral issues, or does each pupil have a teacher who is responsible for their general well-being (in my school, for example, this would be their form tutor)? Offloading onto such a person - even if they already know about a particular pupil's issues - might be one way for you to stop taking too much responsibility yourself.
posted by raspberry-ripple at 5:06 AM on December 31, 2013

Best answer: What truly scares me is that there are almost certainly others who are struggling in related ways, and I'm afraid that nobody will help them. I worry.

I have taught college, and I am in a family of teachers. Literally every person I'm related to is a teacher. I'm married to a teacher. My dad is a former superintendent and my mom was a fourth grade teacher for 35 years in an economically disadvantaged school in the same district where my dad was the superintendent. Many times they would tell me stories of students they encountered over the years; cutters, parents in prison, divorce, murder, death of immediate family, no food at home, no heat/water/electric at home, latchkey kids, living with grandparents who don't really get it, abuse... the list goes on and on.

I understand that you care about you students and you well should. You are correct in that you are not steeled enough because it's your first year of teaching (and you're in China). It will get easier. Something my parents told me when I first started teaching that has really helped me because to think about every problem of every student - you will lose sleep at night. You will lose focus on what it is that you're supposed to be doing. They told me this and when I get lost in my thoughts about the kid who's hurting themselves, is going home to a cold house and no food and mom and dad aren't around...

If you think about what every kid goes home to, it'll break your heart.

Rely on your coworkers to talk things through. If something needs to be reported, do so. But you are there to teach, and during your time you need to model what's important. Keep a clean classroom. Be nice to your students even when it's hard. Be firm. It's up to you to model what things are supposed to be like, not what they're "used to" at home. The classroom defines the expectations of what their lives should be; order, discipline, and most importantly, a caring environment.

You cannot help them when they're at home. You can only help them when they are in your classroom.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:59 AM on December 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, it takes time. I went overboard with the caring and, indeed, bonding at first. It was better when I acquired a layer of professionalism. Students like having a sense of who's in charge. One thing I read in a faculty handbook someplace has stuck with me as particularly helpful. That was, if a student is having issues you should keep having the same academic expectations, and the same standards for classroom behavior, as long as they are still in the class. That's the only thing that's really fair to all the students. In addition, it may actually scare an unstable student to have standards relaxed or exceptions made. They'll think, "Wow , I must really be in deep shit now." Respecting that this is a narrow piece of advice for a certain set of circumstances-- and that where you are, they may not have the same levels of support outside the classroom-- I think the core idea is helpful, namely that treating everyone with the same level of professionalism is actually empowering.

My partner at the time when I started teaching had been a high school teacher, and his bit of wisdom was, "Students can smell blood." In other words, students will eventually test you and if they sense vulnerability they will probably like you, but it's better in the long run if you can be steady and act like nothing fazes you. None of this is easy. I don't think I ever stopped being nicer to difficult students or ones I just didn't like for some reason, in an exaggerated attempt to be fair.

Those students just now-- I don't know exactly what they did, but you know it's not a comment on you, right?
posted by BibiRose at 6:08 AM on December 31, 2013

After 15 years of teaching (college level) and too many sleepless nights I have a few strategies for dealing with these types of situations.

1. I recognize that I am not a mental health professional. If I see or suspect that a student is in real distress I will speak with them personally (especially if they have come to me in the first place) but I will also physically walk them down to the school psychologists or (if this isn't possible for some reason) contact the psychologists and ask them to follow up. Maybe you don't have this option?

2. In some classes I either allow or reqire students to journal. If they write about a particular problem or issue I may respond with suggested viewings or readings I think will help (including links to askmefi on more than one occasion). I don't try to become their counsellor, in fact I carefully guard emotional distance, but I do suggest resources where appropriate.

3. Wherever possible I give students the possibility to use creative outlets for projects and allow them flexibility as to subject matter. This is possible because I largely work in arts and humanities related disciplines, though my students come from all areas. I have had students create posters about family pressures, stories about eating disorders, anti-homophobic tv ads, short documentaries about gambling addiction, collages about body image, you name it. In most cases they are required to do research and writing to back up the art work. They aren't required to make personal projects, but the option is there.

This doesn't solve all the problems, that's for sure, and sometimes I see things that are heartbreaking. I have to accept that there isn't much I can do for the student who has family being bombed in Syria, the one who is clearly struggling with anorexia or the super talented writer who wrote me the amazing but worrying story about drugging and partying with friends and then stopped showing up to class. This is part of why teaching is so great, we get to meet and share little slices of other peoples' lives. The students give us so much, we give them what we are able but recognize that we can only do our best. We all have limitations.
posted by Cuke at 6:23 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it is good that you care. Keep caring! But find a way to keep your compassion without it draining you. I recommend the book Trauma Stewardship which is about exactly these issues.
posted by mai at 8:34 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was kind of surprised by many of the answers here. In my book, caring about your students is not only a good thing, it's the ONLY thing that matters.

I'm a 10th year teacher, and I still feel really emotionally attached to them, and find it difficult when they are struggling or have something going on at home that is hurting them. I also work in an urban low-income school where my students have really hard lives. We recently have had several students (in a school of 300) committed to mental health facilities for suicidal ideation or self-harm. It's awful, and I really feel for them and with them.

And I think that's the strength of a good teacher - that each year, you can love and feel empathy and compassion for your students. You may well be the only person who is filling that role in your students' lives. A good teacher is far more like a parent than most people think.

In fact, just like parenting, loving your students is the most important thing you will do as a teacher; honestly, loving them is a prerequisite for teaching them ANYTHING. There is certainly a point where, like a parent, you have to enforce rules for their benefit. You don't do that because you want to be a dick, but rather because they need to learn NOW before they make a mistake that will affect their entire lives. It sounds like you have found an entirely appropriate balance in that area. It's only your emotions that are messing with you on that account...and believe me, that's something all parents can relate to.

I will say this though - it does get easier the longer you teach. You can look backwards at the kids who you thought would never make it and see their college graduation photos and their own children littering their facebook timeline...and that makes it easier to get some perspective.

So I think you're asking the wrong question. The "why are you feeling this" part is because you care. If something doesn't hurt, it didn't matter. Your students matter to you. Keep feeling deeply for them.

And frankly, showing them that you feel strong emotions shows them that they can also have those emotions. You get to model for them what it looks like to have an adult emotional life. You having strong emotions makes it okay for them to also have strong emotions. There is a lot of safety in that for your students.

Two caveats:
1. In the situation where you notice something like the self-harm, showing how upset you are at that moment may not be appropriate. In that situation, what I tend to do is either dive into a whole-class high energy activity (often improvising - which takes more attention and focus so I can't think about the other stuff going on) or have them work silently and individually. Then I'll read email or metafilter for a few minutes until I've sufficiently distracted myself and can come back fully. Those are my two go-to strategies, actually. If I'm really worried about someone, I will sometimes just pull them outside for a moment and tell them: "I care about you, I'm worried about you, and I want to help. I noticed that [x]. What can I do?"**

2. I know that there are cross-cultural factors at play, and I imagine that part of the question you're not asking has to do with "How do I fit in to a culture where emotional regulation and experience is so different from my own emotional experience?"

I'm not sure I can answer that question, as it is outside my area of expertise. But I will say that I think your strength is in your difference. It is really okay to feel things strongly and show that. Assuming your students are teenagers, their emotional experience is probably much closer to yours than you think.

If you have more questions or want to talk further, I'm happy to talk over memail or gmail (same name as mefi at gmail dot com). Good luck. Teaching, especially in the first few years, is BRUTAL.

**I always ask "What can I do?" rather than "Can I do anything?" because the first assumes that there is something I can do, the second assumes there is nothing I can do. And there very well may be nothing I can do, but I want to phrase it so that my students know I'm really there if they need something.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:24 PM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a teacher aide for severely disabled students. This is my 2nd year, though I have similar experience for more years on a part-time basis.

All of their stories are sad, even if nothing could be done to prevent their disability and they come from loving families. I'm attached to all of them (though not all to the same degree) - I spend all day with them. But you have to realize you are a part of their life, but there are other parts too. I can't change that student A lives with a hoarder or that student B has mental health challenges. I don't have the training and/or authority to deal with every individual problem, as long as no abuse/neglect is happening.

I care deeply for my students, but our relationship is not one of friends or family. I don't think I'd be as good at my job if I were. You can care about them but you need to also do your obligation as an educator and when you get consumed it takes away your focus.

But also, it is easy to think about the negative things going on - take time to appreciate all the good you do for them. When my students win, I win too.
posted by Aranquis at 12:37 PM on December 31, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the replies.

I will work on maintaining focus - making sure I continue to be a good teacher, because that is why I'm here. I won't stop caring. I don't intend to baby anyone, or to relax standards - I really honestly try my best to be consistent, even though I worry that a student will be really upset about a lower mark. Luckily I don't think all of this is affecting my professional judgement as far as academics goes.

I did speak to the student in question. It went really well - I didn't mention the self-harm (and don't plan to), but most of my students are going through a rather stressful time (tests right before exams for some reason!) so stress came up organically. I made it clear that I worry about them (plural, as in all of my students), and that I'm always available to talk if needed. While other teachers are giving quizzes right before exams, I'm going to help with review and do a few relaxing, community building activities over the next few days.
posted by sarae at 10:04 PM on January 2, 2014

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