Teaching is more than teaching kids how to read and write

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Teaching is more than teaching kids how to read and write; It is about reaching clear to the heart of another human being and using everything you’ve got to make a difference. It’s calming kids when they’ve had a rough recess, celebrating when they lose their first tooth, absorbing their struggles and their traumas, channeling their joy, and investing the currency of your own emotions in an effort to help them grow.

Teaching is walking an emotional tightrope. Every day children arrive at your door, and each is bringing a range of emotions. In order to reach each of these students, teachers must not only respond to -and often gently guide and correct-students’ behaviour, but also do so with a calm and consistent tone. You have to be unemotional in order to make space for their emotions.

The job description is to provide academic instruction, but the most complex, difficult-to-master aspects of teaching involve guiding students to be emotional managers. We are teaching them their ABCs, but not how to spin out of control, how to forgive, how to negotiate, how to take things one step at a time.

We have to do all of this -for every one of our students, often all at once- while also managing their own feelings. If we’ve had a terrible day at home, we set that aside for the child in front of us, who comes in with his or her own story. It’s a profession that elicits strong emotional reactions from its practitioners.

Teachers are the “shock absorbers” of an overwhelmed system. People can blame the teacher because too much expectation has been placed on the school system. In other words, when students fail to get what they need, teachers are expected, unfairly, to pick up the slack. And when they inevitably fail to do so, they feel personal and professional guilt, which they must suppress for the broader good: Emotional labor begets more emotional labor.

This is why, for instance, teachers in underprivileged areas often report higher degrees of burnout than their counterparts in more privilegedones. This framework also explains why teachers, direct caregivers who are generally undervalued by society, are expected to take their students’ struggles personally -while doctors, direct caregivers with a relatively high degree of social status, are not expected to magically cure patients made sick by their surroundings.

Although teachers should always expect to bring their humanity and vulnerability to their job, they can’t -and shouldn’t- be expected to alleviate the pressures that cause them to feel such disproportionate ownership over their students’ emotional lives.

Only when teachers’ expertise is respected, they will be able to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, manage their well-being more proactively, and pursue their professional growth. They should not be expected to take responsibility for the ills of society. If society does not meet students’ basic needs, they come to school with heavy emotional loads.