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Social and Emotional Learning for Teachers: Beyond Burnout

5 Min Read
SEL for Teachers hero

When I see the growing body of research and the increased awareness around social and emotional learning (SEL), I feel hopeful that education is trending toward a more meaningful understanding of SEL’s deep impact on life success. And as SEL becomes more ubiquitous in our conversations around school improvement, I feel encouraged that we are focused on addressing the needs of the whole child. SEL’s emergence into the spotlight has shown our communities that the best educators place students at the center of all they do. They love their kids and want them to achieve in school and beyond.

But I often ask myself, what about the teachers? Even prior to the pandemic, teacher satisfaction, stress, and retention had been perennial issues. The prolonged pandemic strains only deepened these ingrained fractures within the system, which have yet to be resolved in any fundamental way. We know that teachers have the most significant impact on student learning, but if their own needs are missing from the equation, then I only foresee a breakdown in what we can expect from SEL in our schools.

To repeat an oft-used metaphor, we must put on our oxygen masks first so that we can adequately assist others. If teachers are responsible for facilitating innovative, rigorous, relevant, and engaging learning, and in forging the meaningful student-teacher relationships that allow this to happen, then they, too, must be empowered to reap the research-based benefits of SEL.

I see many articles that sound the alarm about teacher burnout and attrition. But my additional concern is that there is more than just a preventive aspect of adult-focused SEL knowledge and competence. There is an incredible opportunity for SEL to create conditions for teachers to truly love the work they do and to more deeply love themselves.

I have read articles and social media posts that liken teaching to a vocation or a personal calling—and for many, it is. But sometimes I get the sense that with this characterization is the implication that the overbearing stress and emotional and physical depletion just come with the territory. I disagree. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, it is a tough job. But it need not be dehumanizing or demoralizing.

SEL Skills for Teachers

For leaders, there is accountability to be had: this means walking the walk and creating the conditions for a relationships-focused culture. They can do this by modeling the behaviors and providing the supports for professional learning around adult-centered SEL. I devoted a chapter of my book Teach Up! to discussing adverse childhood experiences and ways for educators to grow awareness of how to respond to students suffering the effects of trauma, and how to support those who are acutely in need. A greater knowledge and application of SEL skills and competencies can also help teachers gain a deeper self-understanding of how to confront and navigate their own chronic stressors to focus on great instruction.

Here are some ways that teachers can empower themselves to create better conditions for instructional excellence—and joy—to occur:

  • Reflect on Your Why: I’m often amazed at how my own reality can shift when I practice mindfulness and intentionally adjust my attention and perception. Stress, conflict, exhaustion, and burnout are real things, but when we routinely refocus our lens on that which motivates us, we often locate the perseverance and joy that so often gets clouded by life’s noise. Something I would do if I was up late grading papers would be to keep a picture of my students on my desk at home to remind me why I wanted to teach; my students came from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds and I wanted to give them every opportunity to achieve.
  • Talk to Leadership: I hear it in the voices of teachers I meet with. I see it on Twitter, in cascading chains of comments about the exhaustion and helplessness—about not feeling supported. Let your leaders know when there’s a problem. Speak up about what you need to bring your best self to the work. For example, if you have a student who is struggling academically and behaviorally and your efforts aren’t working, instead of spinning your wheels, reach out to leadership to productively problem solve before your tank is empty. If you’re emotionally spent, tirelessly working to close learning gaps and get your kids back on level, reach out to your principal instead of suffering in silence, to either request coverage for your class or take back your planning time.
  • Write Down Your Plan: I know some teachers who feel their heads might explode if they hear the term “self-care” one more time, but I will firmly double-down on my belief that educators must prioritize their own self-love, well-being, and self-advocacy. We are more likely to complete the goals we write down, so write down the specific activities that you will engage in during the week that bring you joy and put gas in your emotional tank. Add to your to-do list activities you enjoy whether that’s gardening, cooking a special meal, or spending time with family and friends. Take note of how you feel afterward.

We set the bar high for teachers because we want our kids to thrive in life, and we know that teachers influence in this endeavor in a big way. By making teachers part of the SEL equation, we model what we want to see at every level of the school system and offer the support that ultimately leads to a joyful staff and successful students.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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