Teaching can be quite the isolating profession. Yes, there are people in and out of your classroom all day long. And, yes, your colleagues are always there next to you in the hallway before school, after school, and during each passing period.
But for all the togetherness and interactions that each day brings, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time as the lone adult in a room with students. While I won’t assume this was every educator’s experience, I often compared myself to those around me (you know, the ones who I’d never seen teach, but believed never had the same problems as I did…), and on the tougher days, ended up pretty beat up by the end of it.
Looking back, I can see so many times where others extended an empathetic response when they didn’t have to. The kindness extended my way left a profound impact on me. The isolating nature of teaching only magnified my need for an empathetic response to my struggles. But as much as I can see the need for this type of response in me, I don’t often go out of my way to look for situations where people might need the same.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to highlight three opportunities for us to respond with empathy to those who are teaching next door.
The “Class seems to be out of control” moment
We associate a quiet classroom with a quality teacher, and when things get a little out of control, it’s really easy for us to compare our experience against that of others and begin to think things like, “Well, if you just did X, that wouldn’t have happened.” It’s important to remember that even in those moments where that fix might be helpful in the long haul, we don’t need to lead with fixing. We must first care for the person who just lived through that experience, and an empathetic response is a great place to start that off.
The “You’re exhausted but you’re still going” moment
This is something that most teachers are guilty of–the “I’ll just keep working hard and smile even bigger the more I’m exhausted” problem. Here, I wonder if we’re quiet for a different reason; where everyone has a tip and an opinion for classroom management, it’s a lot tougher to find answers for those who feel they are drowning in their work. It feels at times like there are so few variables that we have control over; it can be hard to even know what practical solutions to offer. Still, in this situation, I don’t think we can underestimate the power of making sure others know that they’re not alone in that feeling. For further reading here, see Brené Brown’s article “Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol” and what it has to say to all those who feel part of their work is to overextend themselves.
The “You are doing trying everything & it’s not working” moment
We’ve all been there. Everything was planned diligently. You’re differentiating for a wide range of interests and abilities, you have reworked a past lesson that was already good into something that’s truly been designed for the specific learners in that specific room. And it tanks. Bad. It’s like you’ve not done this before (even though you’re quite good at teaching and engaging young people).
In that moment, we’re tempted to view that teacher as one who didn’t do enough (or at least not the right thing). That teacher doesn’t need our judgment; he or she needs our empathy.
LET EMPATHY WIN THE DAY
Each of these moments tend to be times when teachers get judged. A “good teacher” doesn’t have a lesson that doesn’t work, and he or she never shows any signs of fatigue, no matter the current level of exhaustion, no matter the number of precipitating factors professionally or personally. Except that these are all lies. We know they are, but they’ve been told long enough that if we don’t do something to disrupt the cycle, we run the risk of teaching another round of teachers that this is true. So, when you see those indicators that can be used for malice, be good. Respond with empathy. Extend a listening ear. Be present. Listen to understand. And relate.
The time you spend sharing an empathetic word with a peer will pay exponential dividends in driving shame out of their curiosity and willingness to innovate as they grow.