Elizabeth Pappas

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach 7th grade science at my local public school, and I’m so unhappy. It’s only been a little over a month since school started, and I feel so done. It’s October, and it already feels like April. I feel like I’m a bad teacher. I know I’m not, but I keep feeling it every single day. How can I spark my joy in teaching again?  —It’s Gonna Be A Long Year

Dear I.G.B.A.L.Y.,

Thank you for sharing your honest range of emotions. I hope you know you are not alone. I’ve had times in my life where my inner chatter in my mind says things like, “I think I’m the only one” or “It’s just me.” Only to realize when I had the courage to be vulnerable and share my experiences, someone else related, too. Teaching is considered to be one of the most stressful jobs, according to the research firm RAND. The statistics are alarming, with 75 percent of teachers reporting high levels of job-related stress as compared to 40 percent or other working adults. The rate of depression is much higher, too. I think we can all agree that we need to do more for teachers who are stressed and feeling burnout.

We’ve learned from psychologists that negative experiences impact our brains more than the positive events in our lives. This means we think about and react more intensely to negativity. Kendra Cherry describes how “the negative bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.” This greatly affects our mindset, decisions, behaviors, and quality of life. So, if you are at work and something goes wrong or feels bad, you tend to ruminate and replay the negatives. This sucks the joy right out of our lived experiences. Going into a third school year that is affected by COVID-19 is feeding into this vicious negativity cycle.

So what can we do? The first step is to practice self-compassion. Kristen Neff is considered a pioneer in the field of self-compassion. Self-compassion can be considered an antidote to the negative bias hard-wired in our brains. Neff’s techniques for working with difficult emotions are doable, comforting, and can help you nurture a more tender way of being with yourself. One technique Kristen Neff offers is Soften Soothe Allow.

First, label the emotions that are coming up for you. The more precise language you use to describe your emotions, the better. Naming our emotions with a higher level of emotional granularity tends to make the emotion less supercharged and relieves some of the stress and energy drain they create. Psychologist Dan Siegel calls this approach “name it to tame it.”

Next, when you are triggered at work, and you continue replaying the negative event over and over again, try and stop the rumination. You can do this by noticing where you are feeling the emotions in your body. Is your heart racing, throat constricting, stomach feeling gurgly? How are the emotions showing up in your body? By working with the emotion in your body, you create space and interrupt and calm the negative patterns. The space can dilute the intensity of emotions that are coming up for you. Maybe you can think about yourself as the sky and not the storm clouds that are passing through.

Lastly, bring some warm tenderness into your work life. It may feel a little silly at first, but what do you have to lose? Maybe as you close your classroom door, you create a routine where you say some kind words to yourself. For example, “You showed up when things were hard today. Good job. Keep moving.” Softening emotions helps you overcome the negativity bias and treat yourself with more tenderness. Actively soothe yourself with words of kindness. You wouldn’t withhold these words or sentiments from a friend. So comfort yourself like you would a friend. This level of self-compassionate acceptance allows the situation to be as it is and encourages forward movement towards joy.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
There is a concerning trend at the high school I work at. Students take pictures of a classmate that they know/think is LGBTQ+ and “out” them on social media. As the GSA sponsor at my school, it makes me feel physically sick and frightens me. My club members who are still “in the closet” are terrified. I don’t even know what to do.  I’m upset that we cannot prevent this “outing” stuff in the first place. Some parents will kick their child out of the house or physically hurt them for identifying as queer. Some LGBTQ+ students might commit suicide if they are outed like this. This is a life-threatening situation! I really wish my admin would be doing more to try to prevent this. What can I do? —Be the Change

Dear B.T.C.,

Big gratitude to you for being an ally as the GSA sponsor. I have no doubt that you are creating a sanctuary space of belonging for every single student you work with. I’m imagining your students as bright stars creating their own constellations together.

There is NOTHING funny or OK about “outing” another human being. Your concern is totally legitimate. According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth are about five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their peers. Let’s keep up the resilience and resistance to create a more loving and welcoming world for our youth. When LGBTQ+ kids have acceptance and support from one adult, the risk of attempting suicide goes down by 40 percent. YOU are making a real difference.

Arielle Schwarz describes why “outing” someone is just plain wrong. “The act of outing someone is detrimental because it is a violation of their privacy. Often people who are outed feel blindsided and forced to reveal a deeply personal part of their identity without their consent and under someone else’s terms. Coming out is a process and can be a difficult time for someone because of discrimination, homophobia, or potential marginalization from their families and the community at large. People must choose for themselves how and when to come out.”

Yes, your administration needs to get involved. Can you invite your administrator to come to a GSA meeting and involve the students and their voices? Sharing personal stories may be a way of increase the urgency for the principal. In addition to a face-to-face meeting with admin, you can encourage your GSA members to write letters urging the principal to take a public stand. If you are not getting hands-on support from your site leadership, I recommend reaching out to your district office. There may be department or staff members that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Trying to dismantle bias and prejudice isn’t possible all on your own.

Inquire with your leadership team about the consequences for students who “outed” another person. Having good follow-through is an important strand of hope. Students who act like bullies should experience logical consequences because of this threatening behavior. The devastating, mean-spirited, dangerous outing students do to LGBTQ+ students must not be tolerated.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach second grade. At recess, several of my students like to play the same kickball game. Yesterday, one of them came crying to me because one of his classmates said he can’t play with them anymore. I’ve also overheard a student telling another kid, “You can’t sit by me at lunch.” We’ve talked about what it means to be a good friend in our classroom, but this exclusion stuff is still happening. I know I need to address this, or the year will be full of tears. What are some next steps I can take? —Inclusion or Bust

Dear I.O.B.,

Thank goodness you are aware of the hurtful exclusion that some students are experiencing. Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That’s what you are doing! You have information that is unsettling and disturbing and needs tending to. Now, let’s consider some options.

Some common friendship issues include exclusion, bullying, rejection, gossiping and bossy issues. And we create the learning conditions that have the power to promote a classroom that feels like an oasis. A classroom oasis provides relief and is a refuge. Although these issues are not likely to be “fixed” overnight, we all need a starting place.

The first thing to do is to check in on the students who have been excluded or treated badly by other classmates. This lays the groundwork for the oasis. One-on-one support with someone who listens WELL builds trust and is tremendously comforting. Also, part of listening well is providing wait time that may feel longer than normal. How could something so obvious make a difference? Well, the upset students will better learn to regulate their emotions, understand their feelings, and express themselves just by you holding quiet space. Be present and listen with your whole body.

Another way to create your classroom oasis full of sustenance and insight is to use read-aloud texts. High-quality, relevant texts help kids become more aware and discuss how to problem solve friendship issues. The characters from friendship read-alouds serve as meaningful examples of empathy and compassion.

As you seek to nurture positive social and emotional spaces to address the friendship problems, try using simple questions like: How did this character feel and why? What advice would you give them? Have you experienced anything like this character is facing? One of my favorite read-aloud texts to springboard meaningful discussions around friendship is Each Kindness by Jaqueline Woodson. There is an emphasis on the power of small acts of kindness, especially for a new girl at school. Your deliberate approach of using scenarios in books to enable discussions and appreciation for varied perspectives will no doubt be valuable to all of your learners. Read-aloud experiences are capsules of true life.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
OK, I think I’ve decided a class pet is a good idea. I’m hoping for a calming/grounding effect for my fifth graders. Many years ago, I had two pet rats. They were amazing but more work than I care to take on. What do you recommend? —Getting a Pet

Dear G.A.P.,

Your students are super fortunate to have a teacher willing to take on the extra efforts of caring for a classroom pet. We had turtles and crayfish in my 4th-grade classroom. During the years I had pets, students exhibited so much joy, curiosity, affection, comfort, leadership skills, cooperation, and compassion. Kids came knocking at the classroom door early in the morning to come help take care of our animals. It was worth it!

The American Humane Society has engaged in studies related to the benefits of classroom pets. In addition to building a strong sense of responsibility and empathy, teachers reported an improvement in vocabulary development and writing. Your animal friends lend themselves to a range of descriptive writing. The pet experience also provides a relevant context for reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking. Student inquiry charts and research projects become a natural part of having animals in the classroom. There are many opportunities for cross-disciplinary study as you learn about and care for your pet. Maybe you measure food and water consumption or create calendars to organize their care. So the benefits go beyond the social and emotional realm into the academic.

Let’s talk about what type of animal is best for you and your classroom. Guinea pigs are fun to feed and affectionate, but some can get nervous. Reptiles are easy to pick up and feed less frequently than other animals. They require certain temperatures and humidity, so the right equipment is important. Butterflies are super wonderous and engaging as you observe their stages of transformation. It’s awe-inspiring! Many say to avoid birds because their noise can contribute to a chaotic vibe. The most important thing is to decide on something that you feel comfortable handling, so that you can show a calm approach to the students.

Remember that having an animal in the classroom requires some extra care coordination around weekends, breaks, and remote teaching. Cost is something to consider, too. So you might want to apply for a grant to help get your classroom ready for your new addition. If you decide that a pet is not for you, give pet rocks a try! Whatever animal you choose as your pet, let the pure joy and excitement outweigh the upkeep and costs.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m so upset. We were just told we are only allowed 150 copies per month. That’s all. 150 pages for copies. And they count front and back as two copies. So now I’m going to have to go to Kinkos and make my own copies. Keep in mind that my county wouldn’t pay for textbooks for their state dual credit class. So I copied the entire textbook to help them pass their test. Now that’s well over my limit. Seriously. How am I supposed to do this job with all these crazy limitations?

Illustration: Jennifer Jamison





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