You walk into the staff room, and one of your colleagues is griping under their breath about the broken copy machine or how students lose everything they’re ever given. You notice you start to feel just a little more tense, just a little less content. What do you do with that?
It’s not news to any of us that another person’s emotions can affect our own. This is true in marriage, friendships, and certainly in the classroom. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that emotions, including one’s sense of stress, are contagious. As reported in a 2017 EducationWeek article, one study from the University of British Columbia found that students in classrooms with a teacher who reported high levels of burnout also had higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. That same article cited further research by the American Educational Research Association that found that teachers who felt stressed “displayed fewer effective teaching strategies…including clear instruction, effective classroom management, and creation of a safe and stimulating classroom climate for their students.”
The thing about stress and burnout, however, is that two people operating in the exact same conditions can experience dramatically different thoughts and feelings about it. Another study also mentioned in that EdWeek article researched the demands on teachers as compared to their resources, and found that the stress a teacher feels is linked to whether they feel they have the cognitive, emotional, and other resources required to meet students’ needs. “This is purely about perceived demand and resources; two teachers in the same school and teaching the same kids could feel they have more or less resources,” said Richard Lambert, co-author of the study conducted at University of Texas, Austin.
According to teacher feedback data recently collected at one Southern California charter school organization, many teachers report feeling the seasonal norm of “tired, pressured, anxious, overwhelmed, and annoyed.”
So, what can site leaders do to help teachers manage and lessen their stress so both they and their students can better perform and achieve success?
It is important to keep in mind how supportive coaching conversations can be. If indeed a teacher’s stress is related to their perceptions about their own internal resources and the external supports they receive, then the attuned administrator knows they must ensure all teachers feel they have their leader’s support. A big part of supporting someone is in creating a safe space for them to vent and process their thoughts and feelings.
“I felt anger and fear and pain coming from him, but I didn’t back away, I stayed right there, and knew I had done the right thing when he buried his face in my neck and cried some more.”
~ W. Bruce Cameron, A Dog’s Purpose
Elena Aguilar reminds us that teachers’ emotions are “normal and pervasive.” Here are her tips for coaching through strong emotions:
- Acknowledge the teacher’s emotion: “There’s a lot of emotion in your voice/eyes/words right now.”
- Name the emotion and check in with the teacher: “You seem ________________; is that accurate?”
- Accept the emotion: “It’s normal to have a whole bunch of feelings when ___________.”
- Encourage exploration: “Would you like to unpack this with me right now as a supportive partner?”
Those familiar with Cognitive Coaching® might recognize the Pace and Leading structures. These offer a helpful roadmap for an emotion-based coaching conversation. The idea is that the coach first paces the teacher’s emotional state—that is, the coach helps clarify and label the teacher’s existing state, then identifies the teacher’s desired state, and presupposes the teacher’s ability to access their internal resources to reach that desired state. Many teachers report that simply having their feelings and challenges acknowledged without judgment is enough to help them over whatever hurdles that lie before them. Again, it’s the venting and processing that helps.
Pacing is accomplished using specific sentence frames:
- “You’re __________, because _________.” (Label current emotion, identify context)
- “And what you want is ___________.” (Name their desired outcome)
- “And you’re looking for a way to make that happen.” (Acknowledge their work ahead))
It is important to note that the coach may need to try labeling the current emotion or desired state more than once to get it right. This is not a failure on the coach’s behalf; rather, it is this very process that helps the client understand and work through their emotions. It’s a good thing!
The PACE acronym, for Perceive A Challenging Emotion, and the LEAD acronym, for Let them Explore Alternative Directions, help remind me of my purpose and intent as I coach my clients through their emotions and challenges. Once I have successfully paced my client, which I will know because the teacher has confirmed it, then I can ask leading questions or provide thoughtful paraphrases intended to facilitate my client’s access to their own states of mind so that they can help themselves through their challenge.
Another indicator for the coaching leader to stay attuned to during emotion-based conversations with teachers is their non-verbal communication. Shifts in posture, gesture, or vocal intonation reveal our inner state. Maybe you see your teacher relax their shoulders as you pace and re-pace their feelings with them; maybe you notice them crossing or uncrossing their arms, signaling a sense of unease or ease within the conversation; or maybe they’re starting to take deep breaths, a sign they are beginning to rebalance and settle a racing heart or mind.
April and May are the rollercoaster months, with many highs and lows, and each of us—adults and students alike—can find we encounter both joy and fear on such journeys. We’re joyful that spring is back, full of sunshine and flowers and the promise of a summer respite, but first the testing, the assessments, the hard work of proving our growth and the fear we aren’t good enough yet. What might be the impact on students if their stressed-out teacher is compassionately coached through their fear and anxiety about the upcoming state tests? What might be the impact on achievement indicators if the adults on campus can help each other and their students process and regulate their strong emotions around high-stakes assessments?
What might be some other ways you can show empathy and understanding for your staff this testing season?