How Teachers Can Budget Their Emotional Energy

Helping teachers make it through the rough patches of the school year has been my focus for nearly two decades. One thing I’ve learned is that, even though teachers are supposed to be willing to “anything for the kids,” people’s best moods are limited resources. Start the day with an emotional rubber band already stretched to its breaking point, and you’re likely to snap by three o’clock. Which leads to you beat yourself up because, even “for the kids,” you couldn’t rise to the challenge. Which doesn’t help with the rubber band problem.

That’s why it helps to think of budgeting your emotional energy the same way you might budget money. Just like money, your emotional budget can be wasted or even stolen, leaving your account overdrawn. The good news is that, just as with other limited resources, there are steps you can take to keep from spending your emotional budget too early in the day—or in the wrong places.

Limit Dispiriting Discussions

Dealing with kids all day can make you crave the company of other adults, but not all adult conversations are equally helpful. Teachers’ lounge gripe sessions may help let off steam some days but feel immobilizing on others. Others times, it is more discouraging to talk to the teacher down the hall who’s sure she’s doing a fantastic job and can’t wait to tell you about it. Just remember: Productive conversations are comforting rather than overwhelming. And if any conversation that makes those Sunday-night stomach cramps worse, it’s not the conversation you need to have right now.

You need to stay up to date with the news. But do you need to stay that up to date with the news?

The past few years have been a whirlwind of roller-coaster-like change. And yet, one thing remains tediously constant: if you check the news right now, you’re going to see a headline that contains the words “Uncertainty Looms.” And it’s going to mess with your head. Why? Because uncertainty, especially the looming kind, keeps our brains running on a mouse wheel of trying to prepare for the future without enough information to do so. That’s also why, if you need to be emotionally present for a large group of kids, you may want to limit how many times you refresh multiple news apps throughout the day. Put your phone down. We’re going to be here for a while.

Save social media for a time when you can afford to be emotionally blindsided.

If the news can sometimes be overwhelming and one-on-one conversations can sometimes feel draining, social media has a way amplifying the both of these feelings almost all the time. The whole business model of social media is based on harvesting your emotional energy to sell it to advertisers. Social media is an immediate, no-sense-of-perspective closeup on every unresolved issue you are currently worried about. This would be problem even if these sites weren’t constantly tweaking their algorithms to maximize “engagement,” which might sound like a synonym for “interest,” but more accurately translates to, “feelings of outrage, envy, or impending doom that are so intense you can’t turn away from the targeted ads in between them until you look up from the screen an hour later and aren’t quite sure how that half-empty, party-sized bag of M&M’s got into your hand.” It’s not a coincidence that after an hour on the app of your choice you feel too drained to tackle the tasks ahead of you. Heaven forbid you read the comments.

You are allowed be happy or excited sometimes.

We all know it’s possible to be unhappy while everyone around us is celebrating. On the flip side of this, it’s also possible to hate what’s going on in the news but still experience individual moments of optimism, enjoyment, or satisfaction. When these moments come your way, take them. Even if it doesn’t feel like the best moment to broadcast them to the world, accept these moments. Enjoy them. Tuck the memory into your emotional wallet. Don’t you get enough of the other stuff?

Get enough sleep.

I often get asked for the one piece of advice I’d give to any teacher, and this is it. When you haven’t slept, you automatically become a worse version of yourself. You become forgetful. You become impatient. You have trouble thinking critically, and you take everything personally. Not exactly the qualities of an ideal teacher or parent. Taking care of kids is an important job. But taking care of ourselves is an important part of that job, and it’s harder than ever in the middle of a crisis. If you set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it, you’ll be better at everything else the next day. Remember, you’re doing it for the kids.

Book a one-on-one session of Office Hours to talk about what’s on your mind.

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