Thick Skin: Do Teachers Really Have it? And How Can You Get It?

Do teachers have thick skin?There is an idea out there that being a teacher takes “thick skin.”

This is one of those characteristics people seem to assign to teachers as a group, right up there with patient, or obsessed with color-coded folders, or interested in the strong opinions of people who have never taught but think they would be great at it.

Sometimes, thick skin is a trait teachers are proud of. How better to explain these Halloween tote bags trending at teeshirtpalace.com?

Sometimes teachers are proud of having "thick skin."

In other instances, the pressure to have thick skin feels like yet another chance to fall short: As if it’s not enough to watch a kid fall asleep directly in front of your face, or have a former student point to your classroom door from the hallway and tell a friend they, “always hated that class.” Must you also worry that you’re missing some psychological superpower that was supposed to make this roll right off you?

Must you also sit through a professional development training in which someone hands out giant Q-tips as a reminder to, “Q.T.I.P! Quit Taking It Personally!”?

Or must you engage in an online forum where participants suggest that, actually, it’s bad to develop thick skin—the Essential Teacher Quality Never to be Tampered With is sensitivity; thicker skin would make you a soulless instructional robot powered by the tears of underserved students?

Let’s hope the answer is none of the above.

I recently stumbled on a new way to think about this issue while listening to a podcast called Therapist Uncensored. In it, therapists discuss insights into human behavior that apply to—pretty much everyone. The title of the episode was “How Good Boundaries Can Actually Bring Us Closer,”, which, depending on how you feel about therapist-y language, either caught your interest or made you want to run screaming from the room. In either case, I liked the advice of therapist Juliane Taylor Shore, who teaches her patients to visualize an image she calls, “The Jello Wall.” (If you’re listening to the episode, Shore’s description starts at the 8:43 time stamp.)

Here’s a summary of the “Jello wall” image, and how teachers can use it to develop (the right kind of) thick skin.

Imagine a wall of Jello-like substance, about the width of your arm. The job of this wall is to slow down the inputs coming at you, briefly trapping them in deep slow motion, so you have time to examine them and ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is this true or not true?
  2. Is this about me or not about me?

If something is not true, or not about you, then you have the option to kick it back out of your Jello wall rather than letting it through.

Some comments or behaviors, Shore explains, are really about “someone expressing an internal state in themselves.” They are tired or overwhelmed. They are having trouble reading and need to create a distraction. They want to hurt someone’s feelings because their feelings have been recently hurt.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have to deal with the situation: Something can be not true or really about someone else’s “internal state” and still cause drama in your classroom. But taking a beat to visualize that Jello wall may give you enough distance to see these issues as part of a complicated job in a complicated world—not a personal failure or injury in which you must marinate your soul.

This image might be also be a helpful tool to share with students. It seems like a helpful approach to so many aspects of life—something to aim for even if you don’t nail it on the first try. Sometimes, we can all use a little help having thicker skin.

To paraphrase some of Shore’s related points: If you don’t let a behavior touch your heart, you don’t have to defend against it. If it doesn’t hurt you, you can lean in. You can keep your heart open if you know it is well-protected.

Or, if you prefer, there’s probably no harm in carrying around a giant Q-tip.

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Honesty, humor, practical advice, and occasional oversharing.