By: Erin Swanson, M.Ed.
Wyatt’s face grew a darker shade of red. Between sobs, he sputtered, “I hate recess! Everybody plays so rough!”
I steadied myself with a deep breath, mustering every ounce of calm I could. I felt the eyes of 30 seven-year-olds watching me as they filed into the classroom from recess.
In my most calm and in-control tone of voice, I instructed, “Class, please meet me at your rug spots. You can talk quietly to your rug partner while you wait for me to start our science lesson in a few minutes.”
I returned my attention to Wyatt. He had been in my classroom for the past 10 minutes, distraught over a heated game of soccer that became too physical. I knew that Wyatt’s stress was more than the typical first-grader’s reaction to soccer troubles—he had experienced abuse at home; games that got too physical triggered his PTSD.
My heart ached for him. The familiar welling up of sadness I felt for him arose, tangled up with the anxiety I still felt from sending in a mandated report about this abuse just weeks before. I wondered, how was his home life going? My brow furrowed as I realized I hadn’t heard an update recently.
A roar of giggles erupted from the rug. My chest constricted—my jaw clenched. The students on the rug had become restless, their volume escalating. “Class, your noise level is at a level 4, and I need you to bring it down to a level 1,” I said and waited as their booming voices dwindled to whispers.
My stomach churned with undigested, mixed emotions. I squatted down and faced Wyatt, “Ok, let’s take a long, deep breath together.” Wyatt followed my lead as I breathed in and out. “Good. Now, I do want to help you with this, but you see that the class is waiting for me. Why don’t you take 5 minutes to sit in our cool down corner. You can snuggle with a stuffed animal, draw, write, or read—whatever you need to do. Then, when the timer goes off, you can join us for the science lesson. We can meet again at lunch to talk more about this. Sound good?”
Wyatt nodded, sniffling. I handed him a tissue, offered him a high-five and a warm smile, and returned to the class.
“Okay, my little scientists!” I exclaimed enthusiastically. “Who’s ready to sing our song about the phases of the moon?” The students cheered and joined along as I started to sing … “The Earth’s Moon orbits all around us …”
During my teaching years, this was a common scene. I’d swallow my true feelings in order to be calm and cheerful for my students.
The thing is—the more I’d push my own emotions down, the more they would fester. Eventually, this led to pure emotional exhaustion and burnout. I didn’t realize at the time that I was experiencing the emotional labor of teaching.
What is Emotional Labor?
In 1983, sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, coined the term “emotional labor” to describe the emotional regulation that work requires—outside of the mental and physical demands of the job.
“At its core, emotional labor is the regulation of one’s feelings at one’s job. It is the effort and control it takes to display the organizationally appropriate sentiment—whether that is cheerfulness, compassion, discipline, or neutrality—when personal emotions run counter to those expected and required. It is emotional labor because there is emotional dissonance, i.e., a mismatch between expected and felt emotions.”
One of the ways people suppress their emotions while they work is through surface acting. “Surface acting refers to either suppressing the actual yet undesired emotion (e.g., anger), or faking a desired emotion in order to keep up the idealized image.”
Teachers & Emotional Labor
Teachers are expected to be cheerful, lively, funny, engaging, inspiring, patient, compassionate, soothing, calm, organized, loving—and the list goes on. At the same time, they face incredibly high levels of stress. Teaching is emotionally, mentally, and physically demanding. Minute to minute, teachers have to regulate their tone of voice, word choice, and body language.
A study found that:
“Teachers regularly suppress or fake their emotions. The teachers in our sample reported having engaged in emotional labor and employing surface acting strategies (suppression or faking) to regulate their emotions in about one third of the covered lessons.”
The Consequences of Emotional Labor
Studies show that continuous emotional labor is a major stressor for teachers that depletes their regulatory resources and causes psychological strain. Surface acting—suppressing, faking, or hiding true emotions—leads to greater overall burnout for teachers.
Research shows that emotional labor can lead to:
- Negative attitudes, behaviors, and poor health
- Psychological distress
- High levels of stress
- Job dissatisfaction
- Loss of memory
- Heart disease
- Exacerbation of cancer
People in high emotional labor jobs report higher levels of stress than those in other jobs.
What to Do About It
While you might not always be able to fully express your emotions in the moment, you can still find ways throughout the day to acknowledge and process your own emotions. We have some tools to help you do so whether you’re with your students, alone during prep time, or decompressing after school hours.
When You’re With Your Students
Most of the day, you’re surrounded by students. How can you tend to your own needs while you lead them? Here’s the trick—you can add quick pauses and breaks to your plans to help you (and your students) process emotions. I did this regularly, and it made all the difference.
Try these quick tools to use in the moment during your school day:
- Pause your lesson plans to do guided breathing, a group stretch, or run around the field together
- Dim the lights and have everyone put their heads on their desks for a short rest (you might play soothing, classical music)
- Take a break to read a calming story to the class, or find a read aloud on YouTube if you don’t have the energy to read the book yourself
- Note: Check out this YouTube channel that features celebrities reading aloud their favorite picture books
- Sit in a circle and all go around sharing your feelings
- Each person gets a chance to say, “I feel ______ because ______.”
- Make sure you participate! Students appreciate when you are real with them, and it’s helpful to model how to express emotions in a healthy way.
- Share your emotions with your students, when it’s appropriate to do so
- Of course, you’re not going to say, “I’m angry because Serafina’s mom sent me a rude email!” However, there might be other times you can appropriately share your feelings. You might say, “I’m feeling tired today” or “I have a headache, so I might not be as energetic as I usually am.”
Any of these tweaks to your day will buy you a few moments to slow down and tend to your own needs.
When You Have a Moment to Yourself
During recess, lunch, or your prep periods, listen to meditations on the JabuMind app for teachers. If you feel like you’ll be interrupted in your classroom, bring your phone to the bathroom and listen in peace there. Each meditation is only a few minutes.
Check out these tools on the JabuMind app:
- Meditation for emotional labor in the app’s library section
- Mood check-ins each day
- The app’s mood check-in slider bar allows you to bring your attention to how you’re really feeling and keep track of your emotions over the course of the week.
- “A Conversation with an Emotion or Feeling” meditation under “Challenging Times” in the app’s library
- Meditations for anxiety & stress in the app’s library
- Weekly meditations that guide you through the ten tools of the iRest® method of meditation
The JabuMind app utilizes the iRest® method of meditation. The iRest® method offers ten tools that teach you how to welcome and work with what each moment of your life presents you. One of these tools is particularly helpful in regards to emotional labor: “welcoming opposites of feeling and emotion.”
The founder of iRest®, Dr. Richard Miller, explains it this way:
“Unresolved feelings and emotions can cause you to experience great physical and mental suffering and disharmony … Every feeling and emotion you deny will always return, because every feeling and emotion is a messenger trying to deliver important information to you … Your feelings and emotions want to be welcomed. They want to be seen, heard, and felt.”
– Dr. Richard Miller
Teacher Support Group
Set up a teacher support group with other teachers at your school. Once a month, or even once a week, meet to share and validate each other’s feelings in a safe place. Make it known that this sharing is confidential. You might want to have a school counselor present as well.
In this group, you might share solely to be heard, or you might seek guidance. You’ll feel supported by people who know just what you’re going through. This builds community and helps you feel less alone.
While these tips can benefit you throughout your school day, you’ll likely need more time after the school day is over to return to your emotions and fully process them.
Try these ways to acknowledge, feel, and digest your emotions.
I used to suppress my emotions all day, only to come home and vent to my husband. While venting can be helpful at times, I didn’t like that it became a pattern. My home life became the place where I dumped out all my negative energy and emotions.
I decided to try journaling instead. I felt such a release as my bottled up emotions poured out onto the clean page. It was cathartic. If I wanted to share the hardships of my day with my husband afterward, I still could. Yet, I often found I no longer needed to. Or, I might give a bullet point version, without a full vent session ensuing. More often than not, I started sharing funny or heartwarming bits of my day with him instead.
Journaling is not your thing? Try another creative pursuit, such as painting or singing!
Meditation helps you bring awareness to your emotions. Return to the JabuMind app during your after school hours. Use meditations like “Release Your Day” and “Bedtime” or browse the library to find just the right meditation to fit your emotions. Research shows that even brief meditations improve emotion processing.
Move the Energy of Your Stuck Emotions
Sometimes, our emotions still feel trapped in our bodies—like undigested food, they sit heavy as a rock in our stomachs. When this happens, we need a little extra something to get this stuck energy moving.
Here are a few ways to help your body go through the natural cycle of feeling and digesting emotions.
- Exercises to try for anger: running, boxing, power yoga
- Exercises to try for sadness: hatha yoga, dance
- Cry (sometimes it helps me to listen to an emotional song or watch a sad movie to really get the tears flowing!)
- Scream into a pillow
- Sing a sad song
Give Your Emotions The Attention They Deserve
Teaching requires a great deal of emotional labor. It’s easy to let your true emotions build up. But remember—when you neglect them, they fester. The only way to truly tend to them is to give them the attention they deserve. Give yourself time each day to sit with your emotions and take whatever action you need to digest them.
About the Author: Erin has a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Before joining JabuMind, Erin was an elementary school teacher for the first, fourth, and fifth grades in both public and private schools throughout California and Oregon. She is also certified to teach children’s yoga. Erin is passionate about helping teachers address compassion fatigue and burnout with mindfulness.