Teacher stress is at an all-time high. Teacher morale is at an all-time low. This is the moment when we need support. There are many types of support – instructional support, administrative support, community support etc. Teachers need all these supports to be effective and successful. But there is another kind of support that is desperately needed – emotional support. How do you build an emotional support system for yourself as a teacher? Who should be in your support community? Here’s how to build your support network so you can cope with high stress and low-morale for this school year and beyond.
You know it when you see it…
As a teacher, you know that supportive learning environments are critical to enabling academic success, providing psychological safety, mitigating harmful effects of trauma, among other benefits to students. You also know that supportive learning environments attend to students’ physical, emotional, mental, social, AND academic needs.
Supportive learning environments are safe and positive.
And we take very good care to provide supportive environments for our students on a daily basis. But what about your own personal supportive learning environment? To whom do you turn for emotional support? Where do you get your needs met?
You need a personal support network
I bet you already have a fairly in-tact support network for meeting your professional needs: You probably have an administrator, an instructional coach or mentor, a team leader, a set of grade-level colleagues, and perhaps some district-level supports by way of professional development. Most public school teachers have those supports in place – (though sometimes the quality of those professional supports aren’t always top notch).
These supports are part of an overall teacher support system, which must also include emotional support. Some school districts are offering hotlines and other mental health services to address teachers’ emotional needs. But even if your district isn’t offering such a robust support system, it is still important to cultivate a support system for yourself so that you don’t burnout.
But what is your personal support network like?
A personal support network is made up of individuals that provide you support, respect, and care. They create a safe, positive relationship where your emotional needs can be met. These are people who are in your corner. They build you up – not tear you down. Sometimes, they provide constructive feedback in love and as a way to support you rather than demean you. Overall, they urge you toward your “best” self and they make a positive impact on your sense of self-acceptance, confidence, trust, and value.
Identifying your emotional support network
To identify who is in your emotional support network, first consider all the people who do the following:
- Contribute positively to your sense of wellbeing
- Help you stay connected to your values
- Build you up, encourage, and see the best in you
- Support your goals and dreams
- Remind you to prioritize your needs
- Make space for your truth
Make a list of these people. They can be coworkers (see my notes below on this tricky relationship), family members, friends, community members, a therapist or coach etc. For bonus points, reach out and tell them that they are part of your emotional support network and that you appreciate them!
Note: Your support network doesn’t have to be extensive; however, a single support person can become a co-dependent relationship and/or very taxing for that other person. Conversely, a huge support system may mean that you feel exhausted keeping everyone “in the loop” on how you are doing. A goldilocks sweet spot is about 3-5 people.
How to build your support network
In order to build your support network, you’ll need to think like a gardener. Cultivating your support network involves three steps: planting, nurturing, and pruning.
If your list of people supporting you is too small, you’ll need to “plant” some new relationships. Think of someone you’d like to build a relationship with, and begin planting seeds of support. Ask them how they are really doing and listen, offer support, and be vulnerable with them if you feel it’s safe to do so. Increase the frequency you see or talk to this person. Stay consistent and proximate to them. A supportive relationship grows over time – and they don’t all work out. But don’t be afraid to be the first to offer support – plant a seed and see how it grows.
If no one comes to mind, you may consider hiring someone who can support you immediately and help you develop those organic supportive relationships – like a coach!
Nurturing your support network means that you maintain those relationships by cultivating proximity (see them often), closeness (be vulnerable), and mutuality (support them too!).
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know it’s tremendously vulnerable to ask for help, but it’s not only normal, it’s necessary! Humans are biologically designed for communal living. We are best when we are interdependent, depending on each other for support and survival. I’m sure there are people you support. Are those people that you can turn to and ask for support in return?
In gardening, we prune dead parts of the plant back to make room for new growth. Accordingly, you may need to “prune” parts of your network that are unsafe or unsupportive. Set boundaries in relationships that are negative, toxic, or judgmental. Sometimes we prune them all the way back – we cut them out – and by using our feet as boundaries, we move away from these people. Other times we need to prune back their influence, placing a boundary around how much “say” they get in our lives or decisions.
Have you ever heard the perspective that you are a sum of the 5-7 people you spend the most time with? Think about whether or not that is true for you. Are the 5-7 people you spend the most time with a positive or negative influence on you? If it’s negative, they may need to be “pruned back” by spending less time with them.
Colleagues in your support network
Sometimes we look to get emotional support from colleagues, but that can get tricky – especially in this pandemic era where all teachers are at the end of their ropes. When we are stressed, we are not thinking from the most logical, solution-oriented part of our brains. So when you are stressed and you go to another teacher who is stressed, it can become an echo chamber of complaints and stress void of logic or solutions. That’s frustrating.
Instead, use your school relationships in more supportive ways, and seek your emotional support from your personal support network or a professional coach or therapist. Build your support network through actively planting, nurturing, and pruning your relationships with others.