Is it just me, or does life just seem really heavy right now? Anyone else in that same boat out there? Sometimes life just gets. so. real. The heaviness of life sometimes overwhelms. I thought maybe this would be a good time to explore a common teacher problem: when life gets real. Life gets real when the world outside our classroom seems to be crumbling down, caving in, and falling apart, and we feel that we have to “keep it together” for our students. Instead, at these times we have to have the courage to feel our way through instead of cover up and numb – even as teachers… especially as teachers.
When life outside of teaching gets really tough – either because of an illness, divorce, miscarriage, loss, or even just the stress and crappiness of life – we have a choice about how we handle it. Here are the choices we commonly make as teachers as I see them, and the pitfalls we fall into when making these choices.
Put on a Mask
When life outside of our classroom is too hard to handle, often we put on a mask. We pretend that nothing is wrong, becoming overly positive and enthusiastic. We assume the “teacher persona” within us, and keep doing things as we always do – with as big a smile as we can possibly muster.
It feels fake, but it feels better than actually feeling our feelings. We don’t want to share what’s going on with our students, so we don’t let them in on our pain. Some students don’t know how to deal with pain – we rationalize. Students need to escape the pain they feel in their real lives outside of school – so this will be a positive place.
But the danger in that is twofold – (1) we deny ourselves the opportunity to feel and (2) we deny our students the opportunity to understand complex emotions and, worse, we run the risk of communicating to students that they need to put on a mask at school too.
Take Issue with Things That are NOT the Real Issue
Sometimes when we are feeling pain about things outside of our lives as teachers, we deny those issues will affect our work, and we take issue with things that are NOT the real issue. We get overly critical, overly reactive, and overly negative. Nothing is going right. You become the victim in your own story. You make everything out to be the enemy – from the copy machine to your colleague.
This feeling often comes hand in hand with putting on a mask because we are so used to pretending the issues in our lives aren’t affecting us that when we feel anger, grief, sadness, etc., we automatically look for a source we can logically pin them to – even if it’s not the real source.
The primary danger with this is that we aren’t dealing with the real issue. How can we deal with something we won’t even acknowledge?! And how can we move through and heal something we won’t acknowledge? We can’t.
Some of us just shut down when life is crumbling around us. Shutting down can mean sleeping, withdrawing, finding things to do to stay away from people, finding reasons why our students should do independent work, calling in sick, etc.
The problem with this can be that people in our lives have no idea why we are withdrawing. Our students, especially, may internalize this as something they’ve done wrong. They don’t see their regular teacher standing in front of them, but they don’t understand what is happening.
And then there are some of us who take on more when we are in times of distress. We pile on the to-dos and the commitments as a way of numbing our pain. We may do this because we want the distraction, or we may do this as we clamour to feel valued.
Again, we aren’t dealing with the real issue. And we aren’t allowing space for our emotions. There is no margin – so therefore there is no time to deal with these real-life challenges.
So – What’s the Answer?
The easy thing to do right now is to give you a strategy – one that works for me or one that works for my clients – but that would be doing you a disservice. Because herein lies the problem – we want to dissipate, escape, solve, or numb. We want to escape the heaviness, numb the pain, dissipate the blame, and solve the problem.
What if I told you the only way to feel lighter were to acknowledge how heavy your burden is. Lean in to all the feelings you are feeling. Cry. Get angry. Be real about what is really bothering you.
What if I told you the only way to soothe your pain right now is to feel it.
I know. You probably want to punch your computer screen. And blaming me will probably be easier.
But your students need to see YOU – with all your cracks.
You don’t need to explain the details of your pain – as that would not be appropriate. But to tell your students that you are experiencing some hard things in your life, and that sometimes it makes you sad – THAT would be real.
Telling students that they are not the cause of your pain, but that sometimes they will see evidence that you are in pain – THAT would be a life lesson they would never forget.
Sharing with students that they help you remember the good things in life – starting a gratitude ritual or another healthy method of moving through pain in life – THAT would be a lesson in how to be a REAL person.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (emphasis my own)
Let’s be real. Let’s share what real looks like with our students. And in the process, teach them that it’s okay for them to show their cracks and feel their pain.
With all my heart,