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Q&A: Advice for Anxious Teachers

Teachers across the country finished the 2019-20 year in a whirlwind of anxiety and confusion as their schools suddenly switched to distance learning because of the coronavirus. Now they're planning for the start of a new school year full of uncertainty.

Catherine Gewertz, a senior contributing writer for Education Week, spoke with Marc Brackett about how teachers can take care of themselves and manage their stress. Brackett is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. His research focuses on how emotions affect learning, decision-making, relationship quality, mental health, and workplace performance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EdWeek: For teachers, this has been a disrupted, eventful spring and summer. I know you've done some informal surveys on how teachers are feeling. What do they tell you?

Brackett: The number one word is anxiety, and that makes total sense. There's so much uncertainty in the teaching profession right now: Where am I going to be teaching? Who am I going to be teaching? Am I going to be in a classroom or not in a classroom? Am I going to wear a mask or not wear a mask? So given that, there's no certainty about what our classroom situations will look like in the fall.

In your most recent survey, this spring, you found that teachers were not managing their emotions in the healthiest ways. What kinds of ways were they coping with their emotions that were not healthy?

Too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, engaging in a lot of negative thinking and self-talk, catastrophic thinking, a lot of rumination and lack of self-care. Yelling, screaming, losing their temper, denying, repressing, locking themselves up in their room crying.

You actually had someone say that?

Yeah.

What are some good emotional-regulation strategies that you would suggest?

The first step is noticing your physiology, because if you're very activated, it's hard to apply any of the other strategies. If your heart is racing and your mind is racing, you really need to deactivate. That's where mindfulness comes in, and the breathing exercises come in, the pausing. Taking a walk, moving yourself out of the situation. To say, "You know, I can't think straight right now, I need some space." Or lock yourself in the bathroom, take some breaths.

And then there's the self-care strategies.

Like sleep, nutrition, exercise?

Exactly.

And then there are the cognitive strategies that are so important. Like managing your thought processes. If you notice yourself freaking out every five minutes, like, "We don't know what's gonna happen with school, oh my God, what am I gonna do?" And, "Oh my God, it's never gonna work." You have to stop and say, "How is [this kind of thinking] helping me to have well-being? How is it helping me create a plan?"

That's the hard part, is having the skill to stop and say to yourself, "Marc, you're absolutely driving yourself crazy right now. What are you doing? Come on! You know that you have no control over the stock market, you have no control over whether or not the governor of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut opens up schools."

Then there's just the mere presence of other people-you know, that just being in relationship is a strategy.

That's hard right now.

It is. And so if you're living alone, you've got to be creative about it. You gotta have those Zoom drink meetings, Fridays at 5, or just think about other groups you can join, a Facebook group, or take a virtual yoga class. There are ways to connect that are creative.

In presentations you've given, you often mention another strategy, too: managing your life smartly, choosing situations and routines.

If you realize over time that there are certain people that are raining on your parade, then you have to find ways to interact with them less and interact more with the people that bring you joy. I have an aunt I joke about. She's like, "What's gonna go wrong this week?" I'm like, "I didn't think about that until you brought it up. Thank you very much." I've got to limit exposure to Aunt Mary. Because Aunt Mary is going to be a trigger for me. That is managing really smartly.

You've pointed out that before people can start learning to manage our feelings, we have to recognize them and accept them without judgment. You've said you want us to be "emotion scientists," not "emotion judges." What does that mean? And what tips do you have for how teachers can do that?

Of course. The first thing about feelings is that there's no such thing as a good or bad emotion. Emotions are emotions. Anxiety is not a bad emotion. It's really important. If there's a lot of uncertainty, I'm going to be anxious. It doesn't mean that I have to allow that feeling to take over my entire life. I can learn how to be anxious and still be productive and kind. The second is that you have to give yourself and everyone else the permission to feel.

The third piece is that when you understand that emotions are information, then it's [a matter of] saying, "What's the first step to really building that skill?" And that's just asking yourself the simple question: "Am I that scientist or judge? Am I open and curious, or am I critical?"

A part of that is our attitudes about the times we fail at these skills. During the last couple of months, I've failed terrifically in regulating my own feelings because I'm just like, ready to lose it. My point is that life brings unexpected experiences you have to deal with. And so I have said some things that were not kind.

Can I forgive myself for saying it? Can I get forgiven? And then, can I build that growth mindset and say, "You know, what? I really sucked at regulating this weekend. But can I start fresh Monday and work on it and build those skills?" And I think that's so important to this work.

You've talked about forgiveness as a healthy emotional-regulation strategy. Can you share some thoughts on that?

Yeah. With the permission to feel comes permission to fail. I always joke, because here I am, a "leading expert" on emotional intelligence, I run a center at Yale University, and I'm messing up all the time. I come down thinking, "Marc, you're the feelings master, and something happens when we're making the food for the dogs and I'm like, argh!" You know?

My point here is that we have to be self-forgiving because we mess up. And also, this is our life's journey. It isn't a workshop, or a book, or [professional development] day. Then we realize that everybody around us is also going to fail. And we have to accept that.

People have bad days and people say things they regret and they don't really mean it. And if we can't forgive them, then how are we ever going to be in relationship?

And how does that apply to teachers in their work?

Take remote learning as an example. A lot of our negative talk is going to come from that like, "Oh, that lesson is so boring," or "My students hate me and I'm never going to be effective." And the list goes on, all the things teachers say to themselves when things don't go as expected.

You've got to just take a deep breath and say to yourself something like, "You know something? I'm working my butt off. I'm trying. I'm in learning mode. ... And so I'm gonna make mistakes on that journey." You're human. It's OK that lesson sucked. The next one will be better.

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