Surviving Emotionally


     There are two quotes from chapter 14 of Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher that resonate with me in my struggles of surviving emotionally. These quotes are: 

“Classrooms are like storms or squalls – full of surprises, of unexpected events that throw our neatly conceived plans into confusion” (Brookfield, p. 256); 

“Unless you find a way to navigate the roiling sea of emotions that the experience of college teaching generates, you run a real risk of drowning in swells of frustration, disappointment, or self-loathing. And if you do go under, or course, you are of no use to your students” (Brookfield, p. 253).


     This chapter of The Skillful Teacher focuses on an aspect of teaching not usually taught in formal education. Teaching can take an emotional toll on educators sapping them of energy, desire and compassion, which I have written about in a blog post entitled “Energy Vampires”. The above quotes speak to the ever changing dynamics of a classroom setting, demands of students, and expectations of institutions. Education courses emphasize theory about what to do when delivering instruction and content through various theories and methodologies. Little attention is placed on the demands of the classroom outside of the instructional delivery as an instruction specialist in terms of the other roles of a teacher. These other roles include classroom supporter, mentor, learner, etc. (Harrison, C. & Killion, J., September 2007) contribute to the emotional strain placed on teachers.

     The reality of life as an educator is that it is an inherently unstable and unbalanced job that is immune to creating the prefect plan. Institutions are always changing to keep up with the demands of industries and regulations. Student bodies are changing as the economy is in need and “international students offer great economic value to Canada as both spenders and workers.” As pointed out by the Conference Board of Canada, in 2012, international students spent an estimated $8.4 billion in Canada, supported over 86,570 jobs, and generated more than $455 million in federal and provincial tax revenue. But they offer even more to Canada. As classrooms get more diverse, learning styles do as well. This places instructors under immense pressure to change their instructional strategies. If teachers are not reflective by nature, this can be quite a challenge and may lead to feelings of weakness.


     It has been found that more than 41 percent of new teachers leave teaching within 5 years of entry and this has been increasing since the late 1980s. Rates of leaving for first-year teachers rose from 9.8 to 13.1 percent from 1988 to 2008—a 34 percent increase (Ingersoll, 2014). There are many possible aspects this high level can be attributed to. Most evident is that teaching is an emotional profession and a lack of social and emotional skills may lead instructors down a path to burnout exhaustion (Zakrzewski, August 13, 2013). In addition, educators may feel drained by the insistent emphasis on collaboration and “social learning” (Godsey, January 25, 2016) as educators we have a responsibility to deliver effective and engaging instruction.

     There are tasks and behaviours to be used in the classroom that promote caring and supportive relationships between teachers and students, which are vital in reducing both student behavior problems, possibly by as much as 30 percent, and teachers’ emotional exhaustion (Zakrzewski, August 13, 2013). From my own experience, using ice breakers (like the ones located at, creating classroom guidelines, conducting needs assessments, and using feedback strategies help build a positive learning environment and give teachers opportunity to build in reflective and independent work, as well as collaborative time.

     While there’s no one-size-fits-all checklist of required Social and Emotional Competencies, Jennings and Greenberg suggest that teachers who have SEC can recognize and manage their own emotions as well as understand how their emotional responses impact others, which will assist in building strong, supportive relationships with students, colleagues, and parents, dealing effectively with conflict, setting firm but respectful boundaries, and regularly demonstrating kind, helpful behavior to those around them (Zakrzewski, August 13, 2013). Therefore, to survive the emotional tolls teaching takes on teachers, institutions and administrators should place an emphasis on developing awareness and supporting staff as best they can before it’s too late. A teacher who cannot muster the energy in class to care will have an impact on the business.

         According to the leading scientists in the field of social-emotional learning Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg, “teachers who possess social-emotional competencies (SEC) are less likely to experience burnout because they’re able to work more effectively with challenging students—one of the main causes of burnout” (Zakrzewski, August 13, 2013). Based on research about emotional intelligence and teacher burnout, emphasizing why teachers need emotional intelligence, an apparent solution would be for schools to work SEC training into their professional development schemes. Here in Vancouver, where I am based, resources are available through The Emotional Intelligence Training Company, Inc. ( In addition to this, there are guides to base professional development workshops and skills based training on, like the one published by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The difficulty is getting faculty to buy into this idea.

     Personally, I try to pay attention to the impact I have on others. I try not to let comments from other faculty members, in response to my emotionally aware questions, like “have you sat down and talked to the student,” or “how is that making you fee and why?” have an impact on me. I use strategies that focus on the emotional side of the classroom, which many of my colleagues do not or would not use. Through modeling these behaviors, I hope to make others around me more comfortable in developing these emotional skills and prevent them from drowning in the swells of frustration. From a more tangible approach, I would like to inform fellow teachers of Brookfield’s 15 maxims of a skillful teacher at the end of The Skillful Teacher 2nd Edition on pages 261-279. These could be built into interviews, new hire programs for new instructors and professional development schemes for current teachers. Some of the highlights from this list are:

Maxim 2: Perfection is an illusion
There are three outcomes of perfectionism, which are developing anxiety, quitting as a result of demoralization, and developing a disconnected cynicism (p. 262).

Maxim 3: Ground your teaching in how your students are learning
Make a consistent attempt to discover what and how your students are learning, and then use this to inform all of your teaching choices. (p. 263).

Maxim 9: Remember that learning is emotional

Learning is highly emotional consisting of great threats to students’ self-esteem – even when progress is being made. (p. 270).

Maxim 11: Don’t evaluate yourself only by students’ satisfaction

Many of us go into teaching because of a desire to help others. Do not assume that being a successful teacher requires that your students love you and find your efforts to be deeply transformative. Remember that the relevance of a learning act is often not appreciated until long after students have moved on (p. 273).

Brackett, M. A., & Elbertson, N. A. (2006). Emotional intelligence in the classroom: Skill-based training for teachers and students. In J. Ciarrochi & J. D. Mayer (Eds.), Improving emotional intelligence: A practitioner’s guide (pp. 1-27). New York: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis. Retrieved from  

Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher on technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

El-Assal , K. (March 16, 2016).  International Students: A Gold Mine for Canada’s Economy. The Conference Board of Canada. Retrieved from      

Godsey, M. (January 25, 2016). Why Introverted Teachers are Burning Out.  The Atlantic. Retrieved from                 

Harrison, C. & Killion, J. (September 2007). Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders. Educational Leadership. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Volume 65 (1). Pages 74-77. Retrieved From  Roles-for-Teacher-Leaders.aspx

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: the transformation of the teaching force, updated April 2014. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in   Education, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from

Zakrzewski, V.  (August 13, 2013). Why Teachers Need Social-Emotional Skills. Greater good in action: the science of a meaningful life. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from       


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