I recently had a conversation with a teacher about why teaching seems so much harder than it used to. Our school is implementing trauma-informed practices embedded in a multi-tiered system of support for student behavior, and we are on a mission to have our school environment be need-satisfying for all of our students. This teacher remarked that we have always had students who have behavior difficulties, but it seemed easier to help them before. She was asking herself why that was the case and she came up with two reasons that really stuck with her. First, there are so many more demands on teachers because of the fast pace of the curriculum and high stakes tests, and second, there are so many more students with behavior difficulties.
It is a lot of work to put together meaningful research-informed and curriculum-aligned lesson plans, to build in empowering and engaging activities for students, and to continually monitor their progress—and that is just a fraction of what teachers need to do every day. Some teachers can walk into their classrooms in the morning knowing that their day will function pretty much as they have planned. Some teachers walk into their classrooms well-planned and flexible, yet cross their fingers that their classroom will not be destroyed by a student with a behavior escalation that day. Some teachers don’t know if they will be teaching in their classroom or in the library depending on the kind of day their student in crisis is having. Some teachers go home with papers to grade and bruises on their legs because an escalated student kicked him or her.
In any given school, there may be one or two students who could have a behavior crisis at any given moment, or there may be dozens of students who could escalate.
When a colleague is facing this type of challenge, our hearts break and we want to fix it for them. But, what does our colleague really need from us? How can we support him or her to feel strong and confident enough to take on the challenge without feeling drained and insecure?
We know that nurturing, supportive adults can serve as a buffer so that trauma doesn’t have to be traumatic for children. Could the same be true for colleagues? Could a nurturing, supportive colleague serve as a buffer for trauma for a teacher?
Let’s hold a mirror to ourselves for a moment. When you are going through an overwhelming challenge and are doubting how you are handling the situation because it doesn’t seem to be getting better, who do you turn to for support? Sometimes the answer is the person in closest proximity, but when you are really thinking through who you could reach out to for help, who is it? And what is it about that person that is so comforting and supportive?
When I think about who I turn to, it is someone who knows my values, who knows who I really am. It is also someone who validates my feelings, who empathizes rather than sympathizes with me, and who helps me keep the size of the problem in check. I also value people who help me separate my emotions from the actual problem. Sometimes I am too emotional to talk the situation over with anyone, but when I am ready to talk about it, I look for someone who does these four things:
1. Validate feelings
When we are struggling, we look for people who will help us know that our feelings are normal. It is so important to first listen to understand, not listen to respond or listen to solve the problem. Ask questions and paraphrase what they are telling you to make sure you are accurately hearing what they are saying and so your colleague knows that they are truly being heard.
Don’t put yourself in others’ shoes because you will end up with more than just stinky feet. You will end up with an inaccurate perception of the problem. It is not about how you would feel or handle the problem, it is about how they feel and how they might best handle the problem. I did not have the exact same experiences as my colleague, so I could not simply put myself in his shoes and expect to understand how he feels.
Don’t kick people when they are down by making a judgement. Accurate or not, they just don’t need your judgement. They need your love and support.
Don’t assume you know how to help. Instead, ask four very important words, “How can I help?”
3. Keep the problem as small as possible
Sometimes we think empathizing sounds like this, “Yes, students these days are so different and so difficult. I don’t know how they expect us to teach and handle these students.” Or, we might think empathizing sounds like this, “Yes, you have one of the worst classes I have ever seen. I don’t know how you do it.” Sound familiar? We say these things with all of the best intentions but they do not help us keep the problem as small as possible. They make the problem HUGE and there is no way we can fix “students these days” or “the worst class I have ever seen”. Instead, let’s help our colleagues focus on the main problem with questions like, “If you could fix just one specific thing right now, what would that be?”
4. Separate emotions from the problem
It is so helpful to think of problems in two parts—how we feel about the problem and what the problem actually is. They really are separate, yet intricately tied, problems. When I am talking with someone who helps me take my emotions out of the problem, it literally cuts the problem in half. When we are supporting a student in crisis, or dealing with an angry parent, or any other emotionally-charged problem, we are feeling overwhelmed, we are feeling insecure, and we are feeling very vulnerable. But, the actual problem typically is not about us at all. Layering our emotions on top of the problem is normal, but so helpful when we recognize it and work to solve them as two separate issues.
When in doubt, when you have no idea how to help, a random act of kindness ALWAYS helps. Set a flower on a colleague’s desk, surprise them with a cold Diet Coke, text them the silliest joke you can find, or write them a little note of encouragement. Those simple acts can make a load feel a million times lighter.
How do you support your colleagues through crisis? Share your ideas in the comments; we are better together.