Building Emotional Strength in Teachers
Building emotional strength
enables productive change. It allows teachers to confront things they don’t want to see, and to remain open and productive without employing defences such as avoidance, denial and blame.
Here we offer four key concepts of emotional strength to help educators develop this essential 21st
century skill: re-defining responsibility; moving towards the pain; emotion and action; and responding with awareness.
Emotional strength is based on the assumption that whatever a teacher is experiencing in the classroom is a direct reflection of his/her internal world.
Most of us focus on our external circumstances. When we experience problems we blame someone or something in the outside world. In the examples of Liam and Skye the “problem” is attributed to the child.
Emotional strength involves a major shift in perception. This shift of focus from external to internal involves a reconsideration of our perception of “responsibility”. With an external focus “taking responsibility” generally implies casting or accepting blame—“you are wrong” or “I am wrong.” From an emotional strength perspective, the emphasis is on the ability to respond with self-awareness not on who is at fault.
Moving Towards the Pain
The general sentiment is that negative thoughts and feelings don’t belong in our schools. Principals and teachers are expected to fake positive emotions and hide negative emotions to conform with unspoken rules of what it means to a “good teacher”.
But this suppression of negative emotion is not healthy, and is linked with exhaustion and teacher burnout.
Teachers can think they’re hiding their emotions from students but they’re not: students know.
Neuroscience suggests students unconsciously “learn their teacher”, including their fixed ideas and prejudices, through the process of mimesis. If a teacher is disengaged they will tune into that dissociation. If a teacher is engaged moment-by-moment students will share that “aliveness”. 
Learning how to re-engage with our emotions generates a shift in our relationship to vulnerability and pain.
Emotional pain becomes something we can embrace as instructive and ultimately healing. This enables teachers to hear a wide range of feedback without triggering a defensive response, for improved performance.
Emotion and action
Teachers may wonder how to be emotionally “genuine” while still modelling appropriate behaviour to students.
Often we think an emotion and the action that follows are the same thing: they are not. In the grip of an intense emotion we might feel a strong urge to take certain action—such as yelling in the case of anger.
Acting out might alleviate the immediate tension, but it can be at odds with our values.
A teacher with emotional strength experiences each emotion fully, positive or negative, without having to act out or shut down. The focus is on feeling the emotion as an internal experience: to be curious about it rather than judge it.
The psychological “space” between emotion and action offers a window for change. It allows us to see habitual defensive and self-limiting thoughts and behaviours for what they are, which is the key to future better decision-making.
Responding with Awareness
When we feel our difficult emotions we broaden our choices. When we avoid difficult emotion through habitual defensive responses we are obliged to repeat the same old patterns.
With emotional strength to feel the full range of our emotions, we can choose to respond in more productive ways. Here we can draw on our values for guidance, rather than simply reacting from fear.
Hearing Children’s Emotions as the Foundation for Learning
Liam and Skye are amongst the fortunate ones. Their distress was ultimately “heard” and they were given the support they needed. Others continue to experience emotional pain at school where teachers are doing the best they can but don’t know how their unconscious beliefs are playing out in detrimental ways.
Principals and teachers with emotional strength can make a profound difference in children’s lives simply by hearing them. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in a child’s life. Once a teacher is taught how, it doesn’t take long and the change in a child’s behaviour can be almost immediate.
When we block our hearts to our own emotions, we block our hearts to the children we teach. Deaf to ourselves, we are deaf to our students. Only when teachers open up and accept their own pain and vulnerability will it be possible to have tender-hearted classrooms.
Building emotional strength requires commitment and practice. But the rewards are powerful, for teacher and student.
To hear someone at a deep level is to offer them a gift. It is healing. Emotional strength is essential to improve the quality of education, and the lives of our children. We urge courageous educators to take up the challenge.
*The names of children have been changed.
The Sharon Faye Foundation is conducting research into the hypothesis that “building Emotional Strength in teachers will improve the academic, emotional and behavioural performance of students”. We are seeking expressions of interest from WA primary schools interested in participating in a 12-month pre-test-post-test study. Teachers will work with corporate psychologist and founding chair of the Sharon Faye Foundation. For more information on the project and/or to register your interest, please contact Tristan Stein on 08 9381 1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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