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I Don’t Like Brené Brown Anymore

It’s not her fault, but rather a culture of education that doesn’t prioritize the mental health of teachers

Brené Brown in 2012 — From BBeargTeam on Wikipedia Commons

A lot of teachers I know don’t eat lunch during the day. There’s just not enough time, too much to do, and too many unrealistic expectations placed on us sometimes.

I have to eat lunch every day and set that boundary or I won’t be able to function later in the day, but I can completely understand why they don’t.

In our school district, we’ve placed a heavy emphasis on trauma-informed instruction and social-emotional learning, which is defined by Aperture Education as the following:

“The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

When I first started teaching, I was really happy that the district and my school were going head over heels embracing social-emotional learning and prioritizing the mental and emotional well-being of students over a flat-out emphasis on instruction.

Wrapping up my first year, however, a common sentiment among myself and my fellow teachers is that yes, SEL is incredibly important and a step in the right direction for the students in any school, but what about the teachers?

We struggle a lot, too, and with the expectations that arise day in and day out, from behavior management to submitting lesson plans, grading on time, being at meetings day in and day out, and an overall craziness in the classroom and the school building, it’s common to feel like SEL applies to the kids, but not to the adults.

I don’t think it needs to be said that adults need self-care, rest, and mental and emotional well-being too, but the culture in education often doesn’t allow teachers to put their own well-being first. For people that don’t know, the culture of accountability for teachers tends to be very punitive across the nation — it usually isn’t implemented in a way that makes educators better at their jobs. Instead, it scares teachers into compliance and encourages teachers to put on a “dog and pony show” every time another adult walks into the classroom.

Let me preface that deep down, I love Brené Brown, including two of her TED Talk classics — “The power of vulnerability” and “Listening to shame”. Teddy Roosevelt’s quote on the “man in the arena” was a quote I first heard from Brené Brown. At some point in college, Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability encouraged me to take a leap of faith and be vulnerable about my family and personal struggles. Of course, it wasn’t just Brené Brown’s TED Talks that did it for me — but her compelling research and anecdotes were one of many catalysts in my personal story.

When I became a teacher, however, in a very difficult inner-city school and school district, professional development sessions would constantly play YouTube videos from Brené Brown to prioritize social-emotional learning for students and for us to be nicer to students and be as understanding to them as possible. Again, all of this was a good thing, and it’s much better to have an SEL approach than not to.

But none of these sessions ever acknowledged or emphasized how teachers felt, even when we were hit by a pandemic in Covid that upended everyone’s lives. A lot of my peers had intense pressure by the district to document multiple phone calls a week to students, teach online at unusual times, and go to several meetings a day for compliance. As any school year naturally wears on, teachers get more exhausted, worn out, and run down, and I certainly did my first year.

Very few people, however, check in on the emotional well-being of teachers. We were expected to put on a fresh face every day, keep our heads down, teach, do our jobs to the best of our capacity, and put in a lot of hours after work to get grading and planning done. No one ever cared about how we were doing emotionally — because we were paid professionals, it was implied that SEL was for students, not us.

Perhaps the implication is that teachers already have social-emotional learning in their toolbox, but teachers are human beings too, not machines, and doing our jobs shouldn’t come at the expense of constantly being run-down, constantly being overworked and overstressed.

As a teacher, it’s easy to internalize that everything is your fault. Having a disengaged student is your fault, having a student that doesn’t show up to school is your fault, having a parent angry at you is your fault, and having disruptive behavior and lackluster test scores are your fault. It’s easy to get into that mindset because a good teacher thinks about what is in his or her control and takes an initiative not to blame the kids for forces outside of their control.

It was only when the school year ended that I realized how chronically and constantly stressed I was, how much pressure I felt every single day and how I had to compromise my own emotional well-being for the sake of my students. And yes, I love my students and wanted to do the best I possibly could for them, but like the emotional well-being and mental health of students are important, so was ours as teachers.

There’s an unspoken code that parents have to sacrifice for their kids, and that the well-being, needs, and priorities of their children supersede their own. It’s the same in education, and sometimes, like trying to be the perfect mother or father only leads to insurmountable shame, so does trying to be a perfect teacher. There’s simply a culture that puts students, students, and students first, and you come second to that.

That culture isn’t wrong, but just neglects the fact that the best way to take care of students is to take care of yourself. There are just a lot of things you have to learn for your own well-being as a teacher that they don’t tell you when you’re training to become a teacher:

No one tells you to put boundaries between home and work and have a cutoff time for when you have to put the work away. No one tells you that you’re going to fail more than you ever imagined and let your students down. No one tells you that you’re never going to catch up on everything you want to, from documents to grades. No one tells you that you’re never going to grade every assignment or paper. No one tells you you will skip lunch some days and that calling parents is a time-consuming process can lead you to stay after school for an inordinate amount of time.

You know who tells you these things? Other teachers — veteran teachers once you go into the classroom, and your own experience. And my frustration at constantly being overwhelmed, constantly being extremely stressed, and constantly feeling like a failure led to a sort of learned helplessness throughout the year.

I would displace a lot of my frustrations on the Brené Brown videos they showed at professional development sessions because I felt like I needed help, that my difficulties in the classroom were a message to the world that I couldn’t do it on my own, that the continual bags under my eyes meant that I couldn’t wait for the weekend on most weeks.

The problem wasn’t Brené Brown’s research itself or her message. In a couple months, I’m sure that my love for her work will be rekindled — it was just how her work was used in a context that seemed to ignore the emotional needs of myself and my fellow teachers. Students could at any time be sent to our SEL specialist, who was great and incredible to work with.

But if we teachers at any time wanted to go into her office and needed to decompress, it would have been frowned upon. After all, didn’t we have stuff to do? Didn’t we have meetings and more time demands and responsibilities? If we ever acknowledged how not well we were doing sometimes, wouldn’t that have distracted from the students’ needs?

Right now, 44% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. I don’t know any other profession with a similar turnover or attrition rate. I left every day feeling beat down and exhausted. Sure, I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but I was just trying to get to the next day, let alone survive the whole year.

Teachers are just expected to do their jobs and not complain about it, and I love my job and I love my kids, but that doesn’t mean I’m not constantly overwhelmed by it. There are probably a lot of districts easier to teach in than mine, and I had to tell myself:

“Ryan, you’re tough. You knew what you were signing up for.”

Just like supporting the mental health of kids means supporting the mental health of parents, we have to support students by supporting the mental health of teachers. I cringe whenever I see a Brené Brown video now because I associate it with compassion fatigue — trying to care so much about the students but not myself. Defeating shame and embracing vulnerability have become privileges for other people, but not me or my fellow teachers.

Maybe the problem is just me and a malfunction in my own mindset, but I was validated when a lot of other teachers felt the same, that teachers were treated as robots that were just expected to shut up and do their jobs. In that same context, we had to watch Brené Brown videos about the role of vulnerability in education. The emotional toll of the job definitely took a physical toll, too — I knew teachers who got sick all the time and we had days where a quarter or a third of our teachers were out.

From the bottom to the top, education must be reformed to better prioritize the emotional well-being of teachers. The problem was never Brené Brown or her work, but the misalignment of priorities in education that has to change.

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