how to survive when your significant other (or roommate!) is an emotionally exhausted teacher

(note: as has been the case recently, I’m typing in lowercase for the aesthetic. life’s too short for grammatical prescriptivism, so just let me live.)

happy Sunday, y’all—or, as I call it, “teacher Monday.” I’ve been doing some mentoring and coaching for a first-year teacher recently, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how much of an emotional toll the job takes on our relationships, not just ourselves. it got me to thinking about how I’m having one of the healthiest, most productive school years of my life this year—and, I have to say, I think a huge part of it has to do with the fact that I am now married and I have a wonderful and supportive partner. that made me think more about what we’ve done to make our relationship work despite the wild stress of my job (and my second job, and grad school…)

DISCLAIMER: while I have been going to therapy for eight years at this point (so, my whole teaching career), I am in no way a mental health professional and am simply speaking about my experience! Please remember that every person is different and so is every relationship, so your mileage will definitely vary… but I know I can be hard to deal with in general and my job doesn’t help, and it’s taken a lot of trial-and-error to figure out what works, so I figured I would share.

so, with aaaaaaaaall that in mind, here are my top five tips:

try not to ask them how their day was. while this seems pretty innocuous as a conversation starter, it is definitely unwanted emotional labor to start unpacking whatever happened in the day in order to answer the question unless we want to just give you a bullshit, superficial answer. (if you ask me, you’re either getting a shrug coupled with “it was a day”—which sounds rude as hell, I know—or I’m unloading an overwhelming volley of little things that added up to a wild day, and neither of those is what you actually want to hear, probably.)

something we’ve been trying to do at my place, since our roommate is fond of asking this question, is asking about specific things. for example, yesterday I came home feeling awful and was in no mood for conversation—but, when asked about how the assembly went, I managed to gather some energy to celebrate how smoothly it went and how worthwhile all the work was. if the question had been “how was your day?” I don’t think I would have been able to answer in any meaningful way—I just did not have that kind of energy.

do not offer unsolicited advice. this should honestly be a given in all of your relationships in the year of some people’s lord 2k19, but I have found that it needs to be said: we are (more often than not) not looking for solutions, but rather venting. And that is not because we’re trying to be negative or we don’t want to fix things or we enjoy feeling awful—it’s because the issues we complain about, the stuff that keeps us up at night, is much more about systemic issues (such as racism and inequity) and that’s shit we can’t fix… but venting about it lets us get it out of our system so we can stop obsessing—so just listen and be supportive, please.

as a fixer/helper myself, I know how frustrating this can be; you probably feel helpless listening to our issues and not being able to help. but the truth is that, when people give me unsolicited advice, it is frustrating to feel like they think they know my work better than I do or that they do not think me capable of generating solutions by myself. this is especially an issue because I’m an external processor, so I need to talk things through with someone before I can understand them fully and/or solve them—so I might be talking to you about my issue just so I can solve it while I hear myself talk! just trust your teacher to ask for your opinion/suggestions if they need them—we know better than anyone how helpful collaboration can be!

note: if your teacher sounds like your teacher needs professional help, it’s totally okay to tell them that you cannot be responsible for their mental health—just don’t try that while they’re venting or otherwise in a tough mood! for the most part, I save the deep soul-searching for my therapy sessions and just vent to my husband about the smaller things or about specific incidents that I need to process before I can talk to my therapist about them. for his part, he’s grown a lot in terms of being an active listener and not trying to fix my problems, and I think it’s made our communication more efficient about other things as well.

do not take their stress/withdrawal/neediness/moodiness personallybut don’t let them mistreat you, either! this one is complicated, but bear with me: I’m just asking you to cut your resident teacher some slack when they have their heart set on watching something on your TV and will not compromise, or when they’re annoyed and reply with monosyllables while trying to cut dinner. HOWEVER, you should aaaaabsolutely not let them get away with saying mean things to you, disregarding your needs, or generally being a bad partner.

Let’s get more specific to make this clearer: my husband knows that, as an introvert who also spends all her day loving on her students, I just absolutely cannot engage on any meaningful level for the first 45-75 minutes I’m home (depends on how bad my day was), so he gives me space until I’m ready to engage. he also knows that, on days when the silence is longer, I will have very little patience for indecision or distraction, so he does his best to be focused on whatever I’m talking about, and he takes the pressure of making decisions off me. so on Wednesday nights, when we don’t have a designated live TV thing we’re going to watch, he will usually ask roommate and I if we want to watch something on YouTube or just let food shows play in the background—which is way less anxiety-producing than being asked what I want to watch!

do what you can around the house without needing to be asked. again, this really seems like something partners and roommates should do without me needing to tell them—but it is especially important because your resident teacher spends their entire day asking students to do what they are supposed to do and then working to hold them accountable for it, and it’s seriously like herding cats.

as a team lead and a teacher collaborating with several other adults in a student-centered classroom, I spend a huge amount of time managing other people—and that is so tiring that I often end up doing things myself that I could not bring myself to delegate because it would have taken an extra step to ask someone else to do it. so I literally cannot express in words how grateful I am to my husband for doing the dishes and feeding the cat and taking out the trash so I don’t have to worry about remembering to do it, asking him to do it, and/or doing it myself. our situation is definitely different because we don’t have kids and he’s currently not working (since he’s waiting for his work permit), and we have a third adult in our home—but I’m confident that the principle will still apply to other people!

set boundaries. now here’s one that I think is absolutely essential to consider for all parties—make sure you’re all clear on where the lines are. for the teacher, the boundaries might be that they either stay a bit later OR take work home, not both, or that they pick a day to not work (like I don’t on Shabbat). it might also mean that the teacher has a designated activity/block of time to decompress before engaging with others. some of my coworkers take their commute home to decompress; some others go to the gym before heading home; some others hide out in the bedroom by themselves before rejoining the world (which I sometimes do as well).

for the non-teaching party (or parties), it might mean time that cannot involve discussions about teaching (we don’t talk about it on Shabbat) or dedicating time to doing something that is not more emotionally exhausting for the teacher but still allows for spending time together. a lot of the time, we end up watching food shows or movies we’ve seen before because we find them engaging but they don’t require emotional energy—and we can then spend whatever energy we have left on interacting with each other via conversation or TV commentary.

so, this is my “wisdom” for y’all—I hope that it is helpful for someone who is struggling to have a good relationship with a teacher they love!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s