In June 2021, middle school math and science teacher Erin Bower left her job at High Tech Middle Chula Vista to study psychology. In this interview, her former teaching partner, humanities teacher (and Unboxed editor) Jean Catubay asks about what led her to leave, and what she’s learned about teaching (and herself) since then.
I would not want to have your job after talking to me, because I’m like the Queen of Tangents.
Which I kind of love, because I love editing! You know we can always connect things, and finagle it so it sounds all like it was meant to be in a certain order.
This is why we were good teaching partners!
Yes. We are still good partners. Maybe not in the teaching partner sense, but in life.
So true, yes. I was the chaos and you were the organization. I miss you.
I miss you too! I guess we should start getting into who you are, your background in education, and how you got to where you’re at.
Okay. Who am I? My name’s Erin. I’m a former classroom teacher, but I will never stop being an educator. I’ve always loved working with kids. My mom is a teacher, and I started babysitting at a young age and then in high school, I was a tutor. A lot of my teachers would tell me, “You would make a great teacher because you’re always helping everyone!”
I’m very interested in human development. Before teaching, I worked at a research lab focused on studying autism in infants and toddlers. I was in charge of coordinating the psychology clinic and volunteer program where we did developmental evaluations on little babies. I earned my credential through the High Tech High District Intern Program and taught math and science at High Tech Middle Chula Vista for four years. Since leaving the classroom, I am now in a master’s program for counseling psychology.
2020 was a big wake-up call for me. Halfway through the year, we had to follow stay-at-home orders, and I didn’t know if students knew how to take care of themselves. It wasn’t on my mind as much before that, because I just assumed it. When you see students in the classroom, you think to yourself, “Oh, they made it here! That must mean they are doing well.” But somehow, seeing them in their home environments, seeing the disparities between them made me realize that I was incorrect in assuming that everyone was on a level playing field when they came to the classroom in person.
Where I’m going now, I want to be a therapist. I want to educate people about how to take care of themselves.
I’m hearing a lot of passion for human development. It seems to be a common theme across the different roles you’ve had in your professional life. It makes me wonder what are the big questions you’ve been asking yourself lately?
“How do you do this?” That’s my biggest question.
Do you mean “this” as in… life?
Life. Life! How do you do this meaningfully and without burning out? What’s the secret? How do you live a fulfilling life? That’s so important.
I’m always learning. I think it’s a full-body sport.
Say more. I’m interested to hear about that.
I guess what I mean by the “sport” part is that life should be fun. It should be playful. There should be goals. But the “full-body” part is what I want to focus on. After I stopped teaching at High Tech Middle Chula Vista, I had to go back to the basic basics.
To be honest, I started to see a therapist on a more regular basis after I stopped teaching in the classroom. I should have been doing it while I was teaching, I was feeling so overwhelmed. Once the buzz of the classroom faded off of me and I relaxed a bit, I was able to work with my therapist through very basic skills. How am I sleeping? Am I getting enough sleep every night? Am I eating enough food every day? Those were the two things that we tackled first.
When I first started seeing my therapist, I had severely high levels of anxiety that I wasn’t aware of because I got used to it. Teachers get used to it. I knew that my body was not feeling good when I was teaching, but I didn’t know the extent to which that was not normal. When it came to my teaching experience, everyone was saying, “Your first year’s really hard. Second year it’ll be better.” Then the second year comes and they’re like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just don’t have your expectations so high. You’re doing great!” Then the third and fourth year, that’s when the pandemic broke out. I feel like each year there’s an excuse for why the burnout feels normal. My therapist would ask me basic questions like, “How are you treating your body throughout the day?” It turns out, I wasn’t doing very well. When I was teaching, I wasn’t eating three good meals a day. I would wake up, have coffee, probably grab something at Starbucks real fast. At lunch sometimes I didn’t eat. I was trying to adjust my lesson plan for the last half of the day in response to what happened in the morning. Then when I got home I was feeling exhausted, so I wasn’t eating proper dinners. This might just be my own experience.
It’s fascinating how we can experience very physical reactions to instances that are not physical at all. I would say all teachers are feeling like that right now. What advice would you give?
There are a few things that are coming to mind and it all has to do with outside feedback coming to me. First of all, see a professional if you can. I don’t think we take enough time to research if our insurance will cover it. It feels selfish to take time for ourselves sometimes.
Why is it so important to talk to a professional, versus talking to a friend or taking a personal day?
Your friends might be just as impacted as you are! They might not know that what you’re feeling is a red flag. Other people in your life might try to fix you. They might try to say, “Don’t feel that way. At least you’re not blah, blah, blah.” There’s that Brene Brown video on empathy that says if anyone starts their sentence off with “At least blah, blah, blah” that’s not empathy. That’s someone trying to change how you feel.
I think it’s important to see a professional, even if it’s just to ask, “What is the name for what I’m feeling? Can we do a quick inventory?” Therapists are professionally trained to look at your feelings with an unbiased view.
That makes perfect sense. Why do you think it is so important for educators to prioritize and monitor our mental health?
Imagine a time when you’ve been around someone who appears anxious, someone whose body language was giving off a feeling of discomfort, unease, or tension. That clenched feeling. If you try to have a conversation with that person, it’s really hard to be present with them. If you are that person, and you don’t know it because you’re not paying attention to your body language, and you try to teach a classroom of 30 teenage students… well…
Kids are masters at reading body language, they’re masters at understanding tone, because that’s how they’re learning to survive in the world. For young people, the social group is so important for their development. If you’re giving off this vibe that your mental health is impacted, it’s coming off in your body language. I can guarantee it. Imagine yourself as a student in that teacher’s class. Are you going to be able to learn in the best way in that classroom? What type of impact would that teacher have on you?
Those nights when you stay up until 2 a.m. creating a lesson plan, you come in the next day carrying all of this pressure. You tell yourself, “I spent so much time on this.” The kids pick up on that negative energy. Ironically, those lesson plans often flop because the kids are wondering, “What is this energy in the room? I do not want to interact with this energy.” Then often the teacher will disclose to the students, “You don’t know how much time I spent on this and you guys aren’t even doing what I want you to do!” Yeah… you brought the energy of staying up till 2 a.m. into the classroom. And they’re sensing that! They might not be aware that they’re sensing it, but they are.
And at a certain point, it’s not even about your job and how impactful you’ll be in the classroom. You’re a human being! Is your job worth you sacrificing your health?
Since you’ve gone back to school, you can answer this from a student or teacher perspective. What were some of the stories that you told yourself about what school needs or should be?
I still have the idea that school needs to be rigorous.
That’s a fun word to unpack. What do you mean by rigorous?
To me, rigor’s not only what the student is doing. It also requires so much feedback from the teacher. Rich feedback. That’s part of rigor too. The student needs to be getting information about how they met their goal. I’m needing that in my grad school program right now. The professors who have felt more rigorous to me are the ones that give me detailed comments and point out the things I am doing well. They’re telling me my work is being seen. I’m thinking, “You’re a professional so I trust your opinion. You’re pointing out specific things.” That makes me feel great. Then there’s the rich critique of my work and identifying how I could grow. The classes that don’t feel so rigorous are the ones where it’s like, maybe I’m still feeling challenged, but I don’t get that feedback and I’m like, “Well, at least I got the points.”
It sounds like there’s a dynamic nature to the student-teacher relationship. It’s not just a one-way channel. Both sides are active. To bring up sports again, the rhythm reminds me of ping pong.
Yeah, and to tie it into what we were talking about earlier, that’s the only way I knew that my mental health was in a weird spot. I was getting feedback from people about my mannerisms and behavior. Specifically my partner. He would tell me certain things about my facial expressions. He would tell me I looked really mad, upset, or worried. He would point out the tension in my shoulders. And I had no idea! No idea what I was saying and how I felt. I was telling myself it was normal, or even positive. But my body language was showing otherwise. I wouldn’t have noticed those things if he hadn’t pointed them out. It’s an important part of life to have people around you who will point certain things out, even if it feels uncomfortable in that moment.
That’s an interesting connection. Another thing I’m hearing is that there’s an element of learning that requires us to mess up.
Yeah, for sure. Hopefully, an assignment that’s rigorous will cause you to make mistakes so that you can get that feedback. In my initial classes about therapy, we focused on learning how to reflect. That’s a huge part of what we do as mental health professionals. If you were telling me a story about this thing that happened to you, I would repeat back certain elements to you so that you can hear it from another person outside of you. I would say something like, “Well, I’m hearing a lot of sadness in your voice.” Sometimes that’s all you have to say. It can be a reminder that someone is witnessing that in them, and then they’ll feel comfortable to elaborate more. It’s the same with students. We point out certain things that stand out to us in their work. It can be really beneficial.
What types of listening techniques would be helpful for teachers to try? What should we try to avoid?
The biggest word that is coming to mind is “fixing” and how damaging that can be. It’s tough because a large part of teaching has to do with correction. That’s how some people see it. That’s the traditional way of seeing it.
I think correction has its place and purpose, though. Right?
My mind is going to a specific example. A kid is exhibiting behaviors that would make me concerned about their wellbeing. My first reaction, in the “before times” would be “How do I fix this? How do I solve this for this student? How do I guide them in understanding a solution?” But that’s robbing them of the opportunity to work through that and problem solve it themselves.
Maybe I have an idealistic utopian view of this, but in my experience, when someone has said, “I’m with you. I’m here with you. I hear you. I see you,” there’s a defense that comes down a little bit and there’s more safety there. When I feel less defensive, that means my fight or flight response is going to tone down a little bit, and maybe I will be better equipped to solve this problem or make a better decision because I’m not in a heightened state. There’s a lot that can be done when a person feels safer in a space. But it takes time. And that’s also kind of the problem. As school teachers, you only have so much time. In the case of this example, you have 29 other students in class. Is it fair to them to spend so much time in the office talking to just this one?
How would you respond to someone who shared the belief that it isn’t a classroom teacher’s place to explore mental health and wellness with students? I feel like it’s a more recent phenomenon, where mental health has entered the cultural conversation. I don’t even think I ever used the words “mental health” before the age of, I don’t know, 25.
I think that’s a great concern that someone would have, especially as a parent from a different generation. I don’t even know if it is necessary to explicitly go over these things with students. In my opinion, educators should be embodying an intentional level of mental wellness when they’re in front of the classroom and, hopefully, incorporate that into the way they live.
Going back to the 2 a.m. lesson plan example if you are stressed out of your mind and you’re giving a lesson on mental health, and you’re like [talks in an audibly stressed tone], “Okay, everyone! Close your eyes! We’re breathing now!” That’s not good. That is not going to work. You really do have to live it. And that will speak for itself, in the way that you show up in the classroom.
I guess this feels like an appropriate time. I didn’t want to ask at the beginning, but I’m wondering, what do you miss about the classroom? Sorry to bring it to the sad place—if it’s sad.
It’s just different. I miss my coworkers so much. That was such a special place in Chula Vista. I honestly miss the kids the most because they’re so funny, whether they’re trying to be funny or not.
I always tell the story of, there was a math test we were doing, it might have been a standardized state test. Everyone was focused. It was really quiet in the classroom. I remember watching one kid who was so into it, and then after they answered a question they did a little dance and a dab, and then went right back to their test. That will forever be in my mind as something I can laugh at.
I love this age, too, of middle school, because the ages are so genuine right?
Yes, for better or for worse.
At least you know they’re being honest.
Yes, you certainly do.