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Some Thoughts on Teachers Crying in the Classroom


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The day it happened to me was in my fourth year of teaching. I was in a new seventh grade language arts position, one I’d started in January after a teacher retired mid-year, so I hadn’t had enough time yet to build the relationships that are the foundation of my approach to classroom management. That day, I was trying to get my second period to do an activity where small groups had to do some kind of sorting with a set of small cards — pieces of cardstock with words on them that I had spent way too long the night before cutting out and organizing into envelopes for each group. 

It wasn’t going well: I had given what I thought were clear instructions, but once I told them to get started, several groups seemed to be just socializing and not following instructions with the cards. In one group, two students tried diligently to start the activity while their teammates stared off into space. A guy in the back grabbed a girl’s purse, causing her to squeal flirtatiously and start hitting his arm. I was getting frustrated. To make matters worse, I was feeling particularly raw for some reason. Maybe I was sick or worried about something or short on sleep or all of the above.

As I tried to get them back on track, I found myself getting in my head. They would never act this way in Tony’s class, I thought like I often did, comparing myself to my much more experienced mentor down the hall. They don’t like me. They don’t respect me. I saw a pair of students laughing, and I immediately assumed they were laughing at me. They think they can get away with anything, I thought. They think I’m a joke. I need to be tougher.

With these thoughts taking over, I’m sure my body language got more defensive, more desperate. At some point, after one final attempt to get their attention, someone knocked a desk over and the class erupted in laughter. That’s when I yelled. I don’t remember what I said, but it was loud, loud enough to completely shut down all conversation. They sat in stunned silence while I ranted for another twenty seconds or so, and then for a moment, I just looked at them and they looked back at me. 

With cortisol and adrenaline flooding my body, what came next was a wave of shame. Even though they were finally quiet, I hated that I had to lose control to make that happen. I hated what I had just turned into. And that’s when I felt the tears coming. 

I turned and walked out of the room. I knocked on the door of the teacher across the hall, asked her to keep an eye on my class, then made a beeline to the staff bathroom down the hall, locked myself inside, and finally let it all out. I stayed there until the end of the class period — about 15 minutes. I didn’t care what happened. If I got fired, oh well. I only cared about two things: (1) not going back to that class, and (2) not being seen. 

Crying in front of your students — or barely making it out of the room before you do, like I did — can be a humiliating experience. I’m not talking about the kind of crying that happens when you’re moved to tears by a poignant story or you react to upsetting personal news; those human moments can actually bond you to your students. I’m talking about the kind that comes from frustration, shame, anger, or loss of control. It might be something you experience as a new teacher, but it can also happen well into your career. Regardless, if it happens to you, it can shake you up pretty good. 

I have a few thoughts that might help.

Is Crying in Front of Your Students a Bad Thing?

The answer to this question is complicated, and not everyone agrees on it. And again, I’m only talking here about the kind of crying that typically comes from a classroom management issue.

Personally, I think if it’s a one time thing, it’s not the end of the world. It happens to a lot of us, and if you do a Reddit search for “I cried” in the Teachers subreddit, you’ll find page after page of personal stories of teachers who broke down in class, followed by dozens of responses from other teachers who are basically saying hey, it’s okay, it happens. Teaching is an incredibly overwhelming job, and it tests our emotional strength daily. You really need a thick skin to survive; many of us don’t develop that thick skin right away. 

And in some cases, an instance of crying in front of students may have a silver lining. In a surprising number of stories, when student behavior causes a teacher to cry, the students often feel remorseful afterwards. In this Reddit thread, many people who told stories about making their teachers cry felt terrible after it happened. In some cases, the incident ultimately improved their relationship with the teacher. In other cases, students got mad at the classmates who caused the problem and stood up for their teacher. 

But there can also be negative professional consequences. If you cry in class more than once, especially if the incidents are relatively close together, it can signal an inability to handle your job — this can make students feel uneasy, and it can hurt your reputation with your colleagues and bosses. In a 2018 survey of over 2,000 CFOs, 44 percent of them said crying at work too often can undermine career prospects, and 26 percent said any crying at work would cause people to perceive you as weak or immature. Another study in the same year — this one specifically focusing on women — reported that crying at work might not hurt your reputation if coworkers think you are dealing with difficult personal issues or a “tough situation at work,” but if not, it is more likely to make them think you are weak, unprofessional or manipulative. While these studies both come from a broader corporate sampling, it’s not far-fetched to believe they might parallel how school leaders feel. While this may seem unfair, it also might actually affect how you are treated at work. And I can say from experience that it definitely doesn’t feel good to do it, so after it happened to me, I was pretty motivated to not let it happen again.

The bottom line here is that if your teaching job is making you cry frequently, it’s a sign that something needs to change. Maybe you work in an incredibly toxic school with ineffective leadership — the solution might be to switch to a new school. Maybe you’re under an unusual amount of stress outside of work, and a change in those circumstances might fix the problem. Maybe the demands placed on you in your current role are too much, and those need to be addressed. It could very well be that teaching just isn’t for you. 

Or maybe with a better understanding of why you’re brought to tears — which we’ll talk about next — and a few changes to your approach and mindset, you can learn to weather the challenging moments of teaching with more emotional stability.

Why It Happens

A good place to start is to dig into why this kind of crying happens to teachers. Obviously every person’s situation is unique, but when I reflect on my own experience and stories I’ve heard from other teachers (like this Australian teacher, this 5th grade teacher, and this first year teacher) I see some common threads:

Strategies to Stop Yourself from Crying in Front of Your Students

If crying in class is a concern for you and you want to prevent it, these ideas might help.

Pay Attention to Early Signs

A big part of preventing a cry is to notice the moment when your emotions start to feel even the slightest bit elevated. This might look like mild irritation toward a student, a feeling of having too much to do and not enough time, or being frustrated when something isn’t working, like a piece of technology or a classroom activity. When these tensions start, they can quickly pile onto each other and build into something bigger, so this is the time to take action by using one of the other strategies listed here.

Regulate Your Emotions

Once you realize your emotions are elevated, getting yourself out of that activated state is essential. There are lots of ways to calm yourself down — taking slow, deep breaths, counting to ten, or going for a short walk if you can get someone to cover your class. If you can do one of these things and they work, great. 

If not, here’s another idea: When I felt like my students were starting to get out of control and I was feeling anxiety building inside me, a technique that worked every single time was to stop teaching, sit in a chair at the front of the room, open a notebook to a blank page, and start writing. Within a minute, this calm, simple act would silence the whole class, because they had no idea what I was doing, and my sudden stillness caught them off guard. 

Meanwhile, here’s what I was doing in my notebook: I’d usually start by venting my frustrations, writing down things I should probably keep to myself. As I wrote, I felt my adrenaline and anxiety dropping, my breathing becoming slower, my sense of self-control returning. Then I would often switch tactics: I’d start looking around the room and writing down things that had actually gone well in the last few minutes, whether it was the groups who did, in fact, attempt to do the activity as planned, the folder on my desk of make-up work one of them had just handed in minutes before I lost it, or the funny thing another one had said at the beginning of the hour. In between short bursts of writing, I’d breathe and look around the room, taking in all of their faces and mentally noting all the ones who really hadn’t caused any trouble at all. Every time I did this, I was surprised to discover that what I thought was an out-of-control class was actually more like 3 or 4 kids who were giving me trouble, another handful that were merely distracted by the show, and a whole lot more who were mostly just waiting for things to get back to normal. 

Huh. That’s the sound my brain would make upon realizing this.

After just a few minutes of writing, I would close my notebook, talk calmly to my students about where things went wrong and what I’d like them to do next, and continue on with my plan for the day. Most of the time this all went down without a single disciplinary action on my part. And I definitely didn’t cry.

Tell Yourself a Different Story

When my second period class started going off the rails, I told myself a story about the situation that made it much worse: that students didn’t like me, that they didn’t respect me, that they thought they could get away with anything. And once I had that narrative in my head, all I saw was evidence that supported it. Once I started to become aware of the idea of stories we tell ourselves, I noticed that this kind of thing happened all the time outside the classroom too. 

A technique that has worked well to help me address this problem is cognitive reframing, which is changing the story you tell yourself about something you’re currently experiencing or something that has happened in the past. 

So instead of the narrative in my head that day, I could have told myself something like This activity really isn’t working. I probably should have modeled how to use the cards before I had them get into groups. Had I told myself this much more neutral story, I would have been a lot more likely to stay calm. 

If you’d like to explore this idea further, I recommend two of my friend Angela Watson’s books: Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, and Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What. Both books offer tons of insights and guidance on how teachers can work with their mindset to make teaching a lot more enjoyable.

Move into Third Person

In order to tell yourself a different story, you have to be aware that there is a story to begin with. When you’re feeling emotionally triggered, it can be incredibly helpful to take one step away from yourself mentally and think of yourself as an observer of your own mind, rather than letting your emotions dictate how you interpret a situation.  

I first heard of this technique from world-renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his bestselling book, A New Earth (Amazon | He describes how liberating it can be to understand that there’s a difference between your thoughts and reality, that many people create a lot of unhappiness for themselves because they believe their interpretation of life’s events is an accurate reflection of what’s actually happening. If you can learn to see your own mental filter as its own separate entity and just observe your thoughts more objectively, it can lead to a happier existence. 

Let’s say you’re teaching a class where students are all on devices, and something goes wrong with the software you’re using. While your first thought might be This lesson is a disaster. I hate using tech! I don’t know what I’m going to do now!, you could take a mental step back and think, Wow, I’m really having a strong reaction to this. I think I’m panicking because I don’t want to lose valuable class time. If I freak out it probably won’t make it better, so let me think about an alternate plan in case the tech issue never gets resolved. 

Another way to achieve almost the same result is to pretend you’re an actor in a movie. This technique, which comes from behavioral psychologist Denise Dudley, will basically have the same outcome, which is to move yourself outside of the scenario and create just enough emotional distance to allow you to handle things more calmly and objectively.

Approach Situations with Curiosity and Care

Rather than taking things like challenging behavior personally or seeing students as the enemy, if you shift to an attitude that is more curious and caring, it can keep your own emotions from flaring up. By doing this, it makes students seem less threatening, it moves the focus off of yourself, and it helps get you into problem-solving mode. 

Suppose I give instructions to my students and one of them ignores me. I could interpret that as disrespectful or rude, or I could try to assume the least harmful intent and ask myself what might be causing the problem. Is she preoccupied with something? Did she simply not hear me? Even if she did do it on purpose, if I actually am the target of her behavior, I can still take a more curious, caring stance: Is she upset with me, and if so, why? What needs to happen to repair our relationship? Getting yourself into this mindset is an example of unconditional positive regard, a stance that communicates to students that they have value no matter what, and it can have a powerfully positive effect on your classroom climate.

This approach will come a lot more naturally if you get to know your students as well as you possibly can. If you have a more complete picture of who a student is, what they’re dealing with outside of school, and what they care deeply about, you’ll be much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt on their off days. This four-part system for getting to know your students gives you excellent strategies for building relationships with students and continuing to grow them all year.

If this advice makes you bristle, if you’re thinking, But some kids really are rude and disrespectful. Why should I tolerate that?, know that I’m not urging you to be a doormat. I’m offering a different way to react that keeps you in control of the situation and helps you make smarter decisions. By letting your emotions take over every time a student acts up, you’re letting them dictate your moods. You can still give consequences for undesirable behavior, but doing it with less emotional intensity will feel a lot better.

The day after my incident, I spent a few minutes talking to my second period about what had happened. Although they hadn’t seen me cry, I wanted them to know that I had kind of lost it, that I was a little embarrassed, and that it made me realize that I needed to get better about communicating expectations and giving clearer instructions. Then we moved on and it never happened again. 

Teaching is an incredibly intense, vulnerable job. Even if you’ve been in the classroom for decades, you’ll still have days that threaten to take you down emotionally. It’s not a career for the faint of heart. But with a few mental tools in your back pocket, you can meet those days head on and get back to the creative, dynamic, life-changing work you signed up to do.

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  1. During my 15 years of teaching experience, there have been two instances where I found myself shedding tears in front of my classes. In one example, the students seemed indifferent to my emotional display, showing little concern. However, in the other case, my tears elicited empathy from the students, prompting them to reflect on their behavior and make positive changes.
    This is the first year with a vivacious group, where I’ve maintained control in every situation from the get-go, thanks to Conscious Discipline. This approach to social-emotional learning has been instrumental, especially when dealing with students who aren’t fully attentive. It underscores the significance of teachers being in tune with their emotions and responses. By identifying triggers and stressors, educators can effectively manage their feelings, stay poised, and handle challenges adeptly. This fosters positive behavior and sets an example of emotional regulation for students. Witnessing their teacher’s calm demeanor during challenging moments encourages students to follow suit. Conscious Discipline equips teachers to cultivate a classroom environment where emotions are acknowledged, regulated, and leveraged for learning and development.
    Often, when my students seem disengaged, I take a moment to assess my planning and delivery methods, considering what I may be doing or not doing effectively. Occasionally, I realize the issue lies with my approach rather than solely with the students. Over time, my teaching strategies have evolved significantly as I remain receptive to learning and adaptable in my teaching style. I’ve understood that each classroom is unique, requiring tailored techniques for different groups. It’s become evident that without a willingness to adapt, one may find themselves stuck in a cycle of struggle.

  2. Joe Halcott says:

    I had a student who would ask questions on every assignment and the questions would then confuse other students in the class. I finally asked the student to see me after class if the student had a question or questions. Even after explaining it again with examples the student was “confused”. The student then would talk to other students in their group and confuse them too. Later, I had the opportunity to sit in another teacher’s class. The same student was in that class and did the same thing by asking confusing questions. I realized it was not my teaching or the current teacher’s lack of explaining clearly, but that the student had a cognitive problem. Sometimes it’s really not the teacher’s lack of skill, but a problem that lies with the student!

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      I’m glad you took the time to seek more insight about this student’s behavior so that they could receive the support they needed to be successful.

  3. Terri says:

    I’m about to retire after 35 years of teaching. I have cried many times over the years, but always with love and appreciation for the wonderful things my students have done and the wonderful people who they are. I feel blessed that these are my memories. Yes, there have been “other” days, other emotions, but these are the ones I cherish. And the result has been, even though I usually apologize for crying, that they know they are loved. I have stayed in touch with many, and they really do remember how much they were loved.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Best wishes for your retirement! So glad you are able to carry loving memories with you.

  4. Andrew Wilks says:

    It is a healthy thing to cry and let ones emotions out PERIOD regardless of what others say and do to beat the person down that is crying weaponizing against the individual the emotions of the one crying.

  5. Briezi Dee says:

    Post-Covid and teaching high school has been very stressful. I’ve been taken from my school by ambulance twice in the last five years due to blood pressure spikes. Last week nearly made it three. I trust the school nurse and he has helped me make that call. Don’t think you’re just weepy: you could be having a medical crisis. Have someone you trust check you out and make sure you’re okay.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      I can’t imagine how frightening those situations must have been for you. Thank you for sharing this reminder that we, as educators, must prioritize our wellness.

  6. Charlene K says:

    As a teacher of twenty+ years, I have been here — the tearful teacher at the front of the class, barely holding it together through the day or until I could get a break from the students. It has not been often that my emotions got the best of me before getting too far out of control. I feel deep empathy for teachers who have experienced this to a heightened degree.

    I am thankful for mentors in my career who coached me on how to think about and manage my emotions in the classroom. As a teacher leader, I enjoy mentoring, leading and coaching pre-service teachers, beginning teachers and grade team colleagues, and this is one area I focus highly on.

    Working with pre-service teachers and having them gain a complete understanding and strong skills in classroom management, work-life balance, organization, and self-confidence goes a long way toward helping them strengthen their determination to meet the increasing demands of today’s classrooms and students. The modelling of self-regulation of our emotions helps students to see ways that it can be done effectively. In the same way, when students see us cry, they are experiencing empathy, something that is often not seen or shown enough in today’s world. In our jobs as teachers, we are modelling the positivity of both these emotions – when we cry and when we do not cry.

  7. Aurora D.L Martinez says:

    I admired the teacher, that finds him/herself being vulnerable with their students after investing the proper time in asking about their daily days, the greetings, and so. Of course, it takes time to consider several elements. I understand, as every teacher in their professional life has gone through an embarrassing situation as such, and how the reactions of the before and after can be seen by the entire school community. What we do with these experiences, will count toward creating a stronger bond with our student, or will definitely will provide the given tools to block any future teacher-student relationship. Nonetheless, the reality is that we are the sum of our experiences and our line of teaching manifest that notion in our day to day interactions.

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