My first music class comes into my classroom at 9:30 a.m., talkative and full of energy. We are ready to begin our fun but hard work for the day of becoming tune-ful, beat-ful, and art-ful people. I have a 30-year plan for my students: to be able to sing to their own children one day, to clap on a steady beat at a ball game or concert, and to be moved by expressive music in all sorts of contexts. My students experience the joy, the seriousness, the hard work, and the playfulness of music, and I consider it a great joy to accompany them on the journey.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I also consider it an exhausting vocation. I work with more than 500 children total: 10 half-hour classes per day with around 200 K-4th grade children. On my feet the whole time, every day, five days a week.
Wondering what a highly sensitive person is? Find out here.
When my last class of the day walks out of my classroom, I sit briefly before bus duty and I sigh, always worn out but some days more encouraged than others. I might have more energy in the evening if I had a regular desk job, or perhaps a job that is less emotionally and physically taxing. Sometimes, I envy those jobs. But I don’t believe I would feel as fulfilled as I do knowing the impact I am making on the young people at my school.
Here’s why highly sensitive people like me are drawn to teaching — despite the overstimulation — and how I survive.
Why Highly Sensitive People are Drawn to Caring Professions Like Teaching
Not all teachers are highly sensitive, and not all highly sensitive people are teachers. But I do believe that we HSPs are drawn to caring, nurturing, and creative professions like education. I’ve personally met countless other teachers who are sensitive (and some who are not…) and I think there’s a reason for it. Highly sensitive people tend to love students of all ages, learning, and helping others. In some ways, teaching fits us like a glove.
That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily well-suited to the environment of the classroom — in fact, my first semester teaching was awful. I struggled to balance my work and home life. Many of my students came into the classroom dealing with trauma of their own, and took it out on me. (This still happens, though each school is different.) I didn’t feel at all equipped to handle it.
But I believe that highly sensitive people can overcome these challenges. In fact, I think our empathy, our creativity, and our awareness of others’ feelings help make us especially valuable in roles like teaching.
And I’ve learned a few strategies to make it much easier.
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7 Ways to Succeed as a Teacher When You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
1. Learn to let go when your lessons don’t go as planned.
In my desire to do everything really well, I struggled a lot my first semester. Most things in education don’t go “as planned.” I learned that it’s more important how I respond when things don’t go as planned than IF they go as planned. This realization (which can be applied to most things in life) will take a lot of pressure off of you and allow you to be a better listener and educator.
2. Give yourself permission to say no.
It’s okay to have a day to eat lunch by yourself at work (even if you feel weird at first for not joining your coworkers in the staff lunchroom). It’s okay to build in “down” weekends to rest. It’s okay to stay home for an evening or two during conference week or concert week. It’s okay to not get another “real job” during the summers (in my case, I do odd jobs and plan for the next school year, teach music lessons, and teach occasional community education classes). Your body and your loved ones will thank you in the long run.
3. Your empathy is the superpower your students need.
There are many students who struggle in louder, chaotic, collaborative spaces like a music classroom. It’s more unstructured and less predictable, and that can be over-arousing for me as well as many of my students (whether or not they’re highly sensitive).
As highly sensitive people, our ability to say, “I see you, I understand you, and I am with you” — even while challenging them to grow and take risks — is a game-changer! It helps them confront their challenges without shame or self-doubt.
Our empathy also means we need to be gentle with ourselves. For example, you may struggle with secondary trauma when you see the hurt some of your students go through, or experience it yourself when they lash out. Being able to recognize your feelings not as being weak but as caring helps separate their pain from your own, and be a little more resilient on days when you struggle.
4. Give yourself grace.
I am generally more comfortable around children than adults, with the exception of my core group of friends and church community. It turns out that it’s easy for me to be “in front of” 120 children directing a concert or 30 children in class, but I get nervous talking with a parent or family. The irony makes me laugh, but it also shows me that I am making the most of my strengths and giving myself grace to work on the things that are harder for me.
As a teacher, you’re in a role where your HSP strengths are extra valuable. Don’t get too hung up on the parts of it where you feel out of your comfort zone.
5. Create a “stage persona” for stressful situations.
Not every highly sensitive person is a performer (some would dread it!), but most of us are creative in some way — which is a gift we can draw on in overwhelming situations. In my case, I use my ability as a performer to step into a “stage persona” when needed for my job.
My persona is still me (I’m not creating a false personality or anything), but I’m able to confidently step into that “role” even when my body or mind is on overdrive. It helps to center me and lets me address the overarousal when I cannot take a break or escape the situation immediately.
I believe any highly sensitive person can do this. Imagine what your “teaching persona” would look like, if there was someone cast in your role on a TV show or in a book or play. How do they talk? How do they act? What’s their signature phrase or look? Maybe even give your stage persona a name, and consciously remind yourself that that’s who you are when you’re feeling overstimulated.
6. When things get tough, lean on your support system.
My first semester, I cried in my principal’s office at least four times. I was so grateful that she saw these instances not as weakness, but as a sensitive personality that can be an asset to taking care of students in our school.
I’m also grateful that my husband understands when I need 15 minutes to “decompress” when I first arrive home from work, and he gladly creates that space. He also knows that if I’ve been home alone all day (spring break!) I will usually be excited, chatty, and ready to go out or do something fun with him.
Not all of us have such supportive, understanding people built into our lives, but it’s important to seek them out — or learn how to speak up for our needs with loved ones. Especially when you’re in a profession where you have to nurture others, you need your own support system in place. Know who you can turn to, and don’t hesitate to open up to them when you’re stressed. They may be the difference between burnout and success.
7. Adapt your environment to fit your needs.
I don’t play music in my classroom as loudly as some students would probably like it, but my students who are HSPs would thank me for that decision! Likewise, my classroom has two banks of fluorescent lighting, but I only ever use one set. (Often, I turn the lights off altogether and use the window or strings of lights to create the atmosphere I need to work well.) And I definitely don’t give twenty-five kindergarteners each a triangle all at once, even though it is music class. I’ve learned to teach differently so that all the students are engaged even if just one or two of them have a triangle.
The list goes on and on. My biggest breakthrough recently is to schedule concert nights, when possible, the night before a “non-student” day, like professional development or a grading day. These are my personal adaptations — but it’s essential for any highly sensitive person who’s going to teach.
Much of your arc as a teacher will involve continuously modifying your environment from a hectic one to a soothing, creative one. The result will not just make your days easier, it will also improve what your students get out of it, whether they are an HSP themselves or not.