Debriefing – A Critical Skill For Teachers.

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Debriefing is often an overlooked part of being a teacher. In fact, it’s an overlooked part of life. Having someone you can debrief with after a challenging situation or a tough day is essential to maintaining your well-being at work.

As teachers we deal with complex and, honestly, risky situations all day. I’ve needed to debrief after being threatened by students or parents, after medical emergencies, and after a teacher had a mental health crisis because of the stresses of the job. Making sure that you acknowledge what you’re going through and have someone to talk to is something you need to do to look after yourself.

What is debriefing?

Debriefing is deceptively simple, but it does have some rules. And the first one is to have someone you can trust and who can follow instructions. This may seem a little cold and calculated, but you need to trust the person to listen and follow through if you don’t want any advice.

Two young teachers debriefing after a difficult lesson.
You need to make sure that you have someone that you can trust to debrief.

The next thing is to be comfortable with giving some instructions. Don’t go into a conversation like this not knowing what you want to get out of it, or the other person will assume. You may want advice, so let the person know. You may want to know if the other person has been through a similar situation, so let the person know. This is a conversation for you and your well-being. It is about your needs, so you need to be explicit about your needs.

What a debrief is, is whatever you need it to be. But you need to feel safe talking to this person, and you need to feel like they will understand what you need at this time. The aim is, again, whatever you need it to be. Don’t let the other person dictate this, or if you do, don’t be ashamed to tell them to stop if they are doing something that is not helping. Clear communication is essential for this.

How to do it properly.

The first thing to focus on when debriefing is to prioritise it; the sooner you can do it after an incident, the better. It also helps if the person who needs to debrief isn’t the person to initiate it. It validates your feelings and sets the debrief as a systemic priority that needs to be taken seriously.

You also need someone who can listen without turning it into a story about them. I firmly believe that training school leaders to conduct a successful debrief is important because it isn’t like a usual conversation. I know that I’m often guilty of inadvertently making conversations about myself because I share my own experiences to make sense of someone else’s. I’ve had to train myself not to do when debriefing with a staff member.

I discussed this above, but I’d like to emphasise that you need to give the person you’re debriefing with instructions. You may want advice, and you may not. You may want validation that you’ve done the best job, but you may want another perspective. This conversation is not about them; it is about what you need. Leaving the other person to guess could go wrong and do more harm than good. Someone who values debriefing and knows how to do it well should explicitly ask you what you need out of this conversation, but you may need to initiate this yourself.

Why is it important?

People often talk about debriefing in a healthcare setting, and it’s recognised as an essential part of the job for doctors, nurses, and emergency services. Taking the time to debrief after a potentially traumatic experience is a key part of looking after your staff. It should be prioritised by anyone interested in having a safe and supportive workplace that people want to work at.

Two teachers debriefing in the staffroom after a hard lesson.
Debriefing is an important part of looking after yourself as a teacher.

Because this is the common perception in a professional setting, it can be easy to regard teachers as being in a different situation. They don’t deal with people dying every day, so they don’t have the same needs. If you’re a teacher, you should know something about trauma. You don’t need to “deserve” or “earn” trauma. Trauma can occur whenever someone cannot cope with a situation, and teachers experience this in bucketloads. So many teachers leave the profession because they cannot cope with the demands and stress of the job, and a big part of this is how teachers’ needs and experiences aren’t taken seriously.

The struggles of a teacher.

Debriefing is a struggle for any teacher because it is often not taken seriously. Potentially traumatic events are often seen as just part of the job, so you don’t always get the support you need.

There is a well-known issue with families and friends not understanding what it’s like being a teacher. I’m fortunate to come from a family of teachers, so I always had someone to debrief with, even if it was on the phone while driving home from work. Not everyone is so lucky, though. I’ve known teachers who were struggling with their mental health due to their job, who don’t discuss work with their partner because any mention of something they’re struggling with was met with a “well, you get 12 weeks of holidays every year! You have nothing to complain about”.

A therapist is another person who is excellent to debrief with. You may not be able to see them on short notice, but I firmly believe that just being a teacher is a reason to see a therapist regularly. But this isn’t an option for many teachers for many reasons, so they often need to rely on colleagues at school.

The struggles of a relief teacher.

All of this leaves relief teachers in a really bad position. Being a relief teacher can be isolating, and you’re more likely to encounter situations that need a debrief than many classroom teachers. Finding a community of relief teachers is a great place to start, and if you can get regular work at only a handful of schools, it will put you in contact with more people that you can trust to debrief. The critical thing as a relief teacher is to prioritise this. Make sure that you have someone that you know you can debrief with. Don’t underestimate its importance, and look after yourself.

Elise is an enthusiastic and passionate Australian teacher who is on a mission to inspire and support fellow educators. With over a decade of experience in the classroom, Elise leverages her expertise and creativity to provide valuable insights and resources through her blog. Whether you're looking for innovative lesson ideas, effective teaching strategies, or just a dose of inspiration, Elise has got you covered.

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