History teachers are in a unique position. History is about human stories. Far more important than names and dates, history lessons are about helping students explore the experiences of the people that went before them. This is essential, in our opinion, for helping children and young adults become invested, effective, and compassionate global citizens. But of course, history isn’t all sunshine and lollipops and for all the history teachers out there, it can be confronting and emotional.

By necessity history teachers confront the darkest times in history. From colonialism, to slavery, world wars and genocide, history teachers must sift through all these events and make them accessible for their students. I’ve just finished putting together resources on World War Two and the Holocaust (you can find them here and here) and while I LOVE history the scope and scale of the cruelties from that period were heart crushing. If you are a parent, as well as a teacher, it can be even more emotional.

So, what do you do as a history teacher? Well, here’s what works for us:

It’s OK to feel, what you feel

I make this mistake too – minimising what I feel because it feels stupid or self-indulgent to be affected by something that happened decades (at least) ago. But feeling sad or angry about the murder of millions of people, in addition to the losses of life on the battlefield, is not just OK, it’s normal. Feeling sad and shocked about the enslavement of other human beings is to be expected. If you are someone who likes or empathises with other people (and if you’ve lasted in teaching, you probably are) how could you feel any differently? Pushing that feeling away or ignoring it, will only make it worse.

Step away from the computer

Slogging away hour after hour on a history unit is part of being a well-prepared teacher but when the content is upsetting or confronting, you need to step away for your own well-being. Work on another subject (I know you’ve always got work to do), walk the dog, play with the cat, binge a comedy. Do something to remind yourself that, as bleak as things have been at times, there are also many beautiful things in life.

Be inspired by the way people overcame their struggles

There are always people who faced immense hardship and overcame. People who survived the very worst and went on to raise healthy families and/or excel in their careers. There are also examples of people who, when faced with the worst, took it upon themselves to save the lives of others. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the horrors you’re reading about, it’s worthwhile switching your focus to these stories of resilience. It’s also worth sharing these stories with your students.

Find ways to act

If you’re so inclined and in a position to do so, then donating money or time to different causes can help. Many museums, which are essential in educating the next generation about the past, are in need of resources to keep going. If you’re more people-focused than getting involved in groups which support refugees or lobbying for greater equity might be a good fit for you. And besides, it’s scientifically proven that we feel better when we help others.

Put off for today what you can do tomorrow

Look, I admit it, this little Platypi tends to procrastinate (and illiterate), but in this case it’s for a good reason. This is about more than taking a break from the computer, is about taking a break for a few days or weeks. Obviously your ability to do this depends on when you need to teach these lessons, but if you can there’s no harm in putting this work on the back burner until you’re better placed to deal with it.

The truth is all subject areas have their challenges, but history teachers are in the unique position of having to dig at humanities old wounds. Being affected by that makes you a better teacher, not a worse one.

Are you a history teacher? How do you protect your own well-being when studying histories dark periods? What would you suggest to history teachers who are just starting out?

Wendy Allott

I'm an educator, mum and wife living in beautiful Victoria, Australia. I make learning resources for passionate, but time-poor, teachers in need of a better work-life balance. I'm a voracious reader, love a good curry, and believe life is always better with chocolate.

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