S2: E48 Teacher Well-Being with Jackie Sunga

Season Two
Episode 48
Teacher Well-Being with Jackie Sunga

Jackie Sunga is in her fifth year as a music educator and currently teaches in Keller ISD in Texas.  She recently completed her Kodály Certification at Texas State University and has been the Social Media Coordinator for the Kodály Educators of Texas.  One of her passions is helping other music educators overcome anxiety and burnout and encouraging others to make mental health a priority.  You can find Jackie at:

Instagram:  @genuinelyjackie
Twitter:  @MrsSungaSings


Jessica:  Jackie, thank you so much for talking today.

Jackie:  Yeah, I'm so excited!

Jessica:  Me too!  I'm glad you're here.  Can you just tell us a little bit about your story?

Jackie:  I am currently a K-4 Music Teacher in Keller, Texas.  For a really long time, I was really, really struggling with a lot of anxiety about working and about accomplishing my goals and various things and I had realized that it was just time for me to get help and that I just could not handle certain things on my own anymore.  And it was in college when I was really just, honestly, just praying so hard.  I was like - okay, I need several things.  When I was in college eight years ago is when I started going to group therapy and that was something my college had offered so I was like 'okay I'm going to go to this.'  A lot of my friends didn't know that I was going and it was just this thing that I really needed to do for myself.  I would go to rehearsals and I would go to classes during the day and I would go to my voice lessons and what have you and then I would go to group therapy in the afternoon and then I'd go hang out with my friends and then it was just like it was just this part of my day and my life that this is just something that I just really need help with because it was just like...There were so many things that happened in my life and that I had personally lost and it was so necessary for me.  It was really just hard for me to share that with my friends because I couldn't really even share my own story of why I needed to go to therapy 'cause it's that stigma of like 'Why does she need to get some help?  Why does she...?'  But it was that thing that I knew I needed to do for myself.  And then as time went by and people kind of started making mental health and these issues more widespread, I was like I know I'm not the only person who has gone through what I've gone through and I've been through and worked through so many of my own struggles that it's time for me to learn how to do this for other people.

Right now I'm going through coaching certifications.  When I was in college, I started going to group therapy and I was also praying for a spiritual director and it also happened that my spiritual director also happened to a therapist so it turned out to be very, very beneficial for me.  I'm still working with her because she and I work so so well together.  And so much that I've learned from her has helped me help my friends who were going through so many difficult things and I was like, well I want to learn how to do this better in a more systematic way and so when I found this life coaching certification program, I was like okay - this sounds like the kind of person I want to mentor me so that I can help certain people because you know there's lots of people who provide coaching services, but they haven't really gone through a program that really teaches you how do you be... how do you... how do you hold space for someone when they're really stuck in their overwhelm?  When they're stuck in their anxiety?  They know that they're holding themselves back, but they don't really know how to get themselves out of it.

My heart has been on that topic for years now and it really has only come into something that I've been posting about frequently since I made the decision to enroll in the coaching program.  Yeah.  I'm in the process still of learning how to effectively coach someone, but it's like an amazing skill and it's transformed my own teaching in the classroom as well.

Jessica:  What things have you been able to take from what you're learning and apply to helping students with what they're going through in the classroom?

Jackie:  Yeah, it's been a game changer for me honestly.  First of all, before anybody starts coaching somebody else, I think the ideal to embody the most that's most important is integrity, right.  Of how do I embody this concept myself when I'm going through this problem and then it's not just me giving somebody a tip that's not in my body.  For me, the work has started with how do I hold myself to a different new standard of this is the new level that I'm playing at now when it comes to deeper self-care and deeper awareness and - self awareness I should say.

One of the biggest takeaways for me so far (and we're still not done learning all the content), but the biggest thing so far has been my own awareness of my triggers.  So when things upset me, understanding why is it that I'm upset by something and then peeling back the onion of what is my own emotional landscape, right?!  Because sometimes we'll be - something will make us really upset because of something someone said and we don't even know why.  So something I've become even more aware of: why something made me upset that a students said or a coworker said or even my own family and then taking a step back and coming back and realizing that my trigger has nothing to do with them.  So how can I take ownership of this emotional experience that I'm having right now so that I'm not landing on two sides of a spectrum.  One side being completely projecting or yelling at somebody or blaming or being aggressive.  Or the other side of the spectrum - taking someone else's emotional experiences as more important than my own.  And so the mean between the two extremes to master and practice every single day is how can I fully honor my own emotional experience and not gloss over that and take care of that the way that I need to take care of it.

And then also not project unfairly onto somebody because something made me angry.  How many times when you're like ultra stressed out and then you like snap at somebody... I shouldn't say you; I should say we.  Teachers, right!?  We have so many things on our plate and if we don't take our triggers in the moment and see our triggers in the moment and figure out what is exactly that we need to give to ourselves, then we veer into the risk of projecting onto somebody else.  And that has been a huge game changer.  The more I've delved into the work, the more I've realized how much I really do get upset by something and how my old strategy was just ignoring it.  I ignored when I was upset by something because I needed to take care of other things.  I needed to take care of these things on my to-do list.  I needed to take care of something for my family.  I needed to take care of something for these kids, but it's like how can we be so self-honoring that we're taking care of ourselves and we're putting those boundaries and our energy and our time and our space so that we can really, really give from a full cup.  And this is why I like to say like self-care is not just painting your nails.  It's not just getting your hair done.  While all of those things I love doing all of those things, but it's like we can't bypass the things that are really, really important and that takes a really, really deep level of self-knowledge because something that triggers one person may not trigger somebody else because everybody's had different life experiences.  And so … that was a long answer!

Jessica:  It was a good one!  And so do you find that you're able to help students identify what's triggering them?  Has it gone that far with students or is it more identifying your triggers so that you can react differently in the classroom?

Jackie:  Both.  So when I realize - when I go that far with myself, then I get to see okay this child is being triggered by this reason.  So for example if someone - and it breaks my heart to  think about these things - so I work in a Title I school and one example is this student who - she was told over and over and over again how bad she was.  She'll do things that get her in trouble to get attention.  Instead of me saying something that will then further support her belief in her mind that she's not a good kid, then it's asking the question 'I wonder what is it that's making her act this way?'  Starting with curiosity and starting with compassion is 100% the key here.  Especially with the population that I'm working with.  There are so many tragic things and stories that I hear about what home life experiences are like.  This is literally what I was like as a child and I wish that someone had - when I was kid - had that level of curiosity without judgement.  And that's the thing.  When we're judging and we don't know the full story, we can't really honor the whole child, right?  That's the number one tool that has helped me so much.  When a child is doing something and acting out, I have to ask myself "I wonder what is it that's making the kid..." and granted this is hard to do in the moment.

Like if a kid is repeatedly not understanding you - sorry - is repeatedly not listening to you, it's difficult to do in the moment, but working towards that mastery every single day is a game changer for your own patience.  Because then you're not just seeing the kid lashing out.  You're seeing this whole picture of the whole person and that's something that's really important to me.  Because how many times in my own life did I wish that someone, you know, if they were giving me negative feedback, that they asked what is going on with this person or I wonder what's going on in this person's life before they criticize or before they offer an unfair assessment.  That just really honors the relationship with the student and the more that I do that with myself the easier it is for me to do that for students who are particularly struggling.  And I find that those students who have really struggled and that I've made that extra effort to ask them what's wrong... and sometimes they're not aware.  They're not aware that they're acting a certain way because mom or dad did something that was not so great, but what they do know and what they do feel is how you made them feel when they were really weak.  And when I say weak, I mean when they were acting out in a way that was not really, truly who they are.  And yeah - it's been amazing when it comes to my own classroom management so yeah.

Jessica:  We had Dave Mochel come to our school and I've also heard a variation of it from Brené Brown.  He was talking about - and I won't remember it perfectly - but they were asking kids to share "tell me more about this" even instead of going "Well I just noticed you did such and such and why did you do that?" and going from a place of attaching and judgement like you were saying and instead finding out "tell me more about why you made this choice."  Brené Brown always says "the story I'm telling myself..." and so it's kind of like taking your perspective where you're like if a student does something, and then you can go "the story I'm telling myself is this..."
Or I've approached it... I can't think of the incident, but there was something that happened with a sixth grade student recently in class and I was like that was a really - just one of those choices where you're like that wasn't the best choice.  So I pulled him aside after class and just said 'tell me more about why you chose to do this.'  Then they explained and we were able to talk through it and it was so much more helpful for that student and for me than going 'stop doing that and you don't need to do this' and giving some big lecture.  And I felt like the student was so much more open.  And then it was like 'sorry Mrs. Grant' and I'm like 'thank you.  Have a great day.'  Then you leave just with this acknowledgement that okay, they're not... they didn't like what I did... the student knows that it wasn't an appropriate choice, but they know I'm not against them.  It's not me against them.  It's like hey let's work on this together and make a better choice.

Jackie:  100% because sometimes you'll work with kids who already come in and they don't want to do anything and it has nothing to do with you.  Right?!  And so if you take that personally and then you try to have a conversation one on one without asking them what's wrong or how you can help them, then the lecture is the signal to the kid to turn their ears off.  You know what I mean?!  Cause they're not listening 'cause you didn't honor or you didn't ask or show them the extra effort that they needed, you know.  Granted, some kids are going to have much more difficult situations than others and so in that case I think even more importantly to then just talking one-on-one is like how can we bring in the whole system here.  I really want to uncover with his other teachers what's going on so that I understand this full picture because it's never ever ever ever ever the kid's natural state to be a jerk or trigger you.  Noone is ever out to get you and yeah, that's been so amazing with the stronger relationships that I have been able to develop with my kids this year.

Jessica:  That's great.  So once you figure out - or for you at least - these things that trigger you and you're working on those, then how do you learn more about what to do... let's say you're triggered by something and then you make this choice, but then you continue to feel either overwhelmed or anxious, how do you deal with like the overwhelm or the anxiety?  Or what does that look like?

Jackie:  That would be a different area, right.  This would be in the moment of how do I prevent myself from snapping at my husband?  Or how do I prevent myself from snapping at someone on my team if they like interrupted me or something?  And so when it comes to overwhelm or anxiety, overwhelm can be prevented by a lot of things right.  So one tool that I really have been using is realizing that my feelings and that my thoughts do not define me as a whole person and that the feelings and thoughts are completely momentary.

Let me use the metaphor of like a jar.  Let's see we're in a jar of emotions and there's a label on the outside, right, but if we're in the jar of overwhelm we can't read the label.  We have to then figure out how to get ourselves out of the jar so that we're not identifying with this overwhelm or this anxiety and that we're able to observe ourselves from the outside and realize that I can actually disassociate from this thing and it's not me.  For example, if someone says I am fat.  It's like no, you're not fat.  You have fat.  Right.  Like you have fingers, but you are not your fingers.  And it's the same thing with your emotional sensations and anxiety. So I can say I can take a step outside of myself and say I notice that I notice that I'm feeling these sensations of anxiety in my body.  I wonder what's causing them and usually, at least in my personal experience, when I'm stuck in overwhelm and I am feeling shaky because there's a million things that I have to do, then I have to ask myself what is the story that I'm telling myself?  What is the narrative that is going through my mind that's causing these things?  Because usually it's tied to a story or a thought that I'm telling myself that I have to do.  Or if I don't do this thing, what is the belief that's tied to this?  Like if I don't do this, then what is it going to confirm about myself that I believe?

And it's like how can I rewrite these stories so that I don't have to put all of this pressure on myself that nobody else is putting on me except myself.  If the belief that you have is I'm not worthy or I'm not lovable unless I get all of these things on my to-do list done.  Then rewriting the story of like I'm always going to be loved.  I'm always going to be enough no matter what because my worthiness has nothing to do with my productivity.  I'm loved just as I am.  I'm loved even when I'm doing nothing and that's a huge shift to make if you're a perfectionist because it's like why do people develop perfectionistic tendencies in the first place?  Because they learned, either as a child or as a teenager,  that the way you get love and connection is by having your stuff together and that if you didn't have your stuff together, then you wouldn't be loved or feel connected to somebody.  And it's just like that's just a bunch of baloney and I'm here to help people rewrite those stories.  To be aware of the stories so you can rewrite them.

Jessica:  I know in my life, something I've - and I did a podcast on this recently - is that sense of enough.  Being enough.  Doing enough.  For me that self-worthiness or perfectionist thing definitely comes out through many areas, but definitely in the teaching realm.  I think in general many of us steer that way towards finding our identity in our worth and what we produce in the classroom and what our students can produce and you know, being able to know that we are worthy in and of who we are without what our productivity says or does like you said.

Jackie:  Absolutely.  And my whole thing that I'm exploring right now is how do I achieve the same result of feeling accomplished and knowing that I did an excellent job today without feeling those feelings of  "oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh it's like chaos and it's never going to be enough."  Well it's like what place are you starting from?  Are we starting from a place of fear?  And that I have to do this otherwise I'm not going to XYZ or my kids are not going to XYZ?  Or are you starting from this place of like I get to do this because … and whatever your reasons are.  And how can we still achieve that level of that I'm so proud of the progress that I've made as a teacher or I'm so proud of the progress my students have made.  For a couple of years now that's been my internal work of how can I recognize that my perfectionistic tendencies are coming up and then having a relationship with that part of me that this is coming up for me.  So what is it that I need to give myself right now so that I can properly shift out of that fear and into this more settled place and peaceful place of like I know that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.  I know that I'm giving my very best work and I know even if I make mistakes, if I fail along the way, I'm not going to die!

Jessica:  Is there anything you do when you start to feel that overwhelm come up or anxiety come up.

Jackie:  That's a great question.  So earlier I was mentioning that idea of noticing.  The idea of noting - separating the feelings and sensations of anxiety from you.  So saying I notice my body is feeling really anxious right now.  So when you can first start - and that's the most important one - you have to start with that and then you can go on to the other actions.  Because when you're in this state of observation, then it's so much easier to give yourself the compassion or whatever it is that you need in that moment when you've observed what has happened instead of like identifying.  The next thing you can do is realize - you can actually have two emotions happening within the same time in your body.  If you're feeling anxious or if you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or whatever, what else are you possibly feeling?  If we think that we're always 100% overwhelmed, how can you remember those times when you've been excited about your work and allow a little bit of that in?  And then just a little bit balance it out so that the excitement or the peacefulness or whatever feeling it is that motivates you can then overpower the overwhelm or the stress.  Again, you can't do that if you're in the jar.  You can't do that if you're identifying with your overwhelm.  You have to first observe yourself and then realize like okay - there are two emotions I'm feeling right now.  How can I allow the other one to take over slowly?  You can work on something when you're feeling a little bit of overwhelm, but if you're feeling that 100% paralysis by all the things that you have to do, then first you have to observe and remember that you are not your emotions.  You are not the sensations that are happening in your body.  You are so much more than that and again, those are hard.  Those are hard to practice and that's where one-on-one coaching becomes such an important thing.  Because if I can't give empathy to myself then I need my coach to give me that empathy that I need and remind me of these things.  That I am not my anxiety.  That I'm not defined by my stress.  I'm actually a lot more.  Because sometimes we need people to remind us of these things about ourselvesw and the things that we've done, again, with the curiosity and compassion.

Jessica:  We had an in-service a few days ago with someone from what's called Project Wayfinder.  With Project Wayfinder, it's things that they're building for students to help them really just see themselves for who they are and find ways to handle things for themselves.  There's a whole bunch to it so I'm not describing it great, but they gave us these papers and on the paper we had to kind of think of who we saw in our lives as people who are like the connections for us, mentors for us, who play different roles for us and help us.  And then on the back there were these 8 choices and they were like 'find which one you are.'  And I had the hardest time going am I the helper? the encourager? the mentor?  And I realized, you know, they asked for feedback and I raised my hand and said what was hard for me was just figuring out well, I think I might be some of these  things, but how do you know what you are because if you're not quite sure which one you play, the best way is to ask people who are close to you what they see in you.  And I think if ever we think that we're in that jar - and you can tell me what you think of this - if ever we think that we're in that jar and we're so overwhelmed we can't get out, asking someone to feed our soul and share what they see in us might help us get out of that place and get out of that jar to fully see ourselves a little bit differently.  And sometimes I feel like I need a friend who can tell me hey - I see this in you.  And I can see it through their eyes and go - okay I'm not as overwhelmed from their encouragement.

Jackie:  Yeah.  Yeah, I love that idea.  To add on to that, this is why it's important to me to now journal whatever successes that I've had with kids.  Whether it's breakthroughs or anything.  Not just successes with kids, but with me overcoming something myself or if I helped a friend with something.  Keeping that running list of like look at the things that I felt good about doing and helped others with, that's something that we don't do.  We spend so much time getting evaluated and looking at areas of improvement, but it's equally as important to remember those things.  That's a great way of helping your practice of helping yourself get out of that jar as we say.

Jessica:  You've posted some different things recently on Instagram.  You'll find her @genuinelyjackie.  It's awesome.  I always enjoy reading your posts and seeing your live things and everything.  You always have so much to say and ask and I just think it's so encouraging and something you talked about was imposter syndrome.  Feeling like you're not good enough.  Can you share a little about imposter syndrome and how it might show itself in our lives?

Jackie:  Yeah absolutely.  What I've come to realize is no matter how many degrees you have, how many certifications you have, you'll always find a new level of imposter syndrome.  And I don't mean to say just you, but every single person.  It doesn't matter if you're like a National clinician and you're presenting at National Conferences.  There is always going to be that question of like they're going to find out that I'm going to find out that I'm not the best person for the job.  They're going to find me out.  And it's so important - going back to the thing I was saying earlier - making it a regular practice to look at the things that you've done that you're so proud of because then - it's also tied to how can I embody the things that I'm teaching more often because you see so many people.  There are so many people who will give like tips.  Tips and tips and tips.  The internet is full of tips.  And like yes, that can be helpful and we can pass on tips that we have embodied, but at the same time, imposter syndrome goes away when you know and when you realize - humbly realizing that - this is exactly where I am at this moment and I'm going to honor that.  I'm going to honor the years that it took me to get here and I know that I've helped so many people.  Plus I'm not done growing yet.  I'm still going to continue the work of practicing what I'm teaching.  That's how imposter syndrome goes away.  Remembering what you've done and holding yourself to a really high standard.  And continuing to hold yourself.  And who sets those standards?  You do.  Right!  'Cause then it's like I'm not going to feel like a fraud unless I know I haven't met the standards that I've made for myself.  Well what are the standards that I've created for myself?  Let me decide what they are.  If you want to play at the level of... whatever level it is that you want to play at, that's what's so exciting.  You get to decide for yourself.  No one is going to tell you what it is you need to be doing.  And then if you decide that you want to go to another level, then awesome.  Surround yourself with other people who are playing at that level and then embody those standards yourself when you get to that new level.

Imposter syndrome is really, really funny because as music teachers we'll find so many other teachers on social media doing amazing things and it's like 'I should be doing what they're doing... I should be doing what they're doing' and then it's just like adding all this extra pressure on ourselves and it's like you don't need to do that.  Just define for yourself what is important to you and keep your blinders on and focus on those things.  And that takes time to decide 'cause no one asks you what do you want.  That's not something we get asked a lot.  And I don't want to generalize to women, but I feel like a lot of women can relate to the idea of 'we don't get asked what do we want in general.'  So it's like how can we give ourselves the gift of asking what is it that I want to accomplish?  Who is the future self who is going to be really proud that I, presently, did all these things?  And then when you keep your blinders on or when you take your blinders off and you look at what other people are doing, it's like oh cool that's cool, , but I really like what I'm doing because I really stayed in my lane and  I stayed focus to the things that was on my heart and that was important to me.  So yeah that clarity can only come from when you're putting your blinders on and not looking at what other people are doing 'cause then all of this doubt tries to come in.  And it's like oh no I shouldn't have done that.  This and this is important, but no.  Whatever.  If you were trained a certain way, stick to your training and trust your training.  And if you realize you don't trust your training and you need more, then go get some more training from somebody that you want to get training by.  Stay in your lane when you get to that level!  Wooh!  I could say so much more about it.

Jessica:  And do you think some of that comes from comparison?  Like going oh... seeing what someone else does.  I know I've done this where it's like wow they're doing such amazing things with their students.  I would love to do that.  And then I take something back from a workshop or something and it doesn't work because I really wanted that thing to work with them because it worked for them in their classroom, but then it didn't work in mine so I think comparison plays.  I also think too that you're the best person who knows your students and your culture and your school and how best those students learn and what they need from you and trusting that.  Like you said - staying in your lane and trusting what's working in your classroom for the students you teach because you're, you know, you know them best.

Jackie:  Yeah exactly.  I think you mentioned a really good point because imposter syndrome comes up really really highly at conferences right.  Because that's like oh yay I'm going to go learn all this stuff, but I'm also going to feel really bad that I'm not doing all of these things that I should be doing.  I remember the first time that I went to the OAKE Conference, my best friend and I had this chat in the car.  We were both like crying because it was such an emotional experience.  Just gotta say OAKE is amazing, but it's also emotional if you don't know what to expect.  So we were talking about this idea of oh my gosh they're making me feel like... but like...  No one is making you feel anything right.  Those other things just triggered you.  Those were triggers.  It's either a trigger that like