SEL Opportunities to Support Student Mental Health Post-Pandemic

I was recently asked why I have such a problem with the term “learning loss” (or any version of that term). It’s not that I don’t believe that there has been the potential that learning loss has happened. It’s not that I don’t believe that we need to address certain gaps. It’s that focusing on learning loss accomplishes only two tasks:

  1. To make hardworking educators feel like no matter what they did during the pandemic it wasn’t good enough. And there’s no space where I feel like perpetuating an idea like that is going to put people in the right mindset to return to school refreshed versus anxious. Excited versus exhausted.
  2. It may dilute the importance of addressing the emotional gaps and missed social growth that typically also happens in a year. If we continue to rest in the idea of learning gaps, I feel like we are going to hit the ground running – only to find ourselves running in place – or worse – backwards.

Why? We have healing to do before we have any hope of learning content. If we were EVER able to make students learn more than a years worth of growth, why weren’t we doing it consistently all this time? And now we hope to do it as they come back from a global pandemic? If we continue to look in the rearview mirror we are going to crash. Best we look forward and start the learning journey where we can.

Even if school already returned to session in-person prior to the end of the 20-21 school year, many schools moved back and transitioned right into learning content because school was already in session. Taking time to address even the typical beginning-of-the-year family-building, social adjustment seemed out of place. And as I’ve expressed before, whatever happened was the best that everyone could do at the time. It wasn’t wrong, necessarily, it just was. But, we have the opportunity to start fresh next school year.

One of the pathways for healing is to step into emotions. Find them, name them, and walk through them. Students (and most adults) don’t necessarily know how to do this. Here are some activities to help students find social-emotional gaps from the pandemic and identify feelings they may have had and help deal with stress and anxiety.

Collaborate With the Arts

We have had solid research for years now on the positive impact of the arts on social-emotional wellbeing and mental health issues. This research has recently been brought back as a way to support students post-pandemic and provide them an outlet for emotions and stress they may not have had the chance to address.

“The arts offer unique opportunities to support SEL skills such as emotional regulation, personal aspirations and compassion for others, which can effectively engage students facing higher levels of personal trauma or distress…In a child’s early years, participation in the arts can have positive impacts on their cognitive development. Music instruction can help youths improve their self-efficacy and self-esteem, and can provide opportunities to develop relationship-building skills and form new perceptions about themselves and their communities. The benefits of arts participation can also help educators strengthen their self-efficacy and support positive personal transformations.”

Supporting Student Wellness Through the Arts (Dell’Erba & Quillen, 2020)

Specifically, collaborate with the Art teacher (could also be graphic arts, industrial arts) and allow students to complete a piece that represents either their feelings during the pandemic or their feelings now after the pandemic. Allow them to recognize their sad emotions as well as their positive emotions. There are no negative emotions. All emotions are valid and need to be worked through. When finished, display them in an optional gallery (don’t force students to show their pieces as they may be intensely personal).

Another option would be to work with the music teacher to listen to other pandemic era specific songs, analyze them, and then write lyrics that would sound like and address our latest experience as music also has been shown to reduce mental health issues.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management

Maslow Level: Esteem Needs (feeling of accomplishing something), Love and Belonging (we all went through something together, I’m not alone)

Small Moment Narrative

When I was a teacher, one of my favorite literacy lessons was the small moment narrative. We would read multiple mentor texts and excerpts to really understand how important the senses and emotions of the moment brought life to the story.

Couple a small moment narrative with the research behind the power of writing to build resilience and work through emotional trauma, and this can become a healing activity.

“…people experience a positive effect from employing expressive writing to cope with difficult life experiences. Even though a traumatic or grievous experience comes crashing into one’s life unbidden, through writing, one can shape and explore the difficulty.”

Writing for Healing: Writing it down will help you work through difficult times (Hocker, 2018)

There is a powerful student video by Liv McNeill that illustrates what some of her peers were experiencing during the pandemic called Numb (secondary students only in my opinion) that could be used as an example of a visual of a small moment and how she communicated her frustration through the moment – although technically the video is meant to represent time passing.

It’s okay in this situation to ask students to reveal a moment that they were feeling OR that they imagine their peers to feel. This takes the pressure off and allows more vulnerability if they would like to work through that particular healing but do not want to take on the added pressure of the vulnerability. The therapy is in the writing, not in the display of their emotions.

Other options would be to allow students to create a video like Liv’s to express their emotions during the pandemic or instead of a small moment narrative, ask students to write letters to their pre-pandemic selves describing their experience and emotions.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Social-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision-Making

Maslow Level: Love and Belonging (we all went through something together, I’m not alone), Safety (I can experience psychological safety while being vulnerable)

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing has been shown to reset our brains and bring us to a more neutral place. If this activity needs to be connected to content (I don’t believe it does) it could properly fit into any science lesson on the brain and body or psychology unit on mindfulness.

“Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others…The research shows for the first time that breathing — a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices — directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”

The Yogi masters were right — meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind: New research explains link between breath-focused meditation and attention and brain health. (Trinity College Dublin, 2018)

There are multiple types of breathing exercises that can be tried, but keep in mind that not all breathing is considered mindful breathing, meditation, or deep breathing. Here is an activity that can be done quickly and is relatively simple. The recommended time is five minutes which would obviously need to be adjusted for small children.

2-1-4-1 Breathing

Get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes if it feels okay.

Breath in through your nose for a count of two. Pause for a count of one.

Release your breath slowly for a count of 4. Pause for a count of one.

Repeat.

If this becomes too easy or feels too short, change the time to 4-1-6-1 or any version that seems to work for you. Find more breathing and meditation exercises in my Building Resilience Through Mindfulness for Educators on Thinkific or Udemy.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management

Maslow Level: Psychological Needs

Social Games

I believe that games in the classroom are a fantastic way to engage students, and board games specifically help students develop social skills by working collaboratively with their peers. However, as I discuss social games here I’m specifically talking about partnering with the Physical Education teacher to plan additional time for students to interact in a physical way but also try to mind the gap of the social experiences that they may have had because of the pandemic. In tandem with this, I could quote the mountain of studies done to support additional recess time for students as a way of developing SEL skills as well.

“Physical activity has a small but significant effect on the mental health of children and adolescents ages 6 to 18, according to a review of 114 studies. On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Exercise may also protect children’s mental health over time: One study found that 6- to 8-year-olds who got more exercise had fewer symptoms of major depressive disorder two years later.”

How and why to get children moving now (American Psychological Association, 2020)

There are multiple ways to include physical activity in just about any content area. Reviews can be done in game situations where students need to run and grab a certain color ball or baton to answer a question. Students can collaborate to design their own physical games that the class can then play. Physical education educators are brilliant at developing movement activity and can be an ally when taking on this type of opportunity. Any type of activity that gets them moving (preferably outside or in an open space like the gym) and working together will allow them to build some of the social skills they may have missed during the pandemic.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making, Social Awareness

Maslow Level: Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem

Taking time a the beginning of the year to work on the emotional gaps and social skills that students are lacking from the pandemic is going to be a key way to not only sooth their nervous systems but help them understand their emotions and work through them in a healthy way. It’s also how we will best get to the point of real learning. In this case, the idea of going slow to go fast is going to be key. Some districts might feel like dealing with students’ SEL needs should come second to the work that has to be done, but what they need to understand is that social-emotional support and growth IS the work that needs to be done. And when it’s done well, the rest of the learning will come.

Find more information on the CASEL SEL Core Competencies here.

Reach out to me to discover how I can support your district in professional learning on educator mental health, SEL, edtech, and professional learning books using CARES Act grant funding.

How Resilient Do We Want Districts To Be?

Resilience has become a buzzword throughout the pandemic. I’ve used it myself – admittedly we need to cultivate resilience in ourselves so when we are faced with adversity we are better able to work through the emotions that accompany hard things. But what about our school systems? Resilience is a good thing, right?

Is it?

Even though I’ve always had a separate definition for resilience as it relates to humans (read it here) resilience is typically defined as the ability to bounce back after an adversity or trauma. Organizational resilience is defined as, “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” So, obviously we want districts to have been successful over the pandemic in teaching our students, and I believe that we can safely say that teachers/administrators/school districts did what very few other professions could have accomplished in the way that they adjusted to what their students needed. But, do we really want them to go back to the way they were before?

In this way, in looking at the future plans of districts I’ve worked with, it appears that they have a resilient system. They are going back to exactly the way they were operating pre-pandemic. We had the option of disrupting education entirely and we are, systemically, focusing on bouncing back. Why? Because we have always done it this way. Even the online schools and programs I see people creating are based on the not necessarily best practices of pandemic learning. Proving that in some ways, even pieces of the pandemic will be resilient.

Instead, we need the systems version of post-traumatic growth. We need to take a hard look at the things we’ve learned, the strategies we’ve tried, and the change we were able to accomplish and lean into that. For example, we’ve learned that:

Hybrid learning should never be a thing. Hybrid learning (where the teacher is teaching synchronously to an in-class group and a group online simultaneously) does not work. It is the instructional pandemic strategy, bar none, that produced the most burnt out teachers and I’d venture to say, the most disengaged virtual students. It could be argued that it was necessary as a bandaid but should never be replicated as a real way to teach. BUT, we did learn that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous content with regular student checkins and engagement meant for online learners did work for some students. Many teachers saw the benefits of adding in voice, choice, and pacing options for learners. That could be something we bring forward.

We were reminded of how important relationships are with students and the struggles that they may be enduring at home because, in many cases, we could see those struggles first hand. We realized that our students did not have the capacity to learn when they were suffering from overwhelm and mental health issues, just like teachers may have struggled to teach when they were doing the same. In other words, we learned that discussing learning gaps is not only demoralizing to the teachers who worked overtime during the pandemic to help their students, but that learning can’t happen until the emotional gaps are filled. And we can bring this forward by focusing on social-emotional learning and trauma support as we start the new year (and every day after that).

We were shown how quickly money can be reallocated elsewhere for the greatest perceived need, how a massive change in scheduling can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, and how freaking awesome teachers are at their jobs and yet they are in need of emotional and mental health support as well (also a pre-pandemic issue).

In many cases, I’d say the districts that I’ve worked for and with are resilient. They are able to go back to exactly the way they were prior to the pandemic. But, is that what we want? We have a catalyst to stop doing things just because it’s the way we’ve always done them. How can we better use what we have learned to, at minimum, change the status quo? Or are systems going to lean into their resilience and stare in the rearview mirror until they crash? There are pieces of our system’s post traumatic growth that we can capitalize on to move forward and if not cause a disruption, at least shake things up a bit.

Dear Mandy, How do I heal this summer?

Dear Friend,

You have come such a long way over the last 18 months, it’s truly incredible. Have you celebrated that? When you reflect over the past year don’t forget to appreciate how much you grew. All factors considered, it may not feel like something to appreciate and maybe it’s not fair that you were put in that position, but celebrate anyway. What you’ve accomplished is nothing short of amazing.

But that’s not what you’re asking me. And the question of how you heal really isn’t the right question. What you want to ask is, “How do I start to heal?”

And that’s a loaded question, you see, because your journey to healing did not start nor will it end with the pandemic. Every way you reacted over the last 18 months has been based on how much effort you’ve put into your healing prior to the pandemic, how much resilience you had built, and how many strategies for dealing with any mental health issues you had found. But we can’t always stare in the rearview mirror or we will crash, so it is amazing that you’re looking out the front windshield.

But it’s awesome that you recognize the need to heal and you’re ready to start. Please allow me to give you some starting points.

So much of what we suffer from can be dialed in to two issues: identity and belonging. We need to know who we are and we need to know where we belong. Our brains are literally wired for this. The last 18 months challenged both of these. So much of who we believe we are was challenged through multiple lenses. And where did we belong when we felt like our identities weren’t as strong as they once were? If we were changing, was everyone else? And better yet, who the hell are we in the first place?

So much of my work in educator engagement is based on the emotions that happen behind the education curtain that make people want to leave the profession. The two main issues being burnout and demoralization (although there are a total of six categories that I regularly name).

If I ask you who you are, is “being an educator” one of the top three answers? If your answer was yes, and I have now spent the last year challenging everything about being an educator, you may be feeling demoralization. Demoralization is when your moral obligation to make a difference in this world is challenged, and I believe that it boils down to an educator identity crisis. If I have challenged the very thing that makes you the person you identify with, it is going to make you question everything – even the continuation of being that person and if the risk of re-finding out who you are outweighs the reward of being that person and staying in the profession.

Burnout is, of course, about our own lack of boundaries and our complete and utter exhaustion, but in the education profession, burnout also tends to equal I’m too tired to be the person for other people that I typically am. Which means, it can be a belonging issue. I can’t do that for others because I’m exhausted. I can’t be a part of that group because I don’t have it in me. I can’t support that project because I can’t do anything but watch Netflix. Other people are overwhelming me. And after awhile, you start to wonder what kind of value you’re bringing to the people around you. While burnout should be about you and taking care of yourself, when you place so much of your human value on what you bring to other people, it can make you feel devalued as a human.

This summer, most importantly, rest. The most crucial messages for healing will happen in the quiet moments. Pay attention to your mind and body.

Also, you’ll hear about building resilience through mindfulness practices, gratitude, and various other self-care activities. Please do these if they feel right. However, these practices are not actually where the healing begins, they’re simply tools. The real healing begins by increasing your self-awareness, your emotional intelligence, and developing a more internal locus of control. Behaviors are simply a symptom of emotions, triggers, and past experiences that make us act a certain way. Until we understand these emotions, triggers, and have worked through these past experiences, it’s difficult to move forward. Read self-help books. See a counselor. Pay attention to your thoughts and actions. Reacquaint yourself with who you are and where you belong in the world. Spend time laughing with the people you love and that make you the happiest. I promise that this will help you more in the fall than reading any educational book will.

It’s important to recognize this summer as the beginning because the fall may bring on a setback. As you being to recognize some of your pre-pandemic school life, you may begin to feel the impact of any trauma you suffered over the course of the pandemic. You may start to have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Over the course of the last 18 months you have held in all the stress, heartache, and feelings that you were not teaching to the best of your ability. When things start to feel like normal, those boxed feelings are going to come out and at some point you may think, “Things almost feel like normal, what is wrong with me?” There is nothing wrong, dear one. There is only so much your human can hold at one time. So, when that happens let it out and understand that’s just one more place on the healing journey. To be completely healed is not a reasonable outcome. Whenever we heal from one thing another thing will pop up. Therefore, to look at healing as an event…let that go. You will only ever be at a point in your healing journey, and wherever you are is okay as long as you keep moving forward.

I know you are itching to do something to make yourself feel better. To feel like yourself again. You’re going to have to go slow to go fast, and that begins with taking time to heal and look within yourself for the answers instead of defining yourself by outside factors in which you have no control. There is no prescription. I’m sorry I can’t give you a step-by-step process. This isn’t a quick fix. It will take time. You can do this.

Mandy


For more information on the importance of identity, I highly recommend you check out Coach Adam and his work.

For more information on the importance of belonging, I highly recommend you check out Ilene Winokur‘s work and new book.

How Learning to Love Myself Impacts My Service to Others

Over the course of the Pandemic I’ve taken the opportunity to dive into reflection and learning more about emotions and how they control so much of what we do – everything from eating and sleeping to how we react in certain situations to certain people. I’ve really tried to get to the heart of what makes me tick. What the core emotion is that throws me into jealously mode when I feel like I’m working so hard and other people are more successful than I am. What ignites my overall frustration with some people when other people can do the same thing and I’m fine with it. Why I have such a difficult time feeling true joy that when I do it feels like an euphoric surprise. I want to be better – a better human. A happy human. And most days, I struggle with true happiness no matter how much I feel like I might be helping other people.

The last therapist I went to see was, to say the least, a little non-traditional. I was with him 15 minutes when he said, “You really need to learn to love yourself.” Now, had I heard this only one time, I might have blown it off, but the truth is that it is the one consistent message I’ve received from every therapist I’ve ever seen. Prior to this man, I had been in a therapy session with another counselor who put me in a meditative state and asked me to repeat the words, “I love myself” and I burst into tears and told her I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t. Like my subconscious was like, “Dude, no way. Not happening.” It’s an experience that has taken me a long time to process, and I’ve actually felt empathy for my little human inside that was so sad that they couldn’t say those words aloud.

I’m going to take a pause here and say that I don’t need anyone to message me and ask me if I’m okay and tell me all my good qualities – although I love that people are kind enough to do that for someone. In this case, I’m good. I’ve got me. This blog post is about reflection and potentially helping someone else who may feel like they see themselves in some of what I say. Don’t feel bad for me. I’m doing good work. Work that not everyone is always willing to do.

In my reflection over the course of the pandemic I’ve found that all roads lead back to the way that I feel about myself and boundaries I have or have not set. That my reactions, actions, and the way I treat others is a direct reflection of how I love myself – or don’t. And I have grown – although very slowly – over the course of time in working on this, and I’ve found that there are pieces of my life that have improved because I have found a friendship with myself. I am better able to relate to others because of this newfound relationship.

I’m better able to hold space for someone else.

If you’ve never heard the term “holding space” it means being present for someone as they work through their emotions. Indications of not holding space might be: saying things to try to make it better, relating their experience back to your own life, or being judgmental of their situation. Holding space is not always easy because it requires you to allow someone to process through their hurt without trying to necessarily fix it or give advice. But, what can make holding space even more difficult is if you’re still working through your own emotional baggage. Clearing your own personal baggage allows you to have the space to hold. So many of our judgments and desire to see people ok stem from our own triggered emotions and experiences that we have boxed up inside. By working through my own emotions and baggage I am now able to have the space to hold for others as they work through theirs. It also makes me feel more whole – more grounded, which makes me a more grounding presence to anyone who needs it.

I understand loving others better.

It’s difficult to know how to love other people if you don’t know how to love yourself. It’s also really difficult to know your value if you don’t love yourself as well. In the past, I could be so desperate for someone to care for me (using “love” synonymous with true friendship here) that I would allow people to walk all over me and I would use their “happiness” as my own because I didn’t know how to generate it within me. If they were asking me to do something for them, they must love me, even if I was giving more time and effort than I had available to give. I would allow toxic people to remain because the small doses of simulated caring was enough to get me through their negative behaviors. When I learned how to better love myself, I also learned that people will value me exactly how much I value myself. And if I don’t value myself, some people will value me that much as well, so the narrative needed to be changed. In learning to love myself I found the people who love me that much tended to stick around, and through that experience I learned to love others stronger as I was able to see what true love looked like.

I embrace the eccentricities of others.

Prior to taking the opportunity to do all this shadow work, my own self-loathing could often be found focusing on my personal “wishlist”. This wishlist included things I wished were different about myself. My weight. My inability to focus on anything for a long period of time. My irrational fear of sharks and heights. My nose. The list was long and I felt what made me different made me less than. This is the current area where I do the most amount of work. Accepting what has traditionally made you feel like you’re not good enough in the past can be a long process as disliking pieces of myself has been something I’ve practiced for many years. But, I’m getting better. The idea that I can both like where I am and still try to be better has been a concept that has helped me. Embracing things like my weight (while still trying to get healthier) and my crooked smile is helping me to love it all without judgment, and loving these things about myself has helped me to appreciate the eccentricities that others bring to the table with the same lack of judgment. And honestly, it feels good. Less judgment and more acceptance should always be the goal.

While some might think that one might take on narcissistic tendencies if they love themselves, I can say with certainty that moving into this space has humbled me unlike many other experiences I’ve had in my life. I’ve had to dig into and challenge my own emotional triggers and reroute the parts of my brain that have been taught to react in a negative way to me feeling good about myself. I’ve had to give myself pep talks in the mirror. I’ve had to literally tell myself “I love you”. But mostly I’ve had to work on myself because I’ve always believed that I’m on this Earth to be in the service of others, and I’m slowly learning that I can’t truly do that until I’ve learned to love, accept, and value who I am.

The Potential for Sensory Overload Post-Lockdown

I like warm hugs.

There, I said it. I’ve never considered myself much of a hugger, but since the pandemic, I have developed a new appreciation for another human enveloping me in a tight squeeze. Arms compressing my shoulders, lovingly signifying all the moments since the last time I had seen that person, is nearly all I can think about now. And maybe this realization could only have come about by the Universe saying, “Hey, you wanna look at screens instead of paying attention to the people in front of you? Well, here you go. Look at those screens all the time, then. You’ll see – you’ll miss your people.” And the Universe was right. I do.

That being said, I’m a little afraid of going back to “normal.”

When Wisconsin first opened back up, my daughters needed to go to the doctor for their yearly check-ups and immunizations. I was standing at the receptionist’s desk checking them in and a woman with twin boys, roughly eight-years-old, walked into the office. They began speaking loudly to the receptionist like 8-year-old boys do. They were not behaving poorly. They were doing nothing you wouldn’t expect from children. But for me, even being a mother of four, even being a former elementary teacher – it was beyond overwhelming. I had something like an anxiety attack mixed with overwhelm and sensory overload. The room started spinning. I wanted to put my hands rudely over my ears and ask them to stop talking. I needed out of there fast.

When I was finally able to leave the situation (and I use that term loosely, I mean, it really wasn’t a situation) I reflected on what the heck just happened. I was shocked. I’m not known to have sensory sensitivities. But, something definitely happened that day that made me almost afraid to go back into society for a while. I had become accustomed to being in front of my screen. Being with actual people in public who weren’t as quiet and reserved as my own kids tend to be, threw me for a loop.

I think about this when it comes to teachers and students returning to the classroom after being in virtual learning and how overwhelming it must be. I was speaking to a teacher about how quiet her high school students were and that they were struggling to interact with each other. This might be a result of being in a room at home, alone, working for nearly a year with little interaction, and now put into a classroom with other students. It may be something equivalent to sensory overload EVEN IF they are not known to have sensory sensitivities. And if this is the case with students who are not known to have them, imagine how it is with the ones who do.

So, what can we do about this?

First, just knowing that it could be an issue is the first step. Keep this possibility in mind whenever you see other educators or students just seem a little off. It might even get worse the further you get in the week as it becomes increasingly overwhelming. And it may feel to the person who is overwhelmed that this shouldn’t be happening because they should be glad to be back with people, which can be confusing. It’s usually confusing when how we feel and how we think we should feel are opposing.

Second, speak to students about it. Bringing it to their attention may help lessen their confusion if it happens. Ask how you can help them if it becomes overwhelming.

Third, give students and fellow educators the grace you’d want if you were having those same feelings. Read your students and colleagues and know when to force interaction and when to allow it to happen organically when people are ready.

We have been making adjustments all along and we are not ready to return to normal on so many levels. I miss my people as much as everyone else. I miss their nearness and hearing their actual laugh without the undertone of electronics humming. I miss their warm hugs. But we are going to need to slowly acclimate to whatever our future is. And honestly, the slower we take it and the more self-aware we are, the more we pay attention to others’ social-emotional needs, the more likely we are to come out of this mentally healthier than we would have otherwise.

Three Strategies for Fighting Educator Self-Abuse

I’m not smart enough to keep up with new technology.

I’m not cut out for this new way of teaching.

I’m not good enough to be able to keep up with my own kids and my students.

I’ve gained all this weight during the pandemic and I’m so fat.

The teachers on social media are brilliant. I don’t have the ability to do the things they do. I’m just not good enough.

I live with constant guilt that I can’t keep up.

I’m not resilient enough, brilliant enough, or tech-savvy enough to do anything well.

I suck.

When I first discovered the concept of self-abuse, the physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional abuse of oneself, I was a little skeptical. The addition of the term “abuse” made it feel dramatic…and yet, I wrestled with the questions of “Are we just adding abuse to everything now to make it sound terrible” or “Is self-abuse just not widely spoken about because, like many mental health issues, it’s stigmatized?”

In the processing of my thoughts I came to this conclusion: if someone else would say these things to us repeatedly, it would be considered abuse. Therefore, very much a thing.

Example: If I said to you, “My husband tells me every day that I’m fat and stupid.” You would probably tell me that’s emotional and verbal abuse. And yet, it’s so much more accepted for us to look in the mirror and say, “I’m fat and stupid.”

Example: If your boss came to you every day and said, “I don’t know why you can’t do anything right. If you would just try harder this would be better but you’re too lazy. You’re not doing what’s best for your kids” you would say it’s abuse…or at minimum harassment.

While it may not be your spouse, partner, significant other, or parent saying it, self-deprecation, constant guilt, self-esteem issues that result in negative self-talk are all pieces of self-abuse. Disregarding your own needs, ignoring self-care, failing to act on physical ailments or take care of your wellbeing are all self-abuse as well.

While self-abuse can literally impact anyone, educators are, in my opinion, more susceptible because of their very personal and emotional tie to their profession. Oftentimes, when they feel like a failure in their profession it can carry over to how they feel about themselves personally because they are so inextricably linked. If I ask you who you are, you will most likely name educator in the first five descriptors that you give. Many times, it may be in the first three. We go into the profession with a moral obligation to do better. To make the world a better place for kids. And there are very few things more personal than morality.

As with many struggles when dealing with mental health, self-abuse is built over time and eventually almost becomes a habit. Negative self-talk, for example, is something that our brain begins to default to when we do it enough. That means that in order to change, we need to rewire how we operate, which can take time and considerable effort.

Recognize your value

You are not going to be amazing at everything. However, I have literally never met an educator that didn’t bring something to the table that others needed. Some are fantastic at relationship building, and some know their content like nobody’s business. Some can read a children’s book so that all the kids and adults in the room are entranced by their story. YOU bring a greatness to the table that education needs. Figure out exactly what that is. We all need to continue to learn and grow in all areas, but we can also celebrate the uniqueness that we bring to our classrooms.

If it helps, write them down. Keep it on a slip of paper by your bedside. Every morning or night read them to yourself and take a moment to appreciate who you are. There is nothing wrong with understanding and appreciating your strengths. In fact, you make everyone else around you better because of it.

Practice positive thinking

Of course, one of the ways that we can take power away from negative thoughts is by combating them with positive ones. Rewiring our brains using gratitude (and feeling it from your toes to your nose), positive affirmations, and practicing positive body image are all ways that we can change our default to a more positive self-talk and attitude.

Also, keep people in your life who will care about how you speak to yourself and will model how you should be spoken to. If you detract from a compliment by rejecting its validity, surround yourself with people who will remind you to simply say, “Thank you.” Keep in mind, there is a very find line between being humble and being self-deprecating. One is healthy, the other is not.

Take care of yourself

It’s been a popular notion to say lately, “You can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.” But let’s take a look at that a little closer. I would also say, “You can’t be kind to yourself unless you take care of yourself.” It doesn’t need to even be about anyone else. Neglecting your health is just that – neglect – which is a form of self-abuse. Being physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally healthy is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It will allow you to put all of the self-limiting beliefs and self-abusive tendencies behind you because in taking care of yourself you are inherently making yourself a priority WHICH IS A GOOD THING. It’s difficult to think so little of something that you take care of and prioritize. Don’t have time? Create boundaries. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is possible and necessary.

When I realized all the ways that I was potentially denying myself happiness because I was participating in self-abuse it helped me begin to change behaviors that kept me feeling ashamed, guilty, and unhealthy. I feel like this type of behavior is more common right now during the pandemic when we are feeling like we can’t do what we do best – teach. In some cases, the very strengths that we have identified are unavailable for use because of what the pandemic has done to our jobs. However, find new strengths in what you’re doing now. So many times self-abuse happens to us inside our own heads. Our own thinking can be one of our worst enemies. Therefore, this has to be a change in which you take ownership. It has to be an intentional decision you make every day when you wake up. That’s the first step in beginning to change self-abusive behaviors.

Can We Change the Lens in Which We View Parents?

I was a young mother. I had my eldest son a few months after turning 21. Having dropped out of college to do so, I was not my school district’s version of an “ideal graduate” and having never taken a childcare class in high school, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Some people are blessed with amazing parents who model what parenting should look like, and some of us struggle to figure out how we can recreate a household that looks nothing like our childhood experience. I had no modeling, no coaching, no mentor to guide me through raising a human and I screwed up A LOT. I would find myself falling back into patterns that my mother had shown me only to need to self-correct and try again. I was constantly learning through failure, and while we sensationalize failure as something to strive for so we can learn, constantly learning through failure and never being shown the right way first is exhausting. It can make you bitter if you’re not careful. It’s so much harder to step into what you know to be right when falling back on what you’ve been taught would be so much easier.

I’d go to my kids’ school and feel so out of place. I was not only young but I looked like a baby which was a double whammy for the way I felt people looked at me. I wasn’t always put together like the other parents – by that time having multiple kids and going to college full-time while working part-time was wearing on me – and I would watch the room moms talk in the hallways and felt like I didn’t belong. Mom guilt was a constant because my kids didn’t always have the elaborately decorated cupcakes (a few times I forgot cupcakes at all) for their birthdays and there were days where I forgot to put money in their lunch accounts and they went negative. When my kids were little I had nightmares that my estranged mother would kidnap them from school so I would make sure I would show up early to pick them up. It made cupcakes and lunch accounts seem just a little less important. But, there were moments that I recognized that I was doing better than I had been taught and I needed that as a lifeline to keep going when the world seemed to be telling me I could be doing more.

As a teacher I brought the memories of these days into the classroom with me. One shift I’ve noticed with the pandemic is the relationships with parents. I’ve heard some teachers say that communication has improved and relationships have been better because they have made that one of their missions – but more often I’ve heard people say how difficult it is to see into the lives of their students and the things that happen in their homes. How parents don’t understand online learning and value education right now. And while I’ve always been a proponent of believing that people are doing the best they can at any given moment, I think that sometimes we are judging people through the lens of a teacher instead of the lens of a human. What I’d like for this blog to do is to challenge the way you’re viewing your kids’ parents. After all, we are one team trying to do what’s best for children and we need all the strategies we can to get on the same page.

We seem to have this invisible high bar for parents to reach. When I work with districts on starting online programs (pre-pandemic – seems a bit yesterday’s news now) one piece that I have repeatedly advocated for is setting parent norms. Not rules, but norms – how you would like the collaboration to work between parent and teacher for the sake of the student. Not only do these help set a foundational understanding for what will be happening in the classroom, but they also provide parents with how you see the collaboration working in case they were missing that information in the first place. If their parents didn’t do it, they may not know to do it either. We understand school. We know, as teachers, what is supposed to happen. For parents, they haven’t always been taught how to do that from the parental role.

Let’s face it, we have parents who hated school themselves and that doesn’t automatically go away when they have their own children in an educational setting. We have parents who are struggling their way through being a parent because they were never shown how to be one to begin with. And for some of them, they are doing better than they were taught in the first place and that is a win. Imagine working hard to be a better parent than you were taught only to be made to feel like you still never belong because you’re not doing it “right”? This is the ultimate test of our empathy. As professionals we know that parental involvement and support is one of the top predictors of student success. It can be frustrating when we know that parents aren’t meeting the bar we have set, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t working hard to be better parents than they were taught.

When we place our own values on other people without knowing their background or experience, we are potentially expecting people to be different people than they were ever given the chance to be. Can these parents learn what we deem as the “right way” to parent? Yes. But in saying that you are also assuming that they haven’t already done work on their own that you just don’t see because you didn’t see what they had to start with. In my years of teaching I never had a parent complaint about me either to my face or to my administrator. This was partially because I employed as much empathy as possible. I never taught people how to parent, but I did teach them what a supportive classroom community meant. And sometimes it’ll go a long way just helping “that parent” feel like they belong and that you understand that they’re doing the best they know how to do.

What did educators do pre-pandemic that’s helping them survive or thrive now?

One of the concepts I’ve been the most interested in since the pandemic started is why some educators are surviving or even thriving and why some are not. What has been the difference-maker? In my work I am so incredibly fortunate to work with districts coast-to-coast, so I’ve been able to touch base with some of these educators to have discussions about why they feel they’re doing well in spite of the difficult circumstances.

This blog or these findings are not meant to make anyone struggling feel guilty. If you begin to feel that way please take a moment, a deep breath, and let it go. These are simply some observations I’ve made and this understanding could help us know what to begin to focus on for the future.

There are definitely some commonalities between the people that are making a successful go of this. To be clear, these people still come across challenges. They still struggle with some aspects of the job and because we are in a pandemic, are still dealing with personal challenges. But they are still liking (or in some cases even loving) their jobs. I found three pieces that educators had in place prior to the pandemic that seem to be helping them teach successfully now.

They already practiced self-care and had healthy boundaries

Educators who already understood the importance of self-care and setting healthy boundaries seem to be more tolerable of pandemic learning. Why? A couple reasons. First, self-care is one way you build resilience. Second, if you already have an implemented self-care regiment, you are more likely to continue that self-care during times of adversity because it’s been established as a habit.

Healthy boundaries are, of course, extremely important and a part of self-care as well. Educators who set healthy boundaries before were more likely to be able to figure out how to set them again in this new normal. One educator I currently work with set boundaries by not allowing himself to work after 4:30pm during the week with the exception of Wednesday when he worked until his work was finished and Friday when he quit as soon as school “let out.” He still facilitates clubs. He’s still on some committees. But he only commits to what he knows he can fit onto his plate with the appropriate boundaries.

They had elements of personalized learning already embedded in their teaching

Teaching online requires a very specific skillset and background knowledge of the best-practices in online teaching and learning. However, for educators who had implemented elements of personalized learning into their classrooms pre-pandemic and then continued some of those structures during pandemic learning they may have found success as many of the best practices in online teaching and learning mirror what we would consider to be best practices in personalized learning. Student-centered, voice and choice in learning, and pacing options are all pieces of personalized learning that align to online learning. Therefore, for some, this was an easier transition.

As far as hybrid learning (or HighFlex, whatever you want to call it – I’m not a fan) this can be more successful from the standpoint of teacher stress if the in-person students are taught like online students versus the online students trying to be taught in-person because of the elements of personalized learning. Also, teaching this way could potentially mimic more of a true blended learning approach. You can find more thoughts that I had on that here.

They had interest in (or at least openness to) technology and the cycle of risk-taking

When I worked with a district in Pennsylvania to help them begin their online cyber program pre-pandemic, they hired their online teachers based on their ability to create relationships with students, their use of elements of personalized learning in their current classrooms, and their interest in technology. When working with the cohort of teachers, some of them did not have the technology skills that you might imagine that online teachers would have but they learned. They asked questions. They took risks and failed. Laughed about it. Tried again.

Of course, as important as the interest in technology was their willingness to fail and grow.

One Other Element

The one umbrella element that also seemed to be true that was a bit more out of the educator’s control was the support of the district and how well district administration themselves actually understood online teaching and learning. During the pandemic I’ve witnessed district cultures center around everything from “we need teachers to come in so we can verify they are doing their jobs” to “we are working to figure out how to best support teachers in their current situations so they feel safe.” Of course, the climate and culture of a district had also been set by the time the pandemic hit, and the shuffling and changing that needed to take place only served to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the district as a whole. Areas like administration providing social-emotional support to teachers (more on that here) to the support of the risk-taking cycle (more on that here) was present in some form prior to the pandemic. The pandemic highlighted how important robust, positive support in these areas has become.

If there is one thing we can all agree on when it comes to the pandemic it’s that we have discovered ways that we can improve moving forward. I believe that by taking time to notice themes and patterns we can start to qualify more specific areas in need of growth instead of just “we need to do better.” While some of the struggle can be externally located, there are also opportunities (I’d argue the three above, for example) that we can take ownership of and personally empower ourselves to move forward. This way, maybe more educators can survive and thrive versus feel like they can’t keep their heads above water both post-pandemic and for future adversities.

You can hear a bit more about this concept on one of my latest podcast interviews with @dyknow: Being Mindful of Teacher Mental Health

The Work Lies I Tell Myself

My grandfather had been a postal worker for years. He didn’t dislike his job exactly – didn’t love it either. He definitely was not passionate about it. What he was passionate about was carving and drawing. I remember him sitting in his workshop for hours with his magnifying glasses on with his burner tool crafting a bird or fish statue out of what had just been a chunk of wood. He’d smooth them down or paint them. Sometimes leave them in their natural wood grain. It didn’t matter which way he decided to create, his carvings were absolutely beautiful. I would go to craft fairs or stores and see carvings available for hundreds or thousands of dollars that were nowhere in the same hemisphere of how good his were. I would say to him, “Bupa, I don’t understand why you don’t quit the post office and just sell your carvings and drawings. You love doing it so much and you could probably make way more money than you do at the post office!” And he would reply, “I won’t do that because I love to carve and I want to continue loving it. The second that I must do it for money it’ll become work and I won’t love it anymore. You need to have work and then you need to have the thing you love doing.”

I used to cite my love for my profession as a reason that I could declare it both my job AND my hobby. And how lucky I was to have a job that I also considered a hobby! What did that mean for me? I could work more and I had an excuse. My workaholicism could continue unchecked because I had myself convinced that I was so in love with education that I literally couldn’t think of a single thing that would be more fun to do.

Too much of anything, no matter how much you love it, is still too much and this was nothing more but a lie I was telling myself to cover up the fact that I didn’t want to deal with other pieces of my life. It was a lie that I told myself that made all of my obsessive-compulsive behaviors seem okay because they were tied up in something that seemed productive and necessary. I had my own identity wrapped so far up in being an educator that I couldn’t see beyond it, and if I wasn’t doing everything I could to be the best I could be I just wasn’t good at all. I had no problem abusing myself into believing that I couldn’t be as good as the others I saw unless I was consumed by what I was doing.

Because I work in a profession that is traditionally giving without receiving in return, this seems “educationally socially acceptable” and necessary when in reality it was a cover-up for a lack of boundaries and an unhealthy view of who I am as a human. I surround(ed) myself with people who are like me to perpetuate the okay-ness that I feel when I hear how much they work.

So what happens? I work. I say well, I don’t know what else to do with myself so I’m going to continue to work and oh, by the way, I love it so much! I put more on my plate and then the parts that were “hobbies” or “passion projects” begin to wear on me. They then also turn into work and before I know it I’m on multiple weeks of having nearly 40 hours in by Wednesday morning and I still have five days ahead of me and all this work…all these former passion projects that turned into a job. And now, I have no hobby, no extra time, nothing but working and ultimately, burning out. Rewind. Repeat.

And the whole time the ultimate problem is that I have buried my identity so far into being an educator that I don’t know what to do outside of education that I would enjoy. It’s a vicious cycle.

I say all this because I’ve heard other educators voice similar statements to the lies that I’ve been known to tell myself. Like when I was on that podcast awhile back and they asked me what I do for a hobby and I told them I work outside in the sun. That was a pivotal moment for me. It showed me that I had nothing. I had not a thought in my head outside of education of something that I might do for a hobby. It floored me and scared me.

I’m still processing through this because the pandemic has brought about new lies I tell myself. Things like, “I need to work more because people are counting on me to do my job so they can do theirs.” While this might be true to a point, I am not important enough to hold all the cards to someone else’s success and my inability to find the wherewithal to draw a boundary between my work and anything outside of work is still an issue. I may discuss setting boundaries but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not easy for anyone. But the first step to making a change, for me, is to recognize what needs to change and the separation that needs to be between my work and my personal life. I need to have more interest in who I am as a human instead of who I could be as a professional. I need to understand that even if I enjoy my job it’s still work and I need to have an outlet outside that allows me to replenish myself so I can be better as a professional AND keep enjoying what I do so it doesn’t all turn into work.

My grandfather passed away before he could officially enjoy retirement from his job. Had he had no separation between his work and his hobby, he would have missed all that time he had enjoying his carving. We have a life outside of our jobs. We are the only ones who can figure out how we want to live that.

Tips for Navigating Hybrid Learning

I’ve spoken to many districts who are doing some sort of hybrid learning. I would also say that when I speak to people who are really struggling during pandemic learning, they are mostly working out of this model. Why? Because it really isn’t teaching one class…it’s like teaching two at the same time. Learning online and learning in a brick-and-mortar setting is not the same thing. Online learning was developed to be an alternative way for students to learn who struggled to function in a brick-and-mortar setting. It is intended to be a different model and really isn’t intended to be synchronous all the time. Therefore, teachers teaching in this model are finding themselves taking their brick-and-mortar classroom and transferring it online, which isn’t online best practice because online learning really isn’t meant for that. It’s not anyone’s fault, everyone is doing the best the can at any given time. Right now, during the pandemic, it’s just the way it is. However, this is still one reason that it’s feeling so difficult. It’s trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Before I give any tips that I’ve learned can work, I’d like to define the difference between hybrid learning and blended learning as some districts have taken to using them synonymously. 

Hybrid learning is when the students spend some days in school and are required to be online, synchronously, the rest of the week. My own kids have a hybrid model, for example. Half the school attends Monday and Tuesday, it’s online only on Wednesday, and Thursday and Friday the other students attend. When students are not at school, they are required to follow their schedule synchronously watching the teacher in the room teaching the in-person students. 

Blended learning is a pedagogical approach where there is an element of asynchronous online learning as well as face-to-face teaching. In the case where pandemic learning requires students to be at home, the face-to-face may be done synchronously, but students still attend a brick-and-mortar school when possible. Blended learning includes different modalities, such as 1-on-1 check-ins, and gives students at least some control over time, place, path, and pace (another support for personalized learning). If you’d like to know more, I’d highly recommend Heather Staker’s work.

Some tips that may work

Let’s face it, nobody has the answers for all of what is going on. There are so many different models happening right now and the world is a very heavy place. But, I have worked with districts that are making even hybrid teaching work as well as it can. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Be intentional about what you assign

When working with districts starting online programs pre-pandemic, one concept we would always cover is backward planning. The basic concept is starting with the end in mind. You begin with your standards or outcomes, determine what assessment would best allow students to showcase their learning (or may I recommend deciding the options you would give them for assessments), and then match activities that will help students learn what they need for those assessments. This kind of planning cuts out extraneous activities that don’t hit the mark and in the end aren’t helping students know what they need to know and are giving you more to grade. I recommend using backward planning always, but in particular for online learning because students don’t always need the extra activities that are assigned. If you REALLY like an activity and think it’s valuable but doesn’t fit the standards, allow it to be optional. This gives students a chance to dig in if they are interested in the topic.

Teach online to brick-and-mortar instead of brick-and-mortar to online

Currently, I see many teachers trying to retrofit their regular teaching for the online students and it’s not working. However, if you switch your thinking you will be better able to meet both groups. Instead, teach your course like it’s an online course from your learning management system. Create short instructional videos or find videos for instruction. Release a week’s worth of content for students to have some control over their pacing. Utilize synchronous and in person class time to connect with students, provide interventions, small group discussions, or expand on a particularly difficult topic that students may be struggling with. Think of it as the old flipped classroom OR better yet, utilize the blended learning modalities to facilitate the learning. That way, if a student’s wifi drops it doesn’t matter. Everything they need is in their course anyway. Another benefit of teaching this way is that when school begins back face-to-face all the time, you’ll be able to better slide back into a true blended learning model and all the benefits that it offers in a brick-and-mortar setting. Right now, because I’m a blended learning trainer, this is where I am working with districts the most…getting ready to get back into schools with blended learning.

Look to what others are doing

I recently put out a tweet asking if educators could pinpoint what was making pandemic teaching so difficult. It’s NOT that I doubted it. Not at all. But rather I was trying to pinpoint what some of the pain points are to see if it was a difference in professional development that was provided, the way that students were being taught, access to resources, mindset, etc to determine if there would be something collectively we could do to help. I’ve seen teachers really struggling…but I’ve also worked with some who are taking this in stride and who are able to have a life outside of teaching (can you imagine that?!?). I want to know why there is such a discrepancy in what’s happening. 

I’ve also seen the “don’t tell us to do self-care” mentality, which honestly I don’t think is doing anyone any good. Self-care, meditation, mindfulness…all medically proven techniques for reducing stress and anxiety, improving focus and creativity and productivity, are a necessity. Boundaries are an absolute must. If you were teaching entirely in a school setting, you would not be emailing students back at 10pm at night. There is nothing that is going to happen after 4pm that is so incredibly important that it can’t be handled the next day. As educators we all had days where we lesson planned or assessed papers after our contracted time. I feel like that’s just a part of the profession. But there needs to be breaks in there as well. 

You have colleagues who are making this work. Find out what they are doing – both pedagogically and for their own mental health. This isn’t easy for anyone, but keeping a collaborative, open mind can potentially get you back some of your time so you can take care of you so you can be better for everyone else. Here are a few tweets to help:

I have said over and over that I have never been more proud to be an educator as I have been since March and watching the incredible way that educators picked themselves up during an overwhelming, stressful time and continued to teach. I want people to understand self-care because I don’t want anyone burning out or becoming demoralized and leaving the profession. We will do better if we support each other in this. We all light a fire in some way. Allow it to be a positive one.

I think it’s important that we continue to remind ourselves that we are in a pandemic and we are all doing the best we can. This is temporary and when the craziness is over we are going to be able to look back and realize how much learning we experienced in such a short period of time. However, being that we are still in the midst of it, hopefully some of these tips are helpful to try to mitigate the stress around hybrid learning.