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. 

Give Yourself the Grace & Time to Heal From Educator Burnout & Disengagement

One of my professional interests that I am most passionate about is the concept of how I came back from the strong desire I had to leave the education profession. Then, I called it burnout although it was probably a mixture of burnout, demoralization, and personal and professional adversities. Now, I call the overarching term for this as disengagement. I had no idea what had happened to me that I wanted to leave a profession that I had loved. Being so unhappy was draining and impacting other areas of my life as I was constantly overwhelmed. This experience is why I began talking about re-engagement and how one can come back from being disengaged because I believed that everyone has the right to be happy.

Many times on social media I see well-intentioned people asking about what people can do to come back from burnout. There are so many reasons people can actually become disengaged besides burnout, but what I believe they’re asking is that if we are tired as educators (which when aren’t we, really?) how can we remember why we love our jobs. People give tips that generally boil down to self-care and because social media relies on short and succinct messages, it can potentially make someone feel like the retrieval of our buried happy-teacher should be an easy task.

I’m not even sure that in my own work and research that I have made this part abundantly clear: becoming re-engaged is not quick. It is not easy. It often feels like two steps forward and one step back. It took me one year to begin to believe that I could stay in the profession. It took me another two to feel like I was completely re-engaged again. Some days, even though it’s been over six years, I feel like slipping back into that negativity would be so easy. Especially with how overwhelming the world is right now. Discussion of burnout or disengagement is never flippant. I believe everyone understands that it is a serious potential affliction for professionals who are so emotionally tied to their work. Sometimes, however, people underestimate the amount of energy that being engaged takes.

While reading this may feel negative and glass-half-full, why I bring it up is because I have spoken with people who have been trying to come back from disengagement and don’t feel normal after a few weeks or months. They want to give up and forget about trying because it feels like it’s never going to end. They often think that once they decide to re-engage that their minds, bodies, and thoughts should just follow suit. But, they’ve been unintentionally practicing being unhappy in their job for a long time, and like any habit, it will take time to break.

Plus, if you find yourself burnt out, or demoralized, or going through some sort of adversity, a teacher trauma, or whatever may be impacting your engagement and you’re trying to come back, it takes time to heal. You will need quite possibly a significant amount of time to heal from the emotional response that you have had to teaching for various reasons. Trying to re-engage isn’t about being lazy versus ambitious. It isn’t about being tired versus energized. It isn’t about not wanting to versus wanting to, even though engagement includes all these things. Working toward being an engaged teacher after being disengaged is about healing a part of you that has suffered hurt.

And I have always said this about resilience: resilience isn’t about bouncing back to the person you were before. You will not be the same person and that is okay. You will be smarter. More aware. Have more strategies in your tool belt so there’s less chance of it happening again. Resilience is about being happy with the person you’ve become. If you feel like you have to be the person you were before you will also feel like you are constantly failing because you are no longer that person. That is not only part of learning, that is part of healing.

Even now, all these years later, I am still trying new strategies to keep myself engaged. It is a constant process of reflection and evolving. A couple years ago this effort included learning how to meditate. I hated it. I read the research. I knew it was good for my brain, but I did not like it. Now, I can meditate for up to 15 minutes at a time and if I don’t do it for a few days I can feel that I need it. I would never have guessed that would have been the case a couple years ago. It took work and it took time, but it was part of the process of working to keep my engagement that I had fought so hard to get back in the first place. Meditation is only one of many strategies that I have, it just happens to be one of my newest ones.

If you’re working on re-engaging or just trying to stay engaged, know this: it will be a winding road. It is not an easy endeavor. It will take time and effort. Don’t give up or feel like a failure if it doesn’t seem to be working. Adjust your sails and keep going, keep plugging away even when you’re questioning if it’s just too much Like anything that is hard, the end game is worth it.

You can find more information on educator engagement and disengagement here. My last post on overwhelm here. Also, my books The Fire Within and Reignite the Flames address mental health awareness for educators and engagement and re-engagement respectively. Finally, find my free Educator Self-Care Course here.

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Just For Today: For Those Feeling Overwhelmed

I haven’t made it a secret on social media that I have been struggling to write blog posts lately. It seems like something that should be a task I could just let go, but the inability to bring myself to write is a symptom of deeper issues and causes me stress that I can’t let go. The stress comes from knowing that it is something I should be doing. From understanding that I committed to a task that I am not completing and it was a promise that I made to myself (which is the most important person I can make a promise to) and I am failing myself at my inability to complete said task. I also feel like I’m letting down mentors who have taught me to be strong in the face of being tired and feeling overwhelmed. I have a ball in my chest knowing that I am missing valuable reflection time and sharing with my fellow PLN, another commitment that I had made years ago. I can’t let it go that I am impacting my own thinking and learning as well as others. When I really start to spiral, I think, “What does my future hold when I can’t even write a simple blog post?” Then comes the “What is wrong with me” and the “Why can’t I be motivated like other people”. All this from a freaking blog post.

The deeper issue here is that I’m overwhelmed and I’m not going to go into all the things I have going on that are causing me to be overwhelmed because being busy is not a competition. Plus, I could have nothing going on and still feel it because the world is an overwhelming place right now. It should not be underestimated the toll that the pandemic has taken on people mentally, emotionally, and physically (hello, additional Covid 19lbs). Yesterday, I went to go into the post-office and nearly fell into tears as I realized I forgot my mask and Tom Hanks told me that only inconsiderate people don’t wear masks and the thought of being inconsiderate nearly pushed me over the edge.

The worst part is that for those of us who spiral about the future and everything we are not doing, we can’t even see the future right now. As in, we have no idea what the world will look like in two weeks. We use repetition, processes, and schedules as safety nets. Most of us don’t know how school is going to begin. We don’t know how our own kids are going back. We don’t know how our own schedules are going to look. And even if districts have a “plan”, most districts acknowledge that they may be back for two weeks before they need to go fully online. And if they’re not acknowledging that, well, then honestly they’re not planning well. Teachers are updating their wills to go back to school. Truly, we are living in unbelievable times. We have lost out safety nets and are crossing a tightrope 10 stores in the air. There is quite a bit of our overwhelm that we can contribute to our lack of feeling safe for multiple reasons, but a slippery grip on our future is definitely one of them.

Because I have been struggling with overwhelm lately, I have been emotional and I prefer to take on tasks that take little thinking. I have taken to playing a Cafe game on my phone. I have never been on to play games on my phone, but it is now a preferred activity. I feel exhausted. The other day I cried because “baby trees” were being taken out of my yard. I can’t stress the impact that true overwhelm can have. It is more than a passing feeling. More than a sudden temper tantrum, although those too can be a sign. I have written more about overwhelm and chronic stress here.

As part of my overwhelm I have taken to trying to meditate more, which I’m going to admit is an ongoing goal. I have improved so much at meditation that I can now mediate for up to 15 minutes. When I began, 30 seconds of sitting still was a struggle as I was bombarded with thoughts of all the things I could be accomplishing if I wasn’t just “sitting there.” As part of my study of meditation, I’ve found that there is an intention setting meditation that is called “Just For Today”. It is actually also one of the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous as well. The basic premise that you set intentions that begin with “Just for today…” By focusing on getting through one day, you may find yourself saying “Anyone could do this just for today, I can, too”. You may find yourself living more in the moment and taking focus away from what the future is going to hold. You may find the little accomplishments replenish your energy and fill your soul. One step to fighting overwhelm.

Just for today I will be patient with my children.
Just for today I will be kind to myself.
Just for today I will be considerate of my loved ones and of strangers.
Just for today I will smile even when I’m wearing a mask so people can see it in my eyes (something I learned from my daughter).

It’s not that you will only commit to doing these things for one day. It is that today you’re going to focus on doing these things. There is a difference. If you are like me and constantly future-think, this is going to be difficult. But, if you also understand that your constant future-focus with the state of the world right now is causing you anxiety, shifting your focus to the present may help you find that there is a welcome reprieve.

The second piece of this, however, is being okay with where you are and who you are in this day. It’s not enough to claim you’re going to do something just for today and then continue to live in the disappointment you may feel for what you’re doing or who you are. We all know that we have growing to do. We know that it’s possible that who we are right now in the midst of a pandemic and what feels like the world is falling apart may not be our best selves. However, wallowing in that isn’t going to help either and will only add to the chronic stress that we are feeling. So, be okay with who you are and what you are doing today. Whatever it is and whoever you are…trust that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at this moment. Take a deep breath. Let go of the imagined stress that you’ve created in regards to your version of a “blog post”. People may judge. They may try to compete with everything you have going on. Let them. They’re not the ones determining your self-worth anyway.

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Asking Questions that May Lead to Better Mental Health Support for Black Students and Students of Color

This blog post, like many of my posts, is my version of processing my own thinking and emotions “out loud” with others so I can learn and grow best. Please excuse how disjointed it may read as I try to put all my thoughts coherently together. With this post, I was fortunate enough that my good friend, Desmond Hasty, was willing to collaborate and co-process with me as the concept for this post was due to a powerful conversation we had regarding mental health and beginning the next school year.

In the area where I live, we have a large population of people who have immigrated here from Mexico. Some of them are documented, some of them are not. Some students’ parents have become citizens, some students are the first to have been born here. When there have been heated political discussion about immigration laws and deportation (regardless of how anyone feels on the issue) teachers in our area watched our Latinx students’ fear and uncertainty rise up. They couldn’t tell anyone how they felt because they were either unsure they should feel it or they didn’t want to get their family in trouble. Some of them didn’t even know what questions to ask to begin a conversation. Some of them became quiet and reclusive. Some of them began to show behaviors consistent with trauma. When the pictures of children in cages being separated from their parents began to cross the airways, things got even worse. It didn’t matter whether they were technically able to get deported or not, many feared for their lives and those of their family members. Learning about square roots and how to conjugate a verb doesn’t seem that important when you’re facing possible deportation and being caged. In the midst of this kind of upheaval, I witnessed the mental health toll that the situation was taking on our students and their families. I have never forgotten the looks on their faces. The way their parents seemed to age 10 years in a few months. It was like watching trauma every day unfold before my eyes.

I feel this same way about what has been happening in our country as of late with the murder of unarmed Black people by police officers, but particularly with the murder of George Floyd because the actual act (as in the video of his death) was so highly publicized. We know that racism all by itself breeds its own traumatic impact whether it’s systemic or specific experiences. The constant fear and hypervigilance that it takes to be Black or a person of color has to mimic the feelings of constant and ongoing abuse. We have never done nearly enough to address racism in our schools even though we are willing to begin to discuss mental health. We often address mental health as a way to moderate behaviors instead of a way to keep kids healthy and happy. 

In this article titled 4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic author Courtney Connley writes,

“Racial trauma,” according to marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, “is the physical and psychological impact, and sometimes symptoms, on people of color who have experienced racism.” This includes seeing and hearing about the deaths of George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery and countless others. It also includes feeling and experiencing injustices in everyday life through the microaggressions black people face inside and outside of work.“An accumulation of all of this,”…“creates racial trauma.”

So, as we move into next school year, there are some questions that we (Desmond and I) have been thinking about in regard to our Black students and students of color hoping that in highlighting these realities we may be able to support students more effectively instead of backpedaling. We definitely do not have all the answers, but right now, we do have a lot of questions. We also know that we haven’t thought of them all and I encourage anyone reading to please add to the questions and/or comment with thoughts. We feel like if we don’t answer these questions, more trauma will ensue.

How can we support Black or students of color who may be too young to have the vocabulary/words to express the worries they have and the questions they want answered?

How do we support Black or students of color who don’t feel like their schools are safe places (if they did feel that way before) due to teachers being seen as authorities (as are police officers) and not knowing if they can feel safe/will be protected by White teachers (perception of not being protected or feeling safe)?

How do we emotionally support students when they find their White friends may not be the anti-racists they thought they were? How do we support and understand their grief and also address the issue of racism?

How can we be more understanding of the trauma behaviors we may see increasing as school returns? How can we provide additional support, whether that be counseling services or otherwise?

Whether school continues online or not, will we see an uptick in student truancy that is rooted in fear of systemic racism?

What impact is having guards and school liaison officers going to have particularly if they are stationed with uniforms and guns? With incidents of school shootings, how do we balance the trauma that may be present between watching a police officer murder a man with safety measures that have been put in place due to armed intruders?

How, as a community, do we move forward with an anti-racist message? How are we going to communicate that being actively anti-racist is the focus of the district? How is the district going to react when someone openly disagrees in order to best support our Black students/families and students of color and their families? How are we going to recognize and address the systemic racism in our own districts?

I never claim to have all the answers but I have addressed mental health long enough to understand that there needs to be additional support offered to everyone. I think this help should address concerns starting from mid-pandemic, to going back into our schools, and well beyond that. Many of our Black students and students of color are going to have feelings and traumas that are heightened even beyond the systemic racism they experience daily. Beginning to address these issues is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully will be the catalyst to real change in the view of mental health in schools and the specific support that our students need.

Additional Resources:

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators by NCTSN

Racism as Trauma: Clinical Perspectives from Social Work and Psychology by Donielle Prince (ACES Connection Staff)

4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic by Courtney Connley

Resources to Support Children’s Emotional Well-Being Amid Anti-Black Racism, Racial Violence, and Trauma by Dominique Parris, Victor St. John, Jessica Dym Bartlett

The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.