How a Pandemic Can Change the Way We Feel About Teaching (With tips for coping)

I have been passionately speaking about educator engagement and how connected they feel to their professions for several years, and I also address it extensively in my upcoming book, Reignite the Flames. The impact of educator engagement can be significant, and we could discuss how it affects climate and culture, innovative and divergent thinking, or even student achievement. However, for me, when I disengaged my decision to re-engage had its roots in a very basic human need: to be happy.

But those were normal times. And we aren’t in normal times right now.

Right now, during the pandemic, the goal is coping. Anything beyond that would be extra. And my fear is that along with all of the other impacts we will see from the pandemic, we will also see a sharp decline in educator engagement. People either emotionally or physically leaving the profession at record rates as the uncertainty and educational triage (coined by Philip Pulley) continues.

The first step to being able to cope or heal is to be able to name what is happening. Engagement and disengagement are on a continuum. A slide in disengagement is natural right now as we struggle through the variety of challenges that have been set before us. However, in knowing what and how it can happen we can begin to develop strategies so we don’t fall too far. Below are the five causes of disengagement and how they relate to the pandemic:

Personal adversity Personal adversity is defined as struggles that are a result of something that happens in your personal life. During the pandemic, there are multiple reasons that you may pull away from your profession because you simply don’t have the bandwidth to devote your energies to all areas of your life at once. Right now, there could be concerns about sick loved ones or family members that have passed away. Even the fear of getting the virus can be overwhelming for some people. Personal adversity can also categorize situations where there is a volatile home life. The consumption of alcohol may increase as well as the likelihood of abuse. For some people, educators and students alike, school was a safe haven from these situations and they may no longer have a place to hide.

Tip: Be sure to practice some sort of self-care, even though it may be difficult to fit it in. Do something you enjoy and take time to recharge even if you can only fit it in for five or ten minutes at a time. Find a free educator self-care course here. Of course, if you are in an abusive situation, please seek help immediately.

Professional adversity Professional adversity is defined as the struggles that happen that are in direct relation to our jobs. The move to online learning may be an example of professional adversity for many people, and the lower the comfort level with technology the more anxiety may be felt. Also, the complete uncertainty of not knowing when we are going back, what that will look like, having little control over what our students are accomplishing, and the dichotomy between what/how we know we should be teaching and what/how we are teaching are all concerns that could increase professional adversity.

Tip: Focus on what you do have control over. These are extraordinary times and circumstances. Assume everyone, including students, are doing the best they can.

Burnout With an increase in the number of hours that it takes to learn a new platform, learning a new way to teach, and the potential newness of being “always online” and available, some teachers are reporting working more hours than ever. Couple that with the possible responsibilities of child-rearing, providing learning opportunities for your own children, taking care of pets, or even having extended family members staying for the pandemic, burnout is a very real issue right now. Even being isolated can be exhausting. We are not made to try to juggle everything we are juggling right now.

Tip: Create “work hours” and stick to them. Any communication after 4pm, for example, gets answered the following day. Remove notifications.

Demoralization Most educators got into education with a moral obligation to make a difference in another person’s life and to create change. When something happens: politically, within the district, within the school, or a virus that is keeping everyone at home and any of these things make you question your efficacy, it can cause demoralization. The general way to begin healing from demoralization is to try to find your identity as an educator again. However, in these times, it may be developing your identity as an online educator. Demoralization can accompany burnout but is often overlooked as a reason and unfortunately, healing from demoralization is different than healing from burnout.

Tip: Spend time focusing on passion areas. Reflect on how your identity as an educator has morphed during the pandemic. What areas can you still feel passionate about?

Secondary traumatic stress Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is when you work in a profession where you may hear about other’s traumas and be impacted by their stories and struggles. You may develop the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or trigger PTSD that you may already have. It can be more common for people who are particularly empathetic. Right now, we have spent part of a year with our students and know the struggles they may have at home. Now, we sit in our own homes and wonder how they are, if they are eating, or if they are safe. I have spoken to teachers who have students they haven’t heard from in weeks. This can all be a catalyst for developing secondary traumatic stress.

Tip: Compartmentalize. This is so difficult during these times, but learning to compartmentalize what your students are going through will keep you healthier in order to help them. Continue to reach out to them and offer your support, but understand ultimately that the only real thing you have control over right now is your own health.

Teacher Trauma Teacher trauma, in this case, can span several different types of struggles. I would say that there is a potential to experience teacher trauma if you had a sudden transition to online learning without a chance to say good-bye to your students. There could also be teacher trauma if you have had a student or co-worker pass away from the virus. Being in the times we are in, there is a chance that your grieving may be delayed as the reality doesn’t set in because you are not seeing these people every day and it’s difficult to comprehend. Even grief for the state that we are in right now may be significant.

Tip: My counselor says you need to “feel to heal” and step into the emotion. Recognize when you may be in a cycle of grief and actively work through it. Understand that it may be ongoing and reappear when we begin to enter our buildings again eventually.

My hope with this blog is two-fold. First, I hope that the information is a catalyst for addressing any disengagement that you may be feeling. Second, I hope that school districts choose to recognize the struggles, anxiety, and grief that people may be feeling and address it not only now, but understand that it will continue well into the school year when we get back to our brick and mortar settings. Whichever of these you are feeling, whatever you teach, and wherever you live, you are not alone.

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