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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud 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.
There are not always words available to express the way that something feels. And sometimes, even when we try to use the words we know we can’t fully articulate the amount of emotion that needs to be attached to what is said. I’ve written this reflection several times. I’ve had friends read it. Still, it doesn’t fully capture what I want to say with the level of intensity that I want to say it. I feel inadequate to fully express what I’m trying to say, and for my inadequacy, I apologize.
I have very few words that can accurately express the emotions that I’ve been feeling over the last week and since the murder of George Floyd. I’ve been trying for days to put the right words together feeling like it’s an impossible task. At first, the hurt was for the world and how we can’t seem to get our shit together. The image of people protesting horrific injustices in pandemic masks and the violent videos on social media are something I can’t get out of my head. Then I began the grief of thinking about what the situation would have looked like if George was one of my friends. If that had been Desmond or Rodney or Sarah or anyone else who I deem as being family and whom I love like crazy – I would have lost my mind. Now, I have moved into a new grieving era. The one where I realize, upon further inspection, that maybe I haven’t always been the most awesome white friend.
In my mind I’ve advocated by being accepting and loving. I have tried to be what people call an anti-racist. I have asked questions and been thankful to have friends of color that would patiently explain things to me because I was admittedly stupid in my whiteness. Like admitting I was stupid excused all the questions I wasn’t asking. I’ve taught my children to appreciate others for exactly who they are regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, sexuality…that none of that matters because everyone has value. I realize now there is so much more to this than just accepting.
I have also been embarrassed at my lack of outright support. The things I knew I didn’t know and I was quietly, subconsciously accepting of my ignorance. I was incredibly proud of my son for going out and protesting and then immediately felt guilty that I didn’t do the same. Why didn’t I think of doing that? I struggled for days to say the right thing on social media and kept putting it off because I was fearful of offending the very people that I wanted to support. I understand how much of a coward that makes me seem.
I have a brown daughter. I have watched racism touch our family. The intense anger that accompanies it is difficult to contain and difficult to put into words, and of course that doesn’t even begin to touch some of the experiences that others have had. When we adopted her all those years ago nobody prepared us for that. They said learn about her culture and teach her, but they never warned us about how truly hateful some people can be. We learned that on our own, but we didn’t know that because we had never experienced it. Because we are white.
And even those experiences didn’t push me to learn more. Probably because I was too comfortable in my whiteness.
I want to say I’m sorry but I can’t imagine that matters much. A friend equated it to speaking with a grieving widow or mother. What do you say when you know nothing you say will make anything better but could potentially make it worse? I want to find the words but can’t. I’m speechless. I feel sad and dumb. Like I missed a mark that I conveniently didn’t know was there.
Mostly because I really believed my only job was to love my friends.
But I think now that I may not have been loving them in the right way. Loving them is maybe only 50% of what we are supposed to be doing. Advocating for them, teaching our children how to be better than we are, and calling out inequalities may be more of a start. I’m not exactly sure how to move forward, but I’m committed to figuring it out. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because I have friends of color who I couldn’t imagine not having in my life – those who enrich my life and make me a better person just for knowing them. Those who have shaped me into who I am. Those who I love with such conviction that I would gladly do anything to be better for them. Anything to be able to learn to love them in the right way. Because I would die inside if I ever knew I made them feel less than. In so many ways they are so much better of people than I could ever hope to be.
I’m committed being better. I’ll unlearn and relearn.
I’m sorry as a blog reader if this post seems all over the place. If it is, it’s an accurate representation of how I feel about the world right now. The best way I know how to reflect is through my writing. Thanks for allowing me to reflect with you.
Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization.
Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point.
Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.
When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.
My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic.
Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.
Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education.
This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.
It can be a bit overwhelming with all the “you shoulds” right now.
You should be working online, offline, harder, smarter, on technology, not on technology.
You should be connecting with parents, students, your teaching partners, teachers who know about technology and those that don’t, teachers who might be struggling, your professional learning network, lonely friends and family.
You should find time to disconnect.
You should work harder but don’t work too hard in case you burn out. You should make sure all the work still gets done though, regardless.
You should be positive.
You should practice self-care, gratitude, self-compassion. You should practice empathy for your students but not too much. You should understand what is within your control and let the rest go.
You should stick to a routine because that’s what’s best for everyone. You should be ok if the routine doesn’t get followed, even though it’s what’s best.
You should. You should. You should.
While so many of these statements are true, I find that the more I should be doing something, the more guilt I feel when I’m not doing it. With all of the things I should be doing right now, I’ve also discovered several ways I need to give myself grace when the “I should be doing…” turns into “I’m struggling to…”
Overwhelm Being overwhelmed can show up with more symptoms than just the acute feeling of freaking out, although that can happen as well. Someone who is overwhelmed can procrastinate, avoid people, feel a lack of motivation, break their normal sleeping and eating patterns (particularly if they are a stress eater), and become easily angry or frustrated with things they may not have before. Pre-pandemic, my to-do list was a source of overwhelm, however, since the pandemic it’s not only my work that causes these feelings. It is the overall way that our life has shifted, the constant flood of information (especially since much of it is contradictory), and how I “should” be doing things that I am not.
When I get overwhelmed and find myself sitting on the couch staring into nothingness avoiding writing a blog post, I first try to let go of the guilt I feel for not getting everything done that I could possibly do. Then, I look at one thing I could get done on my to-do list. My deal with myself is that if I can check one piece off I can take a legitimate break and feel good about getting one piece done. It usually works for me and sometimes, once I get into doing the one task I feel the accomplishment with checking it off and I find a bit more motivation to get something else done.
Forgiveness I have often spoken about my views on forgiveness of others but the additional time that I have had alone with my thoughts has made me keenly aware of areas that I need to forgive myself and my shortcomings as well. I’ve had to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and areas where I’ve failed, and let go of the guilt of letting people down or not being my best. Time wasted in being disappointed in myself is time that I could be improving myself, and the first step is forgiving myself when I believe I could have done better and realizing punishing myself won’t help anyone.
Also, forgiveness needs to come in the form of understanding that we are all doing the best we can do at any given time. If I need to take some time for myself because I am overwhelmed or burnt out, I need to be able to let go of my guilt in order to move forward.
Control There are few things we have control over right now. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control when we go back to school. We can’t even control if students are doing their work, like, at all. And if you’re like me, if I can’t control something it feels out of control. While I would always recommend that we focus on the things we can control, the pandemic has made it even more important. We will drive ourselves crazy if we are trying to control the things that are out of our control right now. We do have control over the way we treat people. We have control over how cognizant we are of our safety and the safety of others. We have control over doing our best and recognizing that others are doing the same. We do not have control over other people and their actions. Let the guilt go when it centers around something someone else “should” be doing.
Uncertainty I have been asked on several podcasts over the last couple of weeks what it is going to look like when we go back. My response is this: the sooner that we understand that nothing is going to be the same when we go back, the sooner we can be ready to adjust to the new normal. At the minimum, school at the beginning will not be the same. We will be grieving family members and school personnel that have passed away because we never had closure. We will be trying to acclimate students and educators back into day-to-day school and a structured, brick-and-mortar learning environment. We can guess what this is going to look like but we don’t really know. We don’t even have a good idea when we are going back. And when we do, will it be safe? How many more waves of sickness will happen before we can settle in and not worry about dying?
I have massive feelings of uncertainty toward the future and worse, how I can improve my own skills in order to help people adjust to a future we will be able to predict or have little preparation for. I sometimes feel guilty for wallowing in uncertainty and that I may not have what it takes to help educators and students when they need it. By letting go of this guilt and giving myself grace, I can focus on what I can do right now and have hope that I will be able to support others when the time comes.
There are so many things we should be doing and feeling right now. But, I think the most important thing we should do is allow ourselves room to be human. To grieve experiences that we will never have because of these unique times. To miss our students and co-workers. To understand that we are not superhuman and having a bad day is ok. To spend a few minutes wishing we could give someone we love a hug. Forgive ourselves for all the things we should be doing so we can move forward with less guilt about the things we are doing.
When I was little, I remember my grandma, Nana, telling me how much her and my Bupa loved dancing when they were younger. Being that they weren’t a naturally affectionate couple, I loved picturing them doing something that was just for them in that moment before the momentum of life took over. I had to imagine it because I never actually witnessed them doing it. I never once saw them dance.
A few days prior to my grandfather passing away, we had a benefit to help pay for his failed lung transplant. My Bupa struggled with breathing from his Pulmonary Fibrosis and didn’t have the energy to try to walk so he spent most of his time tied to a wheelchair and oxygen. But, that night his one wish was to dance one more time with my grandmother. He got up out of the wheelchair and was able to stand long enough to do it for one song and the entire time I remember wondering why this wasn’t done a million times over their lifetime if it was the one thing he wished for before he passed away.
But as adults we know exactly this happens. There’s work and kids and pets and sports and…and…and…and the last thing we think about is the stuff we really wish we could be doing instead. The little things that we used to do but life got in the way.
This time we are forced to spend at home has been difficult for so many reasons. There is so much to do and yet nothing we can do all at the same time. We are trying to take on multiple jobs: parents, teachers, workers. It’s far from the vacation you may look forward to normally. We are trying to live our entire lives inside the square feet of our homes. I know that I have been on an emotional rollercoaster – laughing hysterically at my dog tripping in the kitchen and giving me a dirty look one minute to five minutes later nearly sobbing when Michael Scott left The Office when I don’t even like the show let alone watch TV. Even if I wanted to leave my house there’s nowhere to go, and being in Wisconsin doesn’t afford us many days to get outside. I feel lonely even though I’m surrounded by people. I feel like I have major cabin fever and can do nothing about it.
However, this time we have is unprecedented time to spend with our families that we don’t normally have and may never get again. I feel like the Universe has been flashing the yield sign and when we didn’t, it decided to do it for us. Something to make us look at each other again in the eyes and remember who we are as individuals, families, and communities. Time to be still. Recalibrate. To do the little things that we haven’t done because we have been so busy that we forgot we even enjoyed it. Time to do the things we love to do with our families so we don’t need to wait our whole lives to do it again, like dance.
In some of the long term contract work I do with districts, I have the honor of helping them set up virtual learning environments and coach teachers and administrators in best practices for the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that virtual learning requires. Coming from the realm of being a technology director, I can also look at the situation from that lens. Some districts have been working on virtual programs or charter schools for years already, and I’ve been able to see what has gone well and not so well.
In crazy world we live in and have had to adapt to in a short period of time, I have never been more proud to say that I’m an educator. I’ve watched districts with no plans for this type of emergency whatsoever (I mean, how could you possibly anticipate something like this) jump full-force into meeting the various needs of their students. Even my own kids’ district sent out multiple emails from the guidance department with support numbers and also had a plan for students to pick up meals or have them delivered in record time. Teachers have been resilient and persistent in doing what is best for their students and quickly taking on learning management systems and online assessing with all the creativity and awesomeness that educators consistently exhibit. I really am seriously so incredibly proud.
I’ve also seen some of the mistakes that in a well-planned rollout will still sometimes happen, forget that this endeavor was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants implementation. I thought that I would answer some of the most common questions that I get from teachers as they are going through a virtual implementation hoping that they will help anyone still struggling.
How much work do I give?
When moving to an online course, this is probably one of the most common questions I get from teachers who have a difficult time imagining how their classes should look and how much work their students should have. While typically I would highly recommend to backwards plan a unit, match the plan to the allotted timeframe, and break it up for online, in this sometimes day-to-day planning that we are doing right now because of the situation can make planning look a little different. My next recommendation is to plan what you would typically do in one week in class and migrate that work online while replicating the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that would be happening in class (for more info, keep reading to How do I teach?). My friend, Anne Stanislawski, created this website for her teachers and students to help guide parents and students weekly in their learning. Teachers meet in their PLCs via Zoom and plan a week at a time. As of this blog post, the first grade page is complete and the rest is still under construction.
Common misconception: Worksheets for the class – A common misconception I see in the assigning of work is a teacher will divide the number of minutes of the class by how long worksheets will take to get done (ex: I have 60 minutes and each worksheet I have will take 10 minutes so I will assign six worksheets). In reality, that number of worksheets wouldn’t get done within that timeframe with any direct instruction and student questions, and you most likely wouldn’t assign six worksheets normally anyway. Plus, creating interactive lessons in a variety of other ways will help students gain a deeper understanding of the content you’re teaching.
Common misconception: They have more time – Another common misconception I’ve seen is assigning work that would not be able to be done within one day’s time. For example, it’s unreasonable to assign a student to watch a two hour video and then do a worksheet with it as well. That wouldn’t be able to be done within one day at school, and keep in mind that in secondary this is only one of multiple classes.
Where do I focus?
On yourself and on your students. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. This is like the beginning of the year all over again. You know your students as learners, but you may not know them as virtual learners which can be very, very different. Focus on establishing norms and expectations online. Create a new classroom culture by building off the ones you were fortunate enough to establish in the face-to-face environment first. The content will come and the more time you spend easing everyone into this new reality the faster you will be able to move later.
How do I teach?
Many times when I get asked this question, it is really about how the teacher provides direct instruction. This is an easy fix. If you would like to provide DI to your students, that can be done either by creating a screencast of a presentation (I’d recommend Screencastify) or whiteboard for students to watch on their own or via a video conferencing system like Google Meet or Zoom. Created videos should be kept to under five minutes.
In looking at creating other activities for students, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Want your students to do a Socratic Seminar? You can still do that using Google Meet or Zoom. Want to listen to your students speak in Spanish or play their instruments? You can. Use Flipgrid. Want your students to experience creating their own podcast about how the world is changing and predicting how their life might be different after the virus? Have them create a micro-podcast on Synth.
Practically speaking, there are ways to add accountability to your teaching as well. This tends to be one of the areas that teachers struggle with the most because you can’t actually see and monitor what your students are doing. For example, add interactivity to instructional videos (either self-made or from a variety of sources) with EdPuzzle or Playposit. Add instructional content to any webpage with Insert Learning. Curate information with Wakelet or have students use Padlet for a variety of purposes (including timeline and mapmaking and creating video and voice notes). Also, this is a Symbaloo of digital assessment tools that might be helpful.
There are teams of educators online collecting resources to help with this transition. Rachelle Dene Poth writes amazing tech blogs that are student-centered and focused on collaboration. Jen Casa-Todd, the mother of social media leadership, has been curating resources for online learning. Katie Martin always has phenomenally put-together blog posts with tons of information and resources.
How do I still allow for personalized learning?
I know that the initial reaction for the transfer online was quick and I would imagine, relatively painful. Some educators had never used Google Classroom or any other learning management system before, and teaching and learning online is different than teaching and learning in a brick and mortar classroom. The goal, however, should be to get to a place where we are offering students voice, choice, and pacing options so they are able to customize their learning as much as possible. THIS is an ideal time to allow more autonomy in pacing. Even if it is week-by-week to begin with, removing the constraint where students need to be given the work by 8am and finish by 3pm each day would be an easy step forward.
Also, creating opportunities for students to have voice and choice in their learning is still important. Even baby steps like giving students the choice between three different critical thinking questions to answer in a discussion would be appropriate. Still allow them to show their learning in a variety of ways. Some students might enjoy creating a media project or podcast, and some students might still want to work with their hands. HANDS ON PROJECTS ARE STILL APPROPRIATE! One school district I was working with to move to a virtual program was setting up a maker-like space that had project supplies that students could pick up or get shipped to them if they didn’t have them at home.
What else do we need to remember?And how is this specific to NOW?
Digital Equity The inequality in digital access goes beyond the number of WIFI hotspots and Chromebooks available. We now are adding in the ability for parents to be able to teach and learn online themselves and the support that they are able to give students both online and offline. All of a sudden, some students may not have anything to eat all day (not even a school lunch). There will be a difference between parents who are able to support students if they have a third grade education or a graduate degree. I have two graduate degrees and cannot do math over an 8th grade level! Some students will have parents who are at home, some will have parents working at home, and some will be spending their days with babysitters or AS babysitters if their parents are still working. The disparity in how students will be operating in the most basic level throughout the days could be vast.
Family time is valuable Students may have an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with their families at home. This time is valuable and I feel like if they have that availability, it should be respected. I have also seen some people make mention of assigning tasks that the whole family could do. Please be aware that some parents are now unexpectedly homeschooling multiple children plus they may be trying to work from home. In the past having families as part of the learning may have seemed like a reason to give them togetherness time, but being sensitive to the unique situation that might be happening now is imperative.
Students are scared Students have never seen anything like this in their time on Earth. Neither have most of us. They don’t have a lot of reliable information when it comes to navigating what is going on. If you’re discussing Maslow’s and bringing in the Hierarchy of Needs, school content is going to take a low priority with them if they are really scared as to what is going on. This can be intensified if their parents are suffering any kind of additional economic hardship because of the virus.
As I said, in the long-term consulting contracts that I do, part of my work is with virtual programs and charter schools to plan and implement this new type of learning. If there is anything I can do to help right now, please use the contact me button at the top of the page and let me know.
Our students need us the most right now as humans. As the people they want to connect with. As the ones who remember them every day and talk to them and look them in the eyes. Now, this has become more of a challenge, but it can absolutely be done. Noticing our students and maintaining those relationships with them needs to be our main focus right now. The rest will come.
I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.
But I did. I forgot.
I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).
But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.
My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.
But I see now what I may have been missing before.
A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.
Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?
Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.
We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.
What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.
The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.
And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.
I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.
I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.
I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.
We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.