Things I Will Never Do As a Mental Health Advocate

Since the day I started speaking openly about my own mental health issues roughly seven years ago, I have owned my issues and my healing. I have been clear about what I will do. I will be brutally honest. I will make naysayers uncomfortable. I will put myself into positions of vulnerability in order to model it for other people. Even when it hurts. Even when I lose people. Even when the cost to do so seems so much greater than the return. I’ll do it anyway.

But, there are things I’ll won’t do as a mental health advocate.

I’ll never claim to be completely healed and perfect.

I have worked for years on my own healing. Sometimes, it feels like one step forward, two steps back. I will go for years without an issue, and then randomly I’ll have all the things happen – crying, shaking, anger and I’ll have to start all over again. I will never be perfect. I’ll never tell you that I am. I will never expect you to be. I truly believe that one of the reasons my healing process is so all-consuming sometimes is to remind me what others go through. Because of that, I’m okay with continuing to heal. I will take empathetic over perfect any day. I would take the ability to step into someone’s space with them – feeling what they feel – over looking down on them from my self-proclaimed perfectly transformed pedestal in a heartbeat. After all, how else will we heal if not with people who love and care for us? Who will take time to understand what we’re going through? Who have the ability to feel what we are feeling? How else can we transform emotion if we are not able to step into emotions of our own?

I’ll never try to be the boss of your emotions.

I will never tell you to get over your pain. I will never tell you that anxiety is all in your head. I will never assume that you have the power over any of your big emotions at any given moment. I will never ask you to transform, as that implies that emotion and trauma are nothing but a switch to be flipped. And anyone who knows anything about brain science knows that this isn’t possible. The most you’ll get from people who you ask to contain their emotions is guilt and then resentment. Eventually, that guilt and resentment shuts them down. And the last thing we need is people who are hurting who aren’t talking. Nothing good ever comes from minimalizing someone’s pain. I will never ask you to stop feeling to relieve my discomfort. Ever.

I’ll never abandon my search for understanding.

Understanding research, understanding new ideas and theories, but mostly, taking time to understand people. Listen to what they say. People will tell you who they are both in what they say and what they don’t say. Understanding triggers, strategies for healing, understanding what not to say. Even people who tell untruths, at the root, are lying because they’re struggling emotionally in some way. Understanding the root cause of why people do what they do is the first step to understanding mental health issues. Does this mean we need to accept toxic people? No. Does it mean that we need to allow someone else to suffocate us? Call us crazy? Tell us to stop our “bad behavior”? Hell to the no. But in understanding why they do what they do, we begin to accept that their mental health issues are more about them than they ever were about us. And that is another step in healing.

I will never imply that I have my stuff together. Are you taking advice from someone who has not fully healed? Yup. Are you reading about someone who screws up, who has big emotions, who is able to go to battle with the best of them? Unfortunately, yes. But you’re also healing alongside someone who will never make you feel less than you are. Whose passion for helping others feel like they are not crazy, unwanted, or broken far outweighs my own ego and portraying myself as a perfect human. Hopefully, that helps you love your imperfect human, too.

SEL Opportunities to Support Student Mental Health Post-Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborate With the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Moment Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Breathing Exercises

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

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

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

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

2-1-4-1 Breathing

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

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

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

Repeat.

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

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

Maslow Level: Psychological Needs

Social Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find more information on the CASEL SEL Core Competencies here.

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

How Resilient Do We Want Districts To Be?

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

Is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Learning to Love Myself Impacts My Service to Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

I understand loving others better.

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

I embrace the eccentricities of others.

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

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

The Potential for Sensory Overload Post-Lockdown

I like warm hugs.

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can we do about this?

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

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

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

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

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.

Resilience quote

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.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

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

No. 

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.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

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 in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.