As I sit here by my computer on this snowy January morning, it’s hard to believe the state of education nearly 2 years after the start of the pandemic. Teachers are burned out, families and school leaders are juggling the challenges of returning to remote learning, and student and staff absences are moving towards an all-time high.
Any good teacher feels anxious right now. We feel anxious because we care. We care about our students’ well-being, our children’s futures, and the health and safety of our families. If you are struggling or you know someone who is, I’m here to say I’ve been there, and that’s okay. You aren’t alone.
Moving Past Guilt
When I reflect on my own journey teaching throughout the pandemic, one word best summarizes my feelings last winter: guilt. It’s a bizarre feeling for anyone that knows me, my work ethic, or my approach towards life. But when I entered my classroom or logged onto my computer each morning, the feelings of inadequacy steadily crept into my mind, initially subtle, but eventually too suffocating to ignore.
I felt guilty for not being engaging enough to keep my students’ Zoom cameras on, for student absences to become more common than their attendance, for barely hearing back from parents, and at the end of the day, not knowing what next to try. Before long, I started asking myself, “Am I even good at this?”, “Does anything I am doing actually make a difference?”
Those fears and worries led to sleepless nights and even a few panic attacks as I returned to teaching in the building. You may wonder why I am telling you this. I share my story because I want you to know that things will get better. There are strategies that got me through that dark season and you will get through it, too.
Today, I feel more confident and passionate about teaching than at any other point in my career. Even more, I see the worries and doubts I had in the past to be falsehoods about my effectiveness as a teacher. What I do does make a difference. What I do does matter.
So, what helped? First off, give yourself and others grace and remember that change takes time. Healing is a process. Growth is a journey. You may feel more like yourself one day, and nearly at rock bottom another. Don’t worry if that’s your story, and try to be patient if that’s the story of someone you care about. The work you put in as an educator to take care of your mental health will ultimately enable you to be a better teacher and better care for your students.
Helping your students and your colleagues is a lot more sustainable if you have a full tank yourself. Prioritize self-care and you can better be a resource for those who might be running on empty.
Find 1-3 people that you can confide in and be honest about what you are experiencing. Are you flat-out angry? Jaded? Bitter? Anxious? Be real about what you are going through. Nine out of ten times the person you are talking to has been there at some point in their life as well. Sharing what you are going through helps you process and allows people who care about you to know how to support you.
Focus on what you do have control over
We can’t control student behavior, absences, the spread of Covid 19, or legislative decisions that dictate what’s going on in our school districts. However, we CAN control how we prepare for our instruction, treat our students, and care for ourselves. Each day, commit to the mantra, “I will focus on what I do have control over and let go of the rest.” We must be solution-oriented and remember that our students are watching the way we handle each day’s surprises, good or bad.
Remember, not everything will be perfect
One thing that sets us apart as teachers among many other professions is that on our worst days, we can’t simply hide behind our desks. Some lessons you prepare won’t be that exciting, some days you might respond in anger to a student, and some mornings you might forget the copies at the copy machine and have to wing it. Frankly, some days your lessons will simply bomb. But, did you show up? Will you take the time to reflect on why things didn’t work? Will you say you’re sorry to model humility to your students? Will you collaborate with others to find solutions so that it doesn’t happen next time? What makes a good teacher isn’t just what happens within classroom walls, but the reflection and intentionality you take to be your best self for your students. And yes, some days you just can’t be your best self– that’s alright, too.
Cultivating Healthy Habits
We are almost two years into the pandemic. Maybe at this point, you’ve found your rhythm. But, regardless if it is this storm or the next, teachers need to cultivate healthy habits to remain in the profession.
Don’t feel guilty leaving that large stack of ungraded papers behind to get outside, go for a walk or a run, or jump on the elliptical at the gym. “Studies suggest that physical exercise may help ward off mental health problems before they start,” (Star, 2021). In addition, exercise boosts mood, improves self-confidence, creates opportunities for social activity, and distracts people from negative thoughts and emotions.
Boundaries between work and home can easily become blurred as schools and classrooms begin transitioning to remote learning once again. Set a time to be done with work for the day and stick with it. Do you have trouble turning your mind off from what happened during school hours? Email notifications popping up on your phone and computer won’t help. Consider taking your work email off your cell phone to avoid unnecessary notifications about things that can wait.
Nurture personal gratitude
Even when things feel as though they can’t get any worse, there is always something to be grateful for. Consider spending 5 minutes daily to journal or reflect about what you are grateful for. There are so many small moments a day where we can find positive change happening in our schools– we just have to look for them.
Focus on faith/spirituality
Do you have a faith background? Were you once involved in a local church or religious organization? “Research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being” (Whitley, 2017). As a Christian, I found that reading Scripture, praying, and investing in Christian community made a huge difference for me when I was struggling last year. Reflecting on the fact that I am not in control and letting go of my fears and worries allowed me to more confidently face each day. Many churches and religious organizations offer free support groups and mental health services for individuals who need them.
Rely on experts
Don’t shy away from counseling or talking to your doctor about what you are experiencing. Many insurances have provided free counseling and mental health services for teachers throughout the pandemic. I took advantage of the free counseling services my public school district offered through its Employee Assistance Program. It’s normal to need to talk to someone about what you are experiencing, and it helps!
Strategies to Care for Your Colleagues
Once you’ve prioritized your own well-being, there are a number of small ways you can support those around you. Being a good colleague means you may need to reach out in new ways.
Take the time to ask
Do you know your colleagues? Do you know how they are really feeling? Don’t just rush into the PLC agenda, spend time getting to know what’s really going on in your colleagues, both professionally and personally. When they share, don’t be too quick to provide advice. Sometimes we all just need a listening ear.
The best PLC partnerships form when educators are real and honest. Don’t just put on a happy face if you are struggling. Your team needs to know how you are doing to support you. Give them a chance to do so.
While the pandemic has indeed established systems and structures that distance us and push us away from others, don’t use it as an excuse for not being a part of a team. Be a leader in creating a solution-oriented culture among your colleagues and find ways to solve some of the daily challenges you are facing with your students. Talk about what works and what doesn’t, but don’t let your conversations simply become a time to vent. Instead, work to find ways during your meetings to always walk away with some type of product produced. You’ll find that everyone actually wants to meet.
Extend grace & assume the best intent
Amidst the busyness of your workday, a colleague has probably offended you, someone may have blown you off, and a lot of your questions for administration have likely gone unanswered. We all handle stress differently. At the end of the day, remember that no one is an expert in teaching or leading during a pandemic. Rather than harboring anger or reverting to gossip, assume the best of your colleagues and remember that we all need a little (or a lot!) of grace right now.
Don’t give up
Last year, I definitely considered quitting my teaching career. I didn’t feel like I was cut out for the job, and I sure wasn’t experiencing joy in the classroom.
A year later in the same job at the same school, I look forward to conversations with my students, feel a rush of excitement as I finalize lesson plans, and find joy as I see the difference I am making in children’s lives. I’m still the same teacher, just with a few more strategies under my belt. My colleague, David, has a great piece on how you can extend empathy to your students to create a supportive environment.
If you are struggling, remember, you are not alone. There are many other teachers feeling the same way you do today! However, if you don’t find ways to relieve stress, cultivate healthy habits, or develop boundaries between work and home, you are going to have a hard time caring for your students. Even more, you are going to have a difficult time staying in an education career.
Take the time to prioritize your mental health and check in on your colleagues. As activist and writer James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Let us face our challenges with rigor to create a world that is better for our students.
Ducharme, J. (2018). Work emails may be taking a toll on your mental health- and your relationship. https://time.com/5364730/work-emails-mental-health/
Star, K. (2021). The mental health benefits of physical exercise. https://www.verywellmind.com/physical-exercise-for-panic-disorder-and-anxiety-2584094
Waller, A. (2021). 6 simple ways to build trusting relationships with staff. https://www.edutopia.org/article/6-simple-ways-build-trusting-relationships-staff
Whitley, R. (2017). Religion and mental health: What is the link? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-men/201712/religion-and-mental-health-what-is-the-link