When I first sat down to write the second half of this blog post (the first one came a week or so ago about student experiences of anxiety and depression during Covid), my intent was to follow up on my last podcast that focused on grief and loss. However, in thinking more on this subject, it occurred to me that teachers also need support, especially since they're stretching themselves thin preparing to support the emotional needs of their students.
Some of us are returning to full-time in person work in September, some folks are already back to school in-person, some teachers are 100% virtual and others are a mixed model. The one thing we all have in common is an overwhelming sense of confusion, fear, and overall uncertainty as we prepare to return to school.
Now, a lot of people are throwing around terms like "self-care" and asking for suggestions on how to approach self-care during a time of Covid. Of course you should pursue ways to take care of yourself. But people who are still living through a trauma don't just need a "spa day."
How to self-assess your level of burnout/ stress
1. Start by trying to take note of how you feel. Not just when things feel hard - all throughout the day. Start first thing in the morning when you wake up. Do you feel energized? Well-rested? Prepared for your day? Or do you feel a sense of dread? Check in with yourself multiple times throughout the day. This isn't a "fix" for these feelings, but acknowledging these feelings is important. When you acknowledge they exist, you can also acknowledge the times they DON'T exist and try to do MORE of the things that make you feel at peace in a day! Remember that your feelings don't need fixing!
2. Once you identify the specific emotions you're experiencing, try to take a moment - it really is only a moment - and consider what specifically you're responding to with that emotion. Feelings, even anxiety and depression, are responses to contextual and situational stimuli that your body and mind is alerting you to! Pay attention to that! Sometimes there are subtle shifts we can begin to make to change these contextual situations so that we feel less anxiety and/or depression. Some situations, especially during Covid, are uncontrollable, however, feeling them, acknowledging them, and knowing they'll pass is sometimes all it takes! And finding ways to do more of what feels good can remind you during the anxious times that you'll get back to those good feelings soon!
3. Do you typically enjoy planning? Setting up your classroom and getting prepared for the year ahead? Same! But right now, every time I sit down to plan, I'm completely overwhelmed. It seems like plans are constantly changing and as someone who focuses on relationship first, I am completely overwhelmed at the prospect of first having to build relationship *maybe* online, and then *maybe* with half my students, then *maybe* full time, to have the rug pulled out from under me when Covid numbers begin to rise again and we go back to virtual learning and isolation. This constant turmoil is bound to make anyone feel anxious and burnt out! Remember that you're not alone! This is normal for these uncertain times, and if you're feeling burnt out at the prospect of the unforeseen change you're expected to adapt to, adjust your expectations on yourself. Allow yourself to do less and be satisfied with that. Allow yourself to be satisfied just getting the job done without going full teacher and going above and beyond;-)
4. Do you feel increasing feelings of agitation, frustration, and irritation at situations that normally wouldn't bother you? This is a classic sign of compassion fatigue. These emotions often accompany bigger, more powerful emotions, such as anxiety and fear. Try to identify the more powerful emotion that is leading to the agitated or irritated response, then repeat steps one and two! Identify if it's a controllable stimulus or not. If not, remind yourself that the feeling is temporary and valid, and scroll down to the next sections - what can you do and what is self-care?
What can do you do about it?
1. Control the controllable and let go of the rest! I'm not trying to be flippant - It's okay to continue to feel anxious, fearful, etc. However, there are going to be aspects that you cannot control. Some folks will tell you that you need to "take a stand" or "strike" or "fight back," whatever the wording is they use. If you feel empowered enough to do this work, then by all means, go for it! You have rights and you have a right to fight for them! However, not everyone will able to take this on, and that's also okay! There is no ONE right way to survive - do what you need to do to get through your days!
2. Remind yourself why you do this work to begin with. When you started teaching, did you do it with an understanding that you'd be on the front lines during a pandemic? Probably not... So why did you start teaching? For me, reminding myself that I started this work to support young people to feel successful so that they can go out and conquer the world! I can do this work from anywhere, in any way, and that may mean that I sacrifice my usual style, but my original purpose remains intact. That means I can forgo a lot of the other expectations I put on myself in favour of my soul purpose - to support youth to feel successful!
3. Be honest and open with students about your worries. I know, I know... I always say this... Because it's true! This will help you have open and honest dialogue with them about their experiences too. This will also help everyone to have some grace for one another.
What is self-care?
Self care is a buzz word that has been circulating over the past several years, particularly for folks in caring professions. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and once you feel that, it's very hard to come back from! Self-care is meant to prevent this from happening in the first place.
The problem with self-care discourse is that it's often focused on massage, facials, long walks on the beach, journaling, etc. All of these things are good and can make a big difference to your well-being! However, during Covid, going for a massage or facial likely isn't an option and doesn't actually serve to address the feelings you're experiencing. It's escapism, and the problem with escapism is that you have to return to reality, but now with less time to address the laundry list of things you feel you still need to accomplish.
So although self-care can look like taking a bubble bath, it can also be getting up early to get your grocery shopping done when no one else is at the store, because it reminds you of a simpler time when you didn't have to line up to get in.
It can also be reaching out to fellow educators and begging, borrowing and stealing units and lessons to take some of the burden off yourself! It's letting go of your idea of the "perfect" teacher, who reinvents the wheel for every unit, and doesn't want to ask for help. We ALL need help right now!
It can be taking 10-15 minutes and setting a timer to tackle just one task on your list of things to get done.
It can be leaning into your emotions and allowing yourself to cry, scream, swear, write angry letters you never plan to send, and remember how easy thing use to be, while finding ways to reflect on what's to come.
Self-care can be preparing all of your meals on Sunday so that at least you don't have to cook this week (this is my fave self-care activity... I always hate getting started, but by Wednesday when I'm pulling out already made food from the freezer, I feel such a sense of relief!)
The bottom line is that self-care is sometimes doing the undesirable, but simple, things you need to do to be able to tackle the big feelings and emotions that overwhelm you throughout the day so that you can allow space to acknowledge your emotions.
Being a teacher is never easy work, and even less so right now, but try to not stretch yourself so thin acknowledging your student's experiences that you no longer have room for your own. This is a problem I continue to have - I can be calm, patient, and an excellent sounding board for students, but when I get home I'm not there for my partner, or myself. It's a constant work in progress, but I hope these tools help you find ways to navigate the challenges of your own mental health during a pandemic!
Were there any suggestions here you've never thought of? Let me know! What ways do you de-stress? Shoot me an email and I'll add it to the list!