Teaching in the Era of COVID-19
By Stace Burnard, RCC
All educators have been impacted by COVID-19 whether by the threat of illness, loss of connection with friends and family, financial hardship, or simply a change in daily routines. Unprecedented times of a pandemic brings fear and anxiety about the safety of our own and loved ones’ future physical, mental, economic and spiritual health. Alienated from community interactions with reduced social supports, we are each asked to navigate these uncertain times while simultaneously maintaining our day-to-day responsibilities and stressors of food, home and income security.
Teachers have been working under unique circumstances with limited preparation. Time pressures to become acquainted with online learning platforms and conferencing technology, finding relevant and engaging online content, in addition to separately creating paper materials to ensure a level learning experience for all students, have become the norm. Regular home visits to students requiring specialized support and to the entire class are imperative to maintain the glue of the class, the emotional relationships, that make a classroom community. Responding to parent requests, assuaging their fears, and supporting their children’s well-being from afar, has been challenging.
Typically, transformational times lead to the replacement of one story with a new narrative. Currently, the old paradigm has been transformed without a subsequent one offered in its place; no story of hope to hold. Rendered helpless with a lack of control over external circumstances, there is existential angst or profound impact on our collective psyche and psychological wellbeing.
These extraordinary complex times ask us to be self-reliant and to discover our sense of agency, empowerment and resiliency, to derive coping mechanisms to live in the ‘muck,’ comfortably. What will this ‘new normal’ world, our future look like, and our personal place in it?
Our first responders, namely teachers must navigate a new, flexible and responsive pedagogical practice to reflect the current fluid nature of schooling. In addition to the psychological aspects of fear and uncertainty about their own health, teachers have the responsibility for the welfare of their students, and all the unknowns of what the school day will look like, including the context of whether COVID-19 will hit again which will place even more strain on their mental health and well-being. Teachers already have self-imposed stress being caretakers who believe they have never done enough, never finished, and never able to totally relax. Teachers will need to find comfort in ‘good enough.’
Given all the complexities moving forward, let’s examine what teachers can control, influence and what they must let go:
- Coping strategies/Managing for the day-to-day stressors
- Returning to school
- Managing the day-to-day stressors:a) Healthy habits will be critical at this time to manage your day-to-day stressors. Additional stressors of policing safe distancing in your classes, overseeing a rigorous schedule of hand-washing, while conveying knowledge will drain more energy than usual. Turning to ‘go-to,’ familiar and reliable physical and mental health care strategies to maintain health. Stretches while waiting for coffee to brew, an intentional healthy dinner on Sunday and Thursday nights, a mindful action to slow down, and a ‘you’ or fun activity such as a bath, listening to music or a podcast, playing the guitar, and maintaining virtual connections help reduce stress.
It’s critical now to make the known and familiar easier to manage. Routines and habits offer many benefits, including order and goals, predictability, giving days meaning, relieving us from decision-making, and fostering a calm mind and general good health. Insert as many routines into your day.
b) Distraction is a useful coping tool in our toolbox, never to be dismissed. When overwhelmed, take a break from figuring things out and distract yourself with a good book, Netflix, or a new artistic endeavor.
c) Positivity – Have a positive mental health break and check-in. Engage in what gives you simple pleasure.
If today gets difficult, remember the smell of coffee, the way sunlight bounces off a window, the sound of a favourite person’s laugh, the feeling when a song you love comes on, the color of the sky at dusk, and that we are here to take care of each other—Nanea Hoffman, projecthappiness.org.
Ask yourself- Did I get into nature? Did I do something that gives me joy? What gives me gratitude? Am I focused on what I can control and influence? How much time have I spent on technology? How is my language, positive and curious or negative, closed and judgemental with absolutes of all or nothing and certainty? It is easy to slide towards brusqueness, and frustration. What is my own self-talk, negative and all-consuming?
What you can control are your thoughts and where you are focusing your attention.
- Reflection & Growth:
As a world, we have come to directly face the fear of death and uncertainty. With fear there is need for control to find a solution, we regress to our primitive instincts of fight, flight or freeze, but we are not in control and do not know what the future holds.
- Processing – The pandemic is a vague threat which has produced a collective traumatic event. After experiencing a traumatic event, it is important to be able to talk, tell your story, and process the experience. Do so, but in small doses. There will be a number of emotions experienced, shock, confusion, sadness, and anxiety to name a few and there will be a lasting impact on our lives. There have been numerous losses. We will each go through the different stages of grief, at our own pace, cycle back and forth, have ups and downs, as outlined by Kubler Ross. Initially, there will be denial of what has happened, anger at the changes and inconveniences in our daily lives, followed by bargaining such as if I don’t see it then I don’t need to worry about safety guidelines, depression over not seeing the end of the crisis, and finally acceptance of the losses and the new reality, and a new way forward. Move at your own pace and don’t rush.
- Meaning – There are profound moments in our lives where we are forced to take pause, whether it be through physical or emotional painful circumstances, or natural or environmental catastrophic events where we are forced to face the potential of everything changing. There is opportunity in these experiences to accept what is happening, gain clarity and meaning through re-examining priorities and values, and be fully present and open to new experiences. We have already discovered the benefits of working at home, slowing down, being closer to family, environmental improvements, and community cooperation. Remember trust that you are safe.
- A New Way Forward -We can see the best of humanity and ‘build up,’ society through the many gestures of kindness such as the manufacturing of hand-sanitizers at the local level, to the global level of countries’ sharing masks and ventilators. We can contribute in new avenues of development or by volunteering in our community. Alternatively, we can contribute or tear down the interconnectedness of society consumed with fear, and reduce ourselves to an ‘us versus them’ mentality. We have seen both in the ravaging for toilet paper, paying for vaccines for own country. Make the choice and look for the goodness (tankgoodnews.com).
Our Real Work – by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
3) Returning to School
Teaching will feel overwhelming, with the logistics still vague. Moving into uncharted waters while supporting students’ mental, academic and physical health will not be easy.
I encourage you to focus on what you can control.
- Your student relationships and class community. More than ever your health and well-being will be of the utmost importance as students and their parents need you to be emotionally available and supportive of their requests and needs even if that means ‘fake it till you make it.’ This is the time to focus on relationship, and belongingness as stress reduces trust, and we are all under significant stress right now. Focus on celebrations to boost everyone’s mental health. Have fun and learning will naturally follow. Foster safety, and teach with whatever you have at your disposal. Have some simple, go-to, lessons focused on calming the mind, self-regulation and recreational activities to reduce everyone’s anxiety, and other lesson plans focused on building a classroom community.
Students have been disconnected from school, friends, perhaps worried about parent’s financial livelihood, may have witnessed more drug use, abuse, are fearful, and out of routine. Students will present with different needs. This makes supportive listening, compassion and being ever vigilant for mental health concerns of suicide, anxiety and depression even more pressing.
Educators having experienced natural disasters believe the key to supporting students’ mental health is to normalize the situation as soon as possible. Even in war-torn areas, sticks and mud have provided the utensil and canvas, as the need to get back to normal is acknowledged. Focus on routines, routines, routines for your own mental health, and go with the flow. Sounds paradoxical but it’s not. Where you can reduce simple tasks to routines, do so.
b. Managing the social-emotional response of students to the pandemic and subsequent school disruption.
Acknowledge with the students that what you, and everyone is experiencing is very stressful and we are all in it together. Not being able to do everyday activities is weird.
What you say and do about COVID-19 can either increase or decrease your students’ anxiety. Given teachers have their own personal worries and do not have answers of what the future will look like, it will be difficult to hide their concerns and stress. Now more than ever when students will look to adults for guidance on how to behave and respond to novel events. Through example, teachers can demonstrate effective coping mechanism when under stress. Students are attuned to nonverbal changes in voice and intonation, so be ever vigilant, and try to demonstrate a positive and optimistic approach to a new normal.
Establish rapport and trust as quickly as possible through a circle discussion. Maintain regular communication by gathering up the class to share experiences and shared emotions, and have an honest and accurate discussion of how the pandemic has disrupted school and daily life.
First, have a check-in on how students are feeling as talking about feelings can help them see they are not alone. By normalizing feelings, we can start to regain a perception of control, feel less anxiety and more hopeful about the future. Assuage any fears by acknowledging that all feelings whether they be distracted, angry, worried or scared about safety are all normal reactions to this very abnormal time.
Next, correct any misinformation, rumours, alleviate and reframe concerns as imaginations can run rampant, and respond to questions. Provide age-appropriate factual information (acknowledge that it is scary, explain how to avoid infection, remind them that few people get really sick with CoVid especially young, most people recover and we will find medical solutions) surrounding the pandemic and accurate safety and preventative measures being taken in the community and school. Review what will happen should there be a COVID outbreak at school. Let children know when you don’t have an answer and will find it.
Students like adults will have varied responses to disasters and different abilities to settle in for learning and engagement. Look for any changes in students’ behaviour or moods as indications of stress or anxiety. Any change in baseline behaviour for a student such as withdrawing, acting out in anger, crying, easily startled, overly clingy or less comfortable with separation, asking repetitive questions, less able to concentrate and complete independent work, or has exaggerated fears of illness or more physical ailments such as aches and pains must be investigated further.
Discuss effective coping methods such as distraction through favored activity, nature, and to focus on positives. Ask them what they have used in the past when get bad news or faced a crisis?
Finally reassure that adults care and are here to help anytime to listen and find solutions.
Remember, you’ve got this because you know this to be true. On less resilient days, just fake it.
c. Opportunity to teach new content focused on new opportunities and shared humanity.
What an amazing time to teach what personally resonates for you during this pandemic. There are incredible opportunities to examine humankind and the world at large. What can you do to make things better? Examine positive events of cooperation and discuss avenues for students to become more community-minded citizens. Examine and pursue the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
A reflective student activity focusing on the benefits from sheltering in place could easily be created. What new activities/interests did you discover? What activities did you discard as they were no longer serving, less important, or needed? What is giving you hope, what changes would you like to see at community and global level?
Tedeschi & Calhoun coined the term, “Posttraumatic Growth” that can occur from traumatic experiences: increased inner strength (survived and coped), openness to new possibilities, closer, more compassionate, positive relationships with family and friends, a greater appreciation for life (what they have and no longer take for granted), and an enhanced sense of spirituality, meaning and purpose of life. Keep in mind that the majority of people will move forward after experiencing a traumatic event with perceptions of positive experiences.
In conclusion, we as a society are asking much of our frontline workers, whether health professions or now teachers. I encourage you to take measures to ensure your health by regularly checking in with yourself. How am I holding up mentally, physically and what do I need to nourish myself and maintain my resiliency? We need you to be healthy for yourselves and for our students.
Stace Burnard, MA, MBA, B.Ed, RCC, Yukon, Canada has worked in education for more than 25 years. With a background in clinical psychology, she has held positions as an educational psychologist, as well as social-emotional learning and special education consultant working with children and youth age 6-19 years. She has advocated for vulnerable children and minority rights as well as led social-emotional initiatives, including self-regulation and mindfulness in Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada.
Published articles appear in Insights Magazine (BCACC), AdminInfo (BC Principals’ & Vice-Principals’ Association) and a number of British Columbia Teacher Federation (BCTF) magazines. She has presented at First Nations Education Steering Committee conferences, BCTF conferences and the CCBD International conference in the United States.
For further information on self-regulation and wellness contact Stace at [email protected]. Find information and resources about presentations teacher, school and family wellness at https://www.cloudberrywellness.com.