Let’s be real: the pandemic has not been kind to teachers. I still remember that fateful and horrific day, Friday, March 13th, 2020 (yes, it was fittingly Friday the 13th) when our school made the decision to go home and teach remotely on Zoom. After a heroic and maddash of two professional development days in which we came up with a plan to teach from home, we went live on Zoom. Not knowing the serious scourge that COVID presented, we all thought we’d be back on campus in two weeks.
Ha! Now, more than two years later, and in a world where COVID still presents risks and challenges, we can look back and see how naive that assumption was. And the challenges were not insignificant. We braved students who wouldn’t put their screens on and engage, saw the raw and real home lives our students live, dealt with parents with lack of boundaries, experienced zoom fatigue, and longed for the essential human connection that being in person provides. But we were also scrappy and resilient, learning new technological ways to empower our students and help them adapt to new learning circumstances. We provided social emotional support in entirely new ways. And we also learned new curricular best practices along the way.
When we were finally able to venture back onto campus for a hybrid situation in March 2021, we were masked, and it was difficult for our students to hear us behind the partitions. Hugging and high fives were forbidden, and we had to stay 6 feet apart at all times. This created a culture of separation and fear. While we and students were all happy to be back, new challenges reared their ugly heads: student learning loss, social emotional challenges, and lacking a feeling of cohesive community. Yet, teachers persevered and handled this new set of setbacks with grace and love in their hearts for their students.
Now, after more than two years, we have a better understanding of COVID, but an endemic has not been declared yet. And teachers are tired. The cognitive and physical stress of the constant changes and doing something that we were never trained to do have had their toll. Teachers are leaving the field in droves seeking greener pastures or just something different.
If you decide to leave teaching, that is understandable, and this is a judgment free zone. However, I will also say we need teachers now more than ever. Children are hurting from pandemic and need those loving and talented folks who can teach, inspire, and support them academically and emotionally. Although you may feel like your well is dry, many of you have made the brave decision to stay and to serve the children in your community. Here are some suggestions for ways to preserve your own mental and physical well-being and to come back to this year motivated and ready to face the year.
Rewind and Reflect Think back, why did you become a teacher in the first place? Is that reason still valid? If so, what are ways you can preserve and actualize that goal? Digging deep and knowing our “why” gives us meaning and allows us to direct our energy towards making a true difference in the lives of our students.
Find A Fan Club With all that teachers are doing and facing, it can be draining. We need positive encouragement, just like we offer to our students, to keep up our momentum and drive. Find positive people that champion your successes and cheer you on through difficult patches, be it supportive admin, a partner, friends, a therapist, or family. Words of affirmation can buoy us when times get rough.
Accept Your Feelings Don’t feel like you have to be positive all the time. That is toxic. Acknowledge your feelings, and think through how you can address sadness, fear, or anger by making changes for yourself or by talking to others about it. If writing is meaningful to you, journal your feelings to work through them.
Be Realistic As aforementioned, students are coming back to the classroom with a whole host of new challenges. Try your best, but do not kill yourself trying to solve all of the world’s problems. Be realistic and set manageable goals. Give yourself grace. A good admin will understand what teachers are facing and have realistic expectations about student progress as well.
Connect with a Teacher Wellness Buddy Whether it’s the teacher next door or someone you meet in an online teacher Facebook group, find someone who understands what you are going through and make a commitment to check in on one another once a week. Don’t make it a pity party, but uplift your wellness buddy with kindness and support. Having someone who has gone through the same experience as you makes for an excellent sounding board and support.
Focus on Your Students A teacher is always juggling multiple responsibilities. When you are feeling burnt out and exhausted, tune out the external noise and focus on connecting with your students. Positive connections allow us to recalibrate, and give us an emotional boost. Find something, even if it’s not academic, to allow you to connect joyfully with students.
Set a Meaningful PD Goal When you go through your observation cycle, advocate with your administrator to pursue something you are truly interested in as your annual professional development goal. Maybe you were inspired by some new tech over pandemic. Or conversely, maybe you are sick of tech, and want to focus on your student’s social emotional development. Whatever would give you satisfaction to work on, pursue this goal.
Reintroduce your Passions In a similar vein, think about what gives you the most happiness to teach in the classroom, and find ways to integrate more of that into your work. Maybe you love doing student centered work; if so, double down on project based learning lessons. Or maybe you love teaching with games; if that’s you think about ways to gamify your curriculum. If it sparks joy, do it more!
Relax and Recharge Although I am a natural born extrovert, being an educator and mother the pandemic made me realize that I actually need a lot more time to myself, where I do not have to prioritize or take care of anyone other than myself. Definitely take time just for you and do whatever it is you need to relax or recharge, be it exercise, read, take a bath, nap, hike, write, or whatever your preferred activity is.
Preserve Boundaries The bizarre thing about the pandemic was that boundaries shifted. School was home, and home was school. We didn’t even have a commute to unwind and decompress after a day of teaching. For those of us with kids, childcare weirdly became enmeshed with our day of teaching. With this unhealthy, amorphous mix of time, space, and care, now that we are back at school, it is important to reestablish healthy boundaries. Obviously we still have some grading and planning responsibilities after our day of teaching ends, but be mindful of how much time your spending working, and be prudent about how you are managing your teaching load. And unless it’s a true emergency, it will always be there tomorrow.
I know it’s not rocket science, but I hope that a few of these suggestions were timely reminders for you as you process the past few years of your teaching career. I hope you take care of yourself, and celebrate all of the challenges that you have overcome, for, dear teacher, are fierce and amazing!