By Angela Watson, Truth for Teachers, Reprinted with permission
1. It is okay to sit in the anxiety sometimes and allow yourself (and others) to be off-kilter.
If you’re having a tough time focusing right now on any topic besides coronavirus, you’re probably finding that most of the articles and discussions about it are creating more fear and uncertainty. This leads to a really vicious circle that I have been caught up in myself recently — where you need to stay away from the discussions to protect your mental state but you also desperately want to know what’s going on and not to feel alone in your fear.
I struggle with anxiety and depression, and have throughout my life. The way that I manage those things is largely by planning and trying to control as much as possible. With a global pandemic where I cannot plan ahead because I have no idea what’s happening or going to happen, and almost everything is out of my control — well, that’s triggering all of my anxiety and control issues.
So I share all of that for those of you who are also planners and people who manage anxiety by controlling things and being pro-active, I want you to know, you are so not alone with that, and I am feeling exactly as you do.
The only thing I know to do in these situations is to be gentle with myself and allow myself to be off-kilter. It is normal and understandable to be anxious right now or fearful. That is a natural human reaction, and those uncomfortable feelings are okay to feel.
Being gentle with yourself and giving yourself grace is the advice you’ve heard me say over and over in many contexts, so if you’ve already been practicing that, you are going to be extra prepared for what is needed in the coming weeks. Do not expect yourself to feel like you normally do, because your world is not functioning as it normally does. I remind myself daily: It is okay to be off-kilter. It is okay to feel anything I’m feeling.
2. We need to rest in order to stay healthy — expecting ourselves to maintain normal productivity levels is not realistic.
Most people (and teachers especially) are pretty exhausted and overwhelmed by all the responsibilities on their plates when we’re not in a global pandemic. You know how I feel about this, and how strongly I believe that as a society, we desperately need to rethink our work-hustle-produce culture.
My hope is that this forced stopping place — this unprecedented period of time in which the world shuts down and we have no choice but to go inward both physically and mentally — can be a tremendous time of healing.
Rather than trying to accomplish everything we’ve been accomplishing at the same rate as if nothing changed… what if we use this time to rest? To disconnect from the outside world, and reconnect with ourselves? What if we use some of this time to do absolutely nothing with our children? What if we let them play and have unstructured time to create and imagine and make their own decisions about what activities to fill their days with? What if we give them and ourselves time for sleep and rest and relaxation and downtime? What if we stop pushing ourselves and our children 24/7 and trying to accomplish more, and instead, have some time to just be together for a while? What if we read and play games and cook and take naps and talk and just … be?
I acknowledge that not every person’s home is one of refuge and peace. The home can actually be the place where folks feel least safe and contented. My heart aches at that fact, because I want every person impacted by this pandemic to have a little bit of peace and time to rest.
To whatever extent is in your power, allow yourself to rest. Because if we’re prioritizing health right now in our society and beginning to finally make decisions as if our health is more important than anything else, then we need to realize that rest is essential to good health.
If we are scrambling to teach kids online with no real preparation or resources for that, it just creates more stress and uncertainty for both teachers and families.
When we are stressed, our immune system weakens. We are less able to fight off infection. So if the main goal is to stay healthy, then keeping our anxiety levels down and not trying to force ourselves to work as if things were normal right now is key. Sleep and rest are essential components of maintaining good health and a strong immune system.
We cannot expect the same outcomes with remote teaching as there would be with no pandemic. Kids are stressed and fearful and without their teacher, school, and other support systems to help them learn effectively.
Many of our older students will be responsible for babysitting younger siblings. They can’t complete hours of classwork. And parents are in the same boat: they’re either still going to work (which means their kids don’t have parents to help with classwork), or they’re trying to work from home (which means they can’t teach their kids because they’re trying to hang onto their jobs and maintain an income).
We can’t shift the burden onto families to oversee hours of assignments every day. Plus, they’re likely to be distracted, panicky, and worrying about their health and lost income and access to basic supplies.
Health and survival is top priority for many of our families, as it should be. Let’s not overwhelm teachers, kids, or families with too much school work right now. We have got to fight to keep this simple. This is a national emergency, so schooling expectations have to be adjusted.
The goal cannot be to soldier on and prepare kids for standardized testing as if their whole world isn’t currently upside down. Advocate for yourself, your community, and your students. Let’s be human-centered instead of data-centered. Testing should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
I follow a number of college instructors on Twitter who are well-versed in the amount of work it takes to create an effective online learning program, and repeatedly they have advised teachers to simplify, especially for folks who are new to this.
Ask yourself, What would it look like if it were easy? Pick the option that is going to reduce stress for you and your kids. We don’t need anybody stressed and exhausted right now. We need folks healthy and rested and strong.
Just as you cannot internalize pressure from your school or district in terms of student achievement on a normal day, you certainly cannot afford to do so during a pandemic. Through your tone, word choice, and interactions with your students, you can convey to them that we are all in this together, and you will work with them to offer the kind of support and flexibility they need. This reassurance is probably the most impactful thing you can do right now.
3. This is an opportunity to rethink your obligations and how your time is spent, and decide what you want life to look like in the “new normal.”
Often, teachers feel like everything on their plates is important and essential, and there’s nothing they can cut out. It’s amazing how a major traumatic event like this can clarify how many of those things we thought just had to happen and we had to participate in … do not actually need to happen after all. This is an opportunity to rethink your commitments. I encourage you to observe how the schedule changes impact you over the coming weeks. What do you miss? What are you relieved to be free from?
When opportunities begin cropping up again later, think carefully about whether you want to recommit. There may be activities that were postponed that you decide you don’t want to participate in again. This global disruption to our daily lives is the perfect opportunity to rethink and say no to the stuff that you’ve only been doing out of obligation.
This could be a chance to wipe the slate clean. Everything about the way we normally do life is changing right now, so you can rethink how you’ve been using your time. Decide what you actually care about and what you want to use your time and energy for in the future.
If you find yourself going bonkers with all of the unstructured time, that could be a good indication that some re-thinking is necessary. Now I know this won’t apply to everyone because some of you are now doing childcare around the clock and other things are taking up your time that maybe weren’t before.
But for those who find themselves with more unstructured time — or just more time in the house — and that feels uncomfortable, see if you can use this chance to dig deeper within yourself. Many people use “busy-ness” as a way to avoid getting quiet within themselves. When you are still, you may have to deal with stuff from your past that you haven’t wanted to face, and aspects of yourself or your lifestyle that you aren’t happy with.
It’s easier to stay busy then to self-examine. So if you find yourself uncomfortable in the quiet and the stillness, I encourage you to sit with that, because that’s where the growth is. Think about how you want to be using your time. If you do end up with an extended school break or more time in the house than you’ve planned on, what would you like to do with that time?
And again, the goal here is not to expect ourselves to work at the optimum level of productivity. Do not attempt to clean out your garage and do 500 other household tasks immediately. Pace yourself. Prioritize rest and health — and by that, I mean physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. You need times of rest and stillness in all of those areas.
Maybe choose one project that you didn’t think you’d have time to do until summer. Maybe you’ve been wanting to write, or paint, or garden. Maybe you’ve been wanting to spend more time in nature — we’re not prohibited from that as of now (this is about social distancing) — so going for a walk in the woods or a park could do wonders for your mental and physical health, if that’s safe in your specific situation.
Think of something that matters to you and that you’ve always wished you had more time for. Maybe this can be a time when you’re able to finally start or finish something that you’ve always wanted to do.
4. Rugged individualism will not get us through a global pandemic — this is a time for us to unite in our local, online, and global communities.
These are not days that we can get through alone, and that fact runs counter to the individualism that permeates our dominant norms in America. We tend to have an “every person for themselves” worldview. But this is a time when we need social systems and safety nets in place. We need every person to have access to free testing and treatment for COVID-19, and paid sick leave so they can afford to miss work. We need mortgage and utility forgiveness so that those who can’t work won’t lose their homes or go to bankruptcy. We need to have supports in place for folks who are already homeless and otherwise least equipped to stay healthy. We need to make sure all our kids are able to eat breakfast and lunch even when schools are closed. All of these factors will impact how well our country — or any country — handles the pandemic.
It is more clear than ever that we cannot afford to look out only for our own selves, because when the disadvantaged don’t have what we have, everyone is impacted.
We are all connected, and that connection links our futures together in ways that often we overlook or don’t see clearly. This pandemic has brought the truth of our reality into sharp focus: our choices impact one another, and for our society to survive, we must choose to face the challenges ahead altogether.
This tragedy can connect us if we can think beyond ourselves. That will be tough at times, because it’s counter to our human nature, which is rooted in self-preservation. But we have to be willing to think more consciously rather than just following our base instincts.
It is my job to be mindful of how all of us — humans, animals, our planet — are interdependent and look deeper than my own needs to think about the larger impact of my choices.
I’ve already seen such a beautiful coming together of communities. The way that I see educators supporting one another right now online is so heart-warming to witness. I’ve seen so many ed-tech companies make their products free for schools that are closed during the coronavirus. I’ve seen teachers sharing lesson ideas and tools that they’re going to use. And I’ve seen folks locally step up to help one another out in ways that maybe weren’t on our radar before this hit.
5. Fear is contagious, and it spreads even faster than a virus. Our own mental health is paramount right now.
When we are acting from a place of fear, we tend to make rash and irrational choices. This can be catastrophic when the stakes are high.
We each need to do whatever it takes to stay strong and look out for ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. It is okay to panic and to spiral into a dark place. I have certainly done that several times since this whole epidemic began. But we can’t stay there. And I’m talking to myself here as much as I’m talking to you.
Other people are counting on us to hold it together and to make responsible decisions, and to use this time wisely. There will be some devastating effects of the coronavirus for sure. But I also believe we can come out of this with new understandings of ourselves and how our society functions.
This is an opportunity to reimagine systems. The status quo has been turned on its head, and that means when things go right side up again, they WILL look different. We have the power to make choices about what the new normal will look like: for our personal lives, for our families, for our communities, for our government, for our planet.
There are big challenges ahead and they will feel overwhelming at times. But you can do this. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.