How educators can build resilience amid the pandemic.
October 20, 2020
Teachers have been navigating uncertainty since spring. Now, as back-to-school rolls into fall, the short- and long-term forecast for COVID-19 still feels uncertain and challenging. For essential workers like teachers, the day in, day out, unpredictable nature of the pandemic can take a mental toll and be fatiguing. We spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Shadick, who is Teach For America’s national mental health consultant, to learn more about the mental health issues facing teachers during the pandemic and what they can do to build resilience.
We are now eight months into when COVID-19 fully hit the U.S.; what have been the psychological effects of this pandemic on our teaching community?
Over the past eight months, teachers have been valiantly struggling to ensure that their students are getting the best education possible given the current challenges. Like others, teachers have been fearful, anxious, stressed, and exhausted by the pandemic. With the return to school, teachers are now on the frontline in ways they weren’t in the spring. They're being asked to return to the classroom amid, in many cases, a surge in the virus. As a result, we are seeing some of the same psychological effects from teachers as we saw from frontline health care workers. Many teachers are frustrated and angry because they are working in potentially unsafe conditions (e.g., poor ventilation, crowded conditions, limited PPE). To make matters worse, particularly for corps members, they are working within communities that have been hit particularly hard with the virus and violence against black and brown bodies. This adds layers of trauma and stress. Needless to say, teachers have a lot on their plates!
How has the pandemic affected the mental health of students?
Students have been hard hit by the pandemic, too. Despite teachers' and administrators' best efforts, students have experienced losses of many kinds within the school environment. In many cases, they have lost key elements of their education, in-person and hands-on learning, the opportunity for peer-driven social-emotional development, and access to healthy access to healthy meals. This has been very disruptive for students' mental health on a number of levels. Students are experiencing fear and worries about their health, loss of not being able to connect with peers in person, grief over having lost loved ones, and stress over not having some of their basic needs met. In communities of color significantly impacted by the virus, their daily life is unrecognizable because so much has changed. These students, who have already struggled with discrimination, are now being further marginalized. It is nothing less than a full-blown crisis.
“We are seeing some of the same psychological effects from teachers as we saw from frontline health care workers.”
We’ve covered teacher burnout before. What makes this kind of burnout so unique given the current circumstance?
The type of burnout that teachers are experiencing now is intimately related to how unrelenting the stress is. There is no end in sight for the pandemic, and this ambiguity can lead to an overwhelming sense of loss of control. Arguably this makes for a more insidious form of burnout, one that is harder to shake off. This burnout is different because it affects far more teachers, leading to a systemic issue of demoralization.
What can teachers incorporate into their every day to help with this pandemic fatigue and burnout?
For teachers to be effective in their professional and personal lives, they need to practice active self-care and develop good boundaries between work and home. Active self-care involves making a plan that incorporates the eight dimensions of wellness and sticking to it. For the plan to be successful, it doesn’t have to be elaborate or require extensive time. It could be as simple as taking a 5-minute walk, grabbing a healthy snack, or talking with a friend for a few minutes. Engaging in more activities with more time commitment such as taking a yoga class or meal planning can be helpful but should not be done to the exclusion of frequent, small breaks. There are many self-care resources found on the web that have very helpful ideas.
What is compassion fatigue? And why are teachers susceptible?
Compassion fatigue is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. Typically this term is applied to healthcare professionals such as nurses or psychologists. Teachers can experience it too because of their emotional connection to and concern for their students. By definition, a good teacher is one that cares about their students. With more and more students feeling vulnerable, teachers are being exposed to more of their struggles. As a result, they are more likely to experience compassion fatigue.
How do negative emotions affect the health and wellness of those around you?
Poor mental health is contagious. As we know, bad moods are easily perceived by others and can lead to people feeling bad as well. For example, students can pick up on a teacher’s emotional struggle, which activates anxiety in students, leading to student behavioral problems. Another example is when fellow teachers pick up a negative mindset that a teacher has which leads to them distancing themselves from their colleagues, thus leading to isolation.
What are some ways teachers can adapt in the face of trauma or stress?
Attitude plays an important role in adapting to the multitude of stressors that we are all facing. First, it is crucial to be aware of what you can control and what you cannot and focus your energy on those things you can change. Feeling effective and useful can be a potent counter to trauma and stress. Second, it is helpful to look to the future. In doing so, you can gain perspective and realize that eventually, the pandemic will pass, and things will be less challenging. This can be a big stress reliever! Finally, acknowledge that you are resilient, and you will be able to recover and move forward with your life. Having an optimistic perspective can provide you with the fortitude to weather the storm.
What tactics and tools can educators apply in the classroom to address COVID burnout with themselves and their students?
Access online resources; there are many more resources available for engaging students in distance learning than at the beginning of the pandemic. Using tried and true pedagogical resources will save you time by limiting lesson planning. Apply the same self-care strategies to students as you do yourself. Weave in self-care throughout the day to give you and your students time to de-stress. For example, provide short “body breaks” for your students to get up and move around. Leverage support networks; nothing is more effective than connecting with trusted colleagues, friends, and family. Not only is social support good for mental health, but research shows that it benefits physical health and can prolong life.
Note: This article includes ideas to support teacher and student wellness. Users are responsible for researching resources and professionals to find the best supports to meet their needs. Teach For America does not endorse these particular services in any way. The resources linked within are not meant to replace or confuse any guidance teachers and corps members are receiving from their districts, administrators, or employers. Ultimately, corps members with Teach For America must adhere to the policies and guidance from their placement schools.