A Pandemic? That’s Nothing. Watch This!

2021 was supposed to be a great year. COVID-19 vaccines were being distributed worldwide, and – back home – the good guys prevailed in the federal election. In general, there was a spirit of optimism and hope in the air that hadn’t been felt since long before the annus horribilis that was 2020.

Then it all went pear shaped. 

The transition to a new government back home almost got overturned by a mob of seditionists, the vaccine rollout stalled, and a new strain of the COVID virus appeared. As if that wasn’t enough, the country in which my family and I currently call home experienced an abrupt and unexpected change in government. 

Seriously, what the heck?! A) It’s only February! B) Managing one crisis is tough enough, but multiple challenges???

This emotional pile-on sparked some reflection and research about managing stress. Here are the results:

Teachers

We. Need. To. Take. Care. Of. Ourselves. 

We need to recognize the signs of stress within ourselves and then address them. This is not the time to “Man up!” or “Suck it up, buttercup!” Ignoring the symptoms and powering through will work temporarily, but eventually you will come crashing down. And it will be ugly. 

If you read education literature, you’ll find lots of articles about how to take care of yourself through challenging times. Common strategies I found include:

  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep every night.
  • Choose healthy foods. .
  • Carve some you-time out of your daily schedule. Be firm about honoring this time.
  • Regularly engage in mindfulness activities throughout your day – breath, close your eyes, be still. 
  • Connect with your community. Lean on others when you need to, and be there for them in return. 
  • Don’t forget to celebrate the things you are doing well. 

Students

Students are the heart of every school and the very reason for a school’s being. We need to listen to them. But, to listen, we first need to give students an opportunity to reflect and then to speak. My school administered a student survey recently, really digging into the area of student emotional well-being. It provided an opportunity for students to reflect on their current stress levels and how that stress might be impacting their health. And, the survey asked students to identify those areas that were contributing towards their stress. We are also making adjustments to our advisory program to help students give more voice to what they are feeling. 

Other ways we can help students cope? Physician Pamela Cantor outlined three simple strategies you can employ in her article The Stress of This Moment Might Be Hurting Kids’ Development:

  • Create a safe and positive learning environment. These elements, Dr. Cantor argues, are an “ecological vaccine, rich in protective factors that ignite the developing brain, promote wellness, and protect children from the damaging effects of stress.”
  • Establish routines. Dr. Cantor explains that our brains are “prediction machines that like order, and when our environments are orderly, the brain is calmer.” 
  • Focus on relationships. Take the time to get to know your students – use built-in advisory periods, or one-on-one Breakout room time to provide authentic opportunities to talk about things unrelated to learning objectives. 

Leadership

It is tempting to point around the world and blame “unprecedented times” for the falling workplace energy levels. But, many of the causes of faculty stress are actually quite precedented. In the 2011 study Making A Significant Difference With Burnout Interventions: Researcher And Practitioner Collaboration by Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, employee burnout has a number of causes:

  • job-person mismatch,
  • work overload, 
  • a perceived lack of control, 
  • insufficient reward for effort,
  • the breakdown of community, 
  • the absence of fairness, and
  • a conflict between what the employee values vs what the employer values

Thankfully, organization leadership can have a significant impact in all of these areas. 

Sometimes even the smallest gestures can make a big difference. My school closed the campus one Friday after school hours and hosted a staff social. The head of our school regularly stages game nights. Administrators at my school have also begun to include a simple ‘thank you’ note in emails along with ongoing acknowledgements of the efforts being expended. 

And, it’s not what you do that has the biggest impact, but often what you don’t do. Perhaps take a look at the school calendar and see if there are important, yet ultimately non-urgent, initiatives or events that can be postponed. Energy expended on periphery objectives could be better spent on the school’s core competency areas.   

2021 reminds me of that infamous 30 Rock meme where character Liz Lemon complains about what a week it has been, while her boss responds with “Lemon, it’s Wednesday.”

We are all dealing with so much. And while we’ve survived so far, our continued success is not guaranteed. Successfully reaching the end of this school year depends on us looking after ourselves, and looking out for each other. 

These are not normal times. Trying to achieve the normal, while ignoring the reality out there, is asinine. Sure, you can try to ignore the facts, like the fact that the Earth is round, but sooner or later reality will get you.

Take care out there!

Ed X!

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