“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Attitude of Gratitude

Many years ago I remember watching a gratitude themed Oprah episode.  There was a gratitude journal that the guest had developed and was relaying all of the benefits of writing down things that you were grateful for each day.  The power of suggestion (I’m a sucker for an impulse buy for self-improvement) lead me to the nearest Chapters to purchase one of those journals that weekend.  I certainly didn’t fill that journal. I think I lost interest in a couple of months because it felt as though I was writing the same thing over and over again.  I realize now that gratitude, like mindfulness and meditation, is a “practice.”

Gratitude practice is most effective when life is rough.  It sounds counterintuitive.  It is much easier to be grateful when things are going well right?  Easy to “count your blessings” when you are sitting on a beach in a resort in the Dominican Republic.  I personally feel the power of the gratitude practice when life isn’t going according to plan.  Though, I want to be clear here, there is a fine line between true gratitude practice and “looking on the bright side” or “finding the silver lining.”  That bright-side-silver-lining thinking can border on toxic positivity which isn’t helpful.

Gratitude practice means different things to different people.  For me, it is connected to daily journaling.  Each night since the fall I have been writing about my day in terms of gratitude before going to bed. Some nights I might write for 5 minutes.  Some nights I write for a half hour.  It might read something like, “I’m grateful that we got outside for a walk, that my son felt good about his essay after all of the struggles and tears, that we were able to eat a healthy meal, for Hello Fresh being delivered to my door and for the opportunity to reach out and connect to some new teachers through professional learning today.”  I try to reflect on the events of my day in terms of gratitude.  I could write in my journal that the technology in my professional learning session that day was glitchy, we got off to a rocky start trying to get everyone into the WebEx room, and there were links that didn’t work even though I had tested them twice. Instead, I choose to be grateful for the connection and discussion that I had with the teachers that day.  It isn’t that I ignore that bad things happen or think about how things can be improved, but ruminating on the bad things that happened during the day right before going to bed isn’t going to ensure much of a restful sleep.

In some of the professional learning opportunities that I have recently hosted with new teachers we have discussed the struggles of the current climate in the classroom.  It is important to have a safe place for teachers to voice those concerns and have someone listen with compassion and empathy and ask curious questions.  I will often say that there are many things that I can’t help them with, but that I am there to “embrace the suck” with them.   At the conclusion of those discussions my final question is always, “What is a recent personal or professional success that you’ve experienced that you would like to share with the group?”  This ends the discussion on a note of gratitude. It is SO easy to get caught up in venting and complaining about the situation in education right now. Teaching it is NOT an easy job on any given day but the difficulties have grown exponentially with the pressures that COVID has added.  So when we can take a moment to remember why we continue to go to work each day, why we got into the job in the first place and what our recent wins have been, I think it brings a feeling of hope.

Sometimes I practice gratitude in a less formal way that is more like mindfulness.  Recently while walking on a treed trail on a bright, sunny, winter day with my best friend, I stopped mid sentence and just looked around at the beauty.  I said to my friend, “I just had to take a minute to take this in.  We are so fortunate to be able to walk here.”  It only took a moment.  I don’t do that all of the time, we’d never get anywhere on our walks! However, remembering to do it every so often helps me to deal with stress and the bad things when they do happen.  If in the moment of a stressful situation I can take a moment to breathe and practice gratitude it sometimes keeps the emotions from escalating.  When conversing with someone who is frustrated and perhaps complaining or lashing out I try to remember that this person is doing the best they can at that moment and that each opportunity to interact with someone who is suffering is a chance to learn and I try to be grateful for that.  Author Andrea Owen in her book, “How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t” would call it an AFOG-another flipping opportunity for growth.  When I remember to think about gratitude in a not so great moment, I might do it raised shoulders and through gritted teeth, but I keep trying.  It is, after all a practice.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.” -Brene Brown

Nothing changes but the day

Vernal Equinox

It’s Spring and the recent trip around the sun finds me with some thoughts about fresh starts, green grass, and bunny rabbits bouncing around meadows laying chocolate eggs. Well at least the chocolate part is plausible. Thank you Cadbury. Anything to get my mind off of the fact that more and more schools are closing due to cases of COVID 19. Looking for any rays of hope, my thoughts turned to vaccinations. Now that we have those life saving jabs ready to distribute, things have to get better. Right?

For better or worse? 

My daily exposure to people in my school is around 300 people. That is 20 times greater than the promised/recommended class size for safe in person learning, and 100 times greater than at home. Who am I kidding? It’s exponentially bigger than that as each student has their own web of contacts. Like all educators, I have taken the safety precautions seriously because lives are at stake. Mine and my family members’ at home and school. All I needed to do was remain diligent, follow the protocols, and maintain my distances.

I did find some comfort knowing vaccines were coming. Having ignorantly assured myself, in January, that our provincial government would priortize educators to receive their shots (I’ll wait for you to stop laughing at my naivete). If not so much for our protection, but so that schools could remain safely opened as promised when “no expenses would be spared” was the promise. Our students needed to be back at school so their safety had to be guaranteed. Ventilation, new PPE, increased safety protocols, nurses(heard that one before), and mental health matters.

Meanwhile, at schools a different reality is playing out. Exhaustion and exhasperation while the world around us becomes smaller and smaller through restricted movement, cohorting, fatigue, anxiety, grief, fighting to speak while constantly masked, and becoming an expert at keeping 2 metres apart outside, but only 1 metre apart inside. Don’t forget the learning. What could possibly go wrong or be wrong with such a sweet set up for a learner’s success?

Gorilla in a sport coat

As an educator, nothing says, “You are NOT important to me.” like not being included in the first rounds of vaccinations. This only seemed logical as the numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and ICU cases were climbing again through the winter and new year break. I take no joy in knowing that they are on the rise again.

The 800 pound gorilla who promised everyone would be safe, especially front-line workers, must have been distracted by something shiny on a can of buck a beer. 3 months into 2021, and despite ETFO demands for action, nothing has been done that gives me or my colleagues confidence that our health and safety are important to the sport coat set in government. As a frontline worker, I can’t help but feel saddened by the obvious message our current provincial government is sending the public about how little it values our profession by not including educators earlier on for vaccinations. Sadly, this inaction and lack of any rational thought of the long term costs will leave all Ontarians crumpling under the weight of lost lives and lost opportunities.

Is it me or are things getting heavier?

The past 3 months on-line and in person have been exhausting. There has not been a single day where I arrive home and am not wiped out mentally and physically. My students are too. This is like being asked to fix a leak on a dam with Play Doh and being told to hold it in place while the water on the other side evapourates.

January passes by, and February too, yet still little concrete news of when educators would be vaccinated. March arrives, our break is postponed in order to save the province from its collective irresponsibilty due to out of country travel and attending large super-spreader events. Now I am thinking about how each school with a case of COVID has the power to become a pint sized super-spreader event.

At my school and hundreds of others, we have had numerous students going home each week due to precautions. As of March 30th a whole class at my school is in isolation as a precaution. This is playing out across the province while restrictions are easing? If this isn’t reason enough for us to be vaccinated sooner rather than later based on data, then perhaps an appealing to compassion would be better since reason is off the table? Who am I kidding? Compassion is not part of their vocabulary because it gets in the way of patronage and profits.

As the inevitability of another lockdown looms in April, I encourage you all to stay safe and continue standing up for our students and profession as you have each and everyday. Make sure to look after yourselves too. I pray that, when this is all over, the ones who were entrusted to look after the health and safety of our public and failed will not be able to hurt our schools anymore.

 

Rejuvenation Through Creation

For me as a kid, there was no better feeling than opening up a new box of 64 Crayola crayons.  The big box with the flip top lid and the sharpener on the side.  I can remember agonizing over which colour to pick first and being so thrilled by the perfection of the colour palette in neat rows in that box.  I loved to draw and colour. I could do it for hours never lifting my attention from the page.  In adulthood, I abandoned doing art for pleasure.  It seemed silly for me to sit around and draw or paint for no real reason.  I felt I should be doing something productive.  A few years ago I began to create art again and realized how much I had missed it and how much joy it brought to my life. I create digital art now, which isn’t quite the same rush as opening a box of crayons but it is easier to share with others-like the picture above.  I have recently learned about the health and wellness benefits of creating. Creating is rejuvenating, it is rest and it is soul food.

Dan Tricarico, in his book “Sanctuaries: Self-Care Secrets for Stressed-Out Teachers”, he talks about how people get lost in an activity that you love so much that the rest of the world seems to fade away.  He calls it a state of “flow”.  I find myself getting into that state of flow when I draw, create music, write, cook or do jigsaw puzzles.  It isn’t that passive state of binge watching something on Netflix.  However, sometimes life’s answer is just that.  The state of flow is active and when I emerge from that state of flow, I feel rested and invigorated.  In Jessie Scholl’s article, “Go With the Flow: How States of Blissful Concentration Can Boost Your Overall Health and Well-Being” she states that, “Flow triggers the opposite of a fight-or-flight response.  Breathing becomes more relaxed, muscles loosen, and heart rate slows.  The specific biochemistry associated with flow varies depending on the activity, but the overall benefits to health and well-being are the same. ”  In fact, a 2018 Forbes article, “Here’s How Creativity Actually Improves Your Health” written by Ashley Stahl, claims that creativity increases happiness, reduces dementia, improves mental health, boosts your immune system and makes you smarter. Well, who doesn’t want all of those things?

You don’t have to be a professional musician, writer, artist or athlete to practice flow.  You can do it with any activity with some level of skill that requires you to pay attention.  It is really a type of active meditation.  Flow can be found with exercise, writing, dancing, baking, gardening, robotics or whatever activity brings you joy.

Don’t have the “time” for a creative pursuit?  It definitely requires some intentional effort to ensure that you take some time each day to pursue what you enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be for hours but make it a specific small goal. In building anything into a routine or ritual, micro habits are key.  These are tiny steps towards implementation that grow into longer lasting habits. When I started creating art again, I just started with doing 5 minutes a day.  I just drew something.  I wasn’t worried about perfection or even completion.  I started getting lost in the flow and those minutes eventually became hours over time.  I continued to build my time until I created the habit to attempt to do something creative at least twice a week.  Beware of your inner perfectionism critic if you have one, like I do.  Give yourself some self compassion if you get out of the habit.  No one is keeping score and it is meant to be for you and your health and wellness.  When I get lost in stress and the life’s duties I often think, I should probably create something and get into that flow state-it has been a while.  Ultimately, I never regret taking that time away from the rush and hustle.

If your activity is just one more thing on your to-do list, it isn’t going to bring you joy and happiness.  In order for something to really feed your soul, it has to be something you value, something authentically you and something that you want to do because it brings you a sense of flow, peace, focus and energy.  Hopefully you will find something that gives you that “new box of crayons feeling,” whatever that means for you.

 

 

The Journey

Everyone is on their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Each educator has goals, both personal and professional. Places they wish to go and things they want to do along the way. 

Personally, I am an occasional teacher who is on a journey to becoming a contract teacher. Or, that is the plan at least.

Although not all occasional teachers have the goal of obtaining a permanent contract, many are living the same truth that I am. 

When I graduated from the Faculty of Education in 2018, I thought I was fully aware that my journey from occasional teacher to permanent teacher would never be ‘quick’ or ‘easy’. 

However, I was not fully prepared for the times I would feel I wasn’t good enough, inadequate, or the days my heart broke as short LTO positions came to an end. I knew there would be interviews I would not receive, jobs I would get declined, and times I would have to wait for something new. It is one thing to be cognizant of this journey but another to be present through it. 

Each experience is molding and shaping my practice and allows me to grow both personally and professionally. I have been forced to self-reflect, even in ways that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar. I am grateful for this journey, the people it has brought me and the opportunities I consistently have for learning.

 

I must continue to grow and evolve on this journey. There is no way to go but forward.

Let’s make it okay to talk about the raw emotions happening for all of us along the way. I wish someone would have assured me that it’s okay to feel sadness, it’s okay to feel disappointment, discouragement and heartbreak. 

 

I see you OT’s, keep going.

You are valuable, you are worthy, you are irreplaceable. 

However, you are human… and feeling is part of the journey.

Mental Health & Well-Being

Mindfulness has been a practice that I have been working on for a number of years now. I say that I have been working on it because as I have evolved, so too has my practice. In the beginning, I thought it was about being still or being quiet. About quieting my thoughts in order to be calm or to navigate a situation. Now I’m thinking of it more as what brings me into the here and now. What makes me present and what makes me feel like the best version of myself in a particular moment. 

As we move into month 2 of virtual learning, I’m definitely realizing the need for the strategies in my toolkit even more. I find that at the end of the day, I am completely tired and my eyes literally burn. I also find that my mind is all over the place and that it takes a while to just unwind. Perhaps that might be because there is no longer a commute. It’s amazing how much that 15-minute car ride did for me to unpack the day and move into a different part of my life. I know that I’m not alone in this feeling and that there are thousands of educators at this moment experiencing the same sort of feeling. While everyone seems to be talking about mental health and well-being – the emails are literally filling my inbox – what is really being done? I know that I’m having conversations with my students about their own mental health and well-being and I also worry about my colleagues who I know are burning out. In this post, I share a few tips that have been helping me over the last few weeks. I share these not as an expert but as a colleague wishing you well as I know this time is challenging for us all.

Meditation

Is it just me or are the mornings coming sooner these days? I sometimes wake up thinking that it’s still night and yet my alarm has already gone off and I quickly realize that I turned it off a while ago. Often in shock that yet again I have “missed” the alarm, still tired and sometimes in need of some motivation for the day, I have found that meditations help to calm the anxious feeling and center me as I start the day. One app that I have found and love is My Life. With great suggestions based on how you are feeling, I’ve often used this app to get me going in the morning. I’ve also used some of the breathing techniques with my students who have also enjoyed the focus that comes from sometimes having a minute to check-in with how they are feeling. 

Music

When meditation doesn’t get me going in the mornings, I know that there are some tunes that are proven to get me up and moving. Music has a way of speaking straight to the heart and if we think about it, we can identify that one song that does just that and has the power to get us ready for the day. Over the years, “my song” has changed based on where I am at in my life. What’s your song or songs? Consider creating a playlist for yourself. One with songs that motivate you and get you going feeling positive. While I know that a song doesn’t have the power to change our circumstances, I’m amazed by its power to start shaping how I feel. 

Walking

I consider myself lucky to be able to walk and over the last couple of years, I have really enjoyed walking. In the past, I would try to walk for at least one hour a day but with the cold here, I’m happy when I get in 30 to 45 minutes. I often grab my music and head outdoors to enjoy some fresh air. Finding paths in my neighbourhood has been one way that I’ve tried to get away from a sense of monotony in my day. There’s something about breathing in the air outside that allows me to feel more grounded and my back certainly appreciates the opportunity to get moving. I think I’m over my “office chair”. There’s tons of research on the benefits of walking but for me, I just feel so much better when I have the chance to get moving. I know that with Covid it’s hard to move in the same ways in which we may have in the past but are there ways for you to get outside and connect with nature? Today is sunny and the sunshine definitely makes all the difference for me. In fact, I’m going to head out there once I’ve posted this blog. How does movement impact you? If you are able, what steps can you take to get moving today?

Laughter

My dad used to say that, “Laughter is the best medicine”. I don’t think he made it up himself. I’m certain that I saw it in a Reader’s Digest Magazine once but I’ll credit him for sharing it with me. My students keep me laughing and I owe them big time for it. Every day, I can count on someone sharing something with me that will get me laughing on a deep level. I am adding this part because I have noticed that on the days when we have laughed the most, the time seems to pass by so quickly and these are the days that I felt that we connected the most. I know for myself that I need to build more laughter into my day. Today we had a brief Connect 4 tournament. A student wanted to play against me and of course, he won. He laughed because I was so focused on where I was going to win that I didn’t notice that he was sneaking up on me with a win of his own. We laughed so hard and at that moment I realized that this is the feeling that I want to have more of and that I am missing as we are learning virtually. It has me thinking about ways in which I can weave more opportunities for laughter into my day. How might you weave in more laughter in your day with students or with friends or family?

I know that there’s so much information out there about tips and strategies for mental health and well-being. I hope that you take some time this weekend to sit and think about what works best for you. I also hope that you can take some time and devote it to doing the things that make you smile and feel your best. Meditate. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Laugh. Whatever it is, please take care of yourself.

Self-preservation, in the time of Covid-19

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare." Audre Lord

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

In the time of Covid-19, feeling like I am working all the time has become a regular part of my existing.

Spring 2020

In the first lockdown, I was working 7 days a week, planning, instructing, and assessing. My learning curve was steep as I was developing skills in teaching through an online classroom via video sessions and learning how to organize my classroom instruction and assessment through technology. As I look back, these skills, now attained, seem so straight forward. The end of the school year in June 2020, was a welcome time for me as I could finally relax and have time away from screens.

Fall 2020

The September 2020 hit. Almost every day, policies and procedures changed. At one point I gave up reading board emails as the absorption of information taxed my executive function and in the end was futile as information changed. Instead, I asked the office staff for the “latest” updates thus sidestepping the need to read pages of email text.

As I had anticipated a future lock down, I set up my contained special education classroom practices to be virtual in nature. This meant that I could easily flip to teaching solely online if needed. Weeks into September, I was informed that I would also be teaching students synchronously online while teaching my students in class. Naïve, I thought flipping back and forth would be something I could handle. But it wasn’t.

Hybrid teaching and learning with inadequate technology

With students both online and face to face, my classroom calendar became the classroom hub. I set video links for the online students to join our class. There were a few significant barriers I had to overcome. Technology (i.e. equipment) needed was not provided, nor was the tech support to align my synchronous instruction needs. At one point, I was using a Chromebook as a microphone and camera in order to facilitate my online students seeing and hearing me and the rest of the class. There were many failed configurations that often resulted in echoing feedback. It was a very frustrating time for my students and me.

Welcome Mike

Finally, I decided to purchase a microphone for my school computer. The in class microphone, now called “Mike”, was a stress saviour. Now, our class could interact with students at home with ease. I left the video link open all day so students at home could reach out to me for help while we worked in class. They even asked to go to the bathroom!

In late October, my board provided our class with additional teacher support to work with students at home. The online students did not receive direct Physical Education, Health, Art, and Music (i.e. PHAM) instruction and were left with no teacher instruction as I was on my planning time.

Extra support is not always helpful

I welcomed this additional support for my students, at first. But the configuration and constraints set out by my board had the teacher providing online support to my students before our school’s first bell (i.e. students were set to receive instruction outside of school hours.) There was also a suggestion that I change my schedule, yet again, to accommodate this additional teacher support. It was late October. After changing my schedule over 6 times, I had finally found a schedule that supported all planning and curriculum requirements. I refused to change it again. After several weeks, the online support teacher was working with my students in a time period that met everyone’s needs … without a change to my schedule.

Stress increased risks to health

During the spring 2020 lockdown, I noticed new symptoms with my stomach. I attributed these symptoms to my existing diagnosis of gastritis and being more sedentary than usual. Between July and August, my symptoms faded away.

Once September hit, my symptoms made themselves known, getting a little worse each day. I experience regular pain in my abdomen and was exhausted all the time. I avoided possible triggers such as alcohol and fried foods but the symptoms became increasingly more disruptive, causing me pain that prevented a restful sleep.

On the phone, I talked to my doctor about my symptoms and we agreed to increase my stomach medication. This did not resolve the pain. Finally, I went to the hospital. The emergency doctor asked me why I had not contacted my family doctor about the pain. I told her I had but my doctor was not able to palpitate my abdomen … over the phone. Blood tests and a CT scan revealed an issue with pancreatitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

As I eat well and take care of my health, I wondered why I was experiencing this painful and fatigue inducing diagnosis. I then realized the obvious cause … stress.

Establishing boundaries to preserve physical and emotional health

Since my trip to the hospital almost 2 months ago, I still have symptoms. But I am feeling better and have more energy. My diet is very limited and I cannot eat very much at a time. I’ve lost over 20 lbs … don’t worry I am not a skinny person.

As a result of my health issues, I have purposely limited the time I spend on school work. Last weekend was the first weekend since teaching during Covid, that I took an entire weekend off. I have also taken up my cross-stitching hobby and listening to books. Herbal tea with a touch of honey is also very soothing. I find that when I do choose to work on my teaching practice, I am much more focused and effective as I am making fewer errors in my online classroom planning.

The time I’ve spent, being purposefully relaxed, has helped me manage my work as a teacher. In putting my own needs first, I am able to support my students more effectively.

It is my hope that teachers who read this blog will take more time for themselves so they can be there for their families and their students. If teachers do not care for their own needs, they could face burnout or challenges with physical and/or emotional health.

As Audre Lord states

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and is an act of political warfare.“

Take care of yourself before you care for others,

Deb Weston, PhD

Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

It is no secret to educators that teaching is an occupation of high stress.  A Johns Hopkins University study ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful job of all occupations.  Educators know that the job is stressful, but sometimes it helps to put a name to something in order to help us cope.  Sometimes, it is enough to know that others are going through what we are going through in order to come to terms with our own feelings. Recently during a webinar workshop from “Right to Play,” the facilitators referred to what some educators are experiencing right now as “compassion fatigue.”  I had heard of this phenomenon relating to emergency response occupations, but I had never really thought about it in terms of education.  What we may consider “stress” in the teaching profession may be explained in better detail by examining compassion fatigue.

According to Joanna Krop, author of  “Caring without Tiring: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue Burnout in Teaching,” compassion fatigue “is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”

Teacher burnout is not something new.  Recently, however, there have been a number of articles written on the topic of teacher burnout.  A few days ago, the CBC released and article with the results of a survey completed by 2,000 teachers about the pressures in education. One third of the respondents are thinking about retiring or seeking a new career.  One third.  Some educators cite that the pressure and stress is coming from trying to maintain the best educational experiences possible for students while also trying to adhere to pandemic rules and guidelines.  Teachers hold themselves to a high level of integrity and service in their work, in addition to wanting to help their students and their families.  Then add a global pandemic on top of the regular burnout reasons.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are so few teachers available for daily occasional work that teachers feel more guilty than ever when they need to take time for their health.  For many educators, teaching isn’t the only thing that is leading to that compassion fatigue as many teachers have the added pressures of taking care of children and/or aging parents. The most challenging aspect of burnout is that what seems to be the biggest factor in burnout is dedication to the job.  The more dedicated the teacher, the more apt they are to experience burnout. Teachers are burning out because they care.  Hardly seems fair.

The question becomes then, how do we counteract compassion fatigue and burnout? From what I’ve researched, it is all of the things that we know are good for our mental health:

  • figure out what you can control and what you can’t and focus on what you can control
  • temper your expectations of yourself and your work (remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the circumstances are different)
  • small steps towards getting outside, eating betting, exercising and doing creative things
  • surround yourself with supportive people and trusted colleagues
  • be aware of toxic positivity or the rabbit hole of complaining about things
  • show your true self to your students, be authentic so that your students have permission to be authentic too
  • quiet time for yourself and for being mindful

All of that sounds wonderful.  All of it sounds like common sense.  However, it isn’t as easy to put into practice as all of the research makes it sound.  This can appear of just another long list of things to do added to an already long list of things to do. Sometimes burnout can get to a point where you feel immobilized or you may even be at the point that just getting through the next breath is all that you can plan.  As someone who generally plans the menu of meals for our family a week in advance so that we can do our groceries, I know the chaos I feel with uncertainty.  Right now my plan is to try to be patient and gentle with myself.  Everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I keep thinking that I have to keep up or somehow I’ll miss the bus.  However, I also know that if I get to the point of exhaustion, I become less self aware and I’ll end up getting run over by the bus and won’t be good to anyone.

It feels like an impossible task to willingly accept less of myself than I normally expect.  I feel like I will let others down.  However, if I don’t temper the expectations that I have of myself and my work I’m going to have tire tracks on my back and that won’t be good for anyone.

Toxic Positivity in a Brave New World

I am a huge science fiction fan and was excited to start the new TV series “Brave New World”.  I read the book for my “The Science in Science Fiction Literature” course (I know, cool course right?) in University and I was looking forward to the TV series. In the futuristic “Brave New World”, society has developed mood altering drugs that everyone is required to take to maintain their “levels” so that they can have calm, happy dispositions all of the time.  The result is that the characters don’t really have to “feel” anything deeply.  If there is discomfort or grief they can take a “soma” from their Pez dispenser-type tool and go on with life in peace and harmony.  The struggle for the characters is that once they discover the power of feeling true human emotion they want to experience it, thus going against the social norm.

The “Brave New World” narrative parallels the dangers of toxic positivity.  Psychologygroup.com defines toxic positivity as: “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”  Think of it like too much of a good thing can be bad for you.  Phrases like, “It could be worse,” or “Focus on the positive,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” may seem innocuous, but in fact reject, repress or deny negative emotions. The message is that it is not OK to feel anything except positive and happy.

So what does this have to do with education?  First of all, teachers excel at wearing stress and being busy as a badge of honour.  I’m guilty of doing it. I’ve heard myself say that I worked all weekend preparing for the upcoming week. We have established this as a norm in educational culture.  Human beings work best when they give themselves time to rejuvenate.  Teacher burn out is a real thing. I honestly think if I walked into a staff room and announced, “I totally relaxed all weekend and just read my novel.” I would face sneers and hear “Must be nice,” muttered around me. Not because teachers are bad people, but because as a culture we don’t value taking care of ourselves as much as we value productivity. Being positive about being overworked and stressed out is toxic positivity, and it is rampant in education.

The problem isn’t with genuinely upbeat and effusive people. Those people are rare.  Treasure them. The problem lies in people denying, repressing, minimizing or invalidating negative emotions.  Keeping calm and carrying on can be counterproductive and harmful to mental health.  While there are well intentioned people providing “just do it” kind of strategies and messages about being positive; those intentions may end up making people feel bad about feeling bad, adding guilt and shame to the mix of emotions.

So, what can we do?  We can try to shift the narrative to value and validate the real emotions that people are feeling.  We can try to give ourselves permission to say, “You know what, I’m not ok right now. I’m grieving the way in which I used to work and live.  I’m hoping that it will soon change.” It is OK to be sad and yet still feel positive about the future.  You can feel both things.

When someone shares their sadness, anger, grief or frustration with you, try to sincerely validate those emotions.  True empathy is saying, “I’m here to embrace the suck with you,” not minimizing the emotions of others.  You can be curious and ask questions, “That must be frustrating, tell me more about that, I’m here to listen.”  Then, do that.  Just listen.

I try to give myself grace and forgiveness.  I have not learned to knit, bake bread or trained to run a marathon during the pandemic. Some days, just putting two feet on the carpet beside my bed is a big win.  I have to remind myself daily that is OK not to be the “Quarantine Queen.” It is OK not to be productive beyond my wildest imagination during a global pandemic. I try to avoid offering platitudes about positivity. I try to validate the feelings of the people around me. I will try to give up “soma” in my Brave New Covid-19 World, throw out the fake positivity, and feel all of the range of emotions – good, bad and ugly.

 

 

Teachers Are Still Rocking It-

In March we were “Emergency Learning”.  Now we are either teaching “virtually” or “socially distanced” in classrooms.  We never thought we’d be teaching from behind a screen, learning all kinds of new technology tools, wearing masks and shields in front of students or removing all of the manipulatives from classrooms. We don’t know how long this will last.  We don’t know if COVID will worsen.  Educators aren’t used to not knowing things.  Most teachers I know like schedules, routines, knowledge and thrive on consistency.

However, in the midst of the new rules, changes and all of the things that we “can’t” do-teachers are still rocking it.  Throughout the summer I worked with a team of teachers providing virtual professional learning for KPRETFO.  Hundreds of teachers used their summer holidays to learn about technology tools before they even knew whether they were going to be teaching virtually or not. They logged in at 10 am some days in order to learn and some teachers even came to all twenty sessions that were provided. Educators were dedicated to their professional learning all summer long.

At the end of August, I had the privilege of working with another fabulous team of educators who dedicated their time to providing a three day virtual conference for over 500 Ontario Educators with ECOO.  These educators gave up their time to organize all kinds of schedules, sponsorship, presenters, keynotes and much more.  In addition, over a hundred educators created and presented webinars for their colleagues.  It truly FELT like a face-to-face educational technology conference took place in my living room!
There was a feeling of sharing, helping and collegiality.  It was exhausting but my bucket was over flowing.

As our school year is now well under way teachers are reaching out to me for assistance at all times of the day and night through email because they are dedicated to their students and want to do their best.  They are attending our evening “PD in your PJs” webinar sessions through our local union office to learn new tech tools at 7 pm on the week nights. The educators that I work with continually astound me with their dedication to professional learning.

I recently binge watched a Netflix series called “Away”.  It is a futuristic fictional narrative about the first manned mission to Mars.  The astronauts were in uncharted territory.  They encountered problems along the way for which they had not trained.  They endured mental and physical fatigue beyond anything they had ever felt before.  They were innovative and creative in order to solve problems and reach their goal.  While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between this movie and the present state of education. We’ve heard that as we design these new learning structures and environments it is like we are building an airplane while flying. If I am going to stay true to the analogy here it is really more of a rocket ship! Educators are facing situations that they hadn’t even thought about in Faculty of Education Programs.  They are encountering issues of teaching without many of the tools they normally use such as manipulatives, group work or technology. They are suffering mentally and physically. They are being innovative  problem solvers around tools, equipment and technology.  They are building the rocket ship while they are flying it and it is full of students.

Are educators stressed?  For sure.  Are their nerves frayed?  You bet.  Are they innovative, creative, dedicated and passionate about learning and teaching? Absolutely, without a doubt.  Every educator is a front line worker,  doing their best, making a difference, being brave beyond imagination and truly an inspiration.