The return to school in 2020 brought a mixed bag of emotions for most educators I know. For me personally, I began to experience feelings and emotions that weren’t normally equated with the start of school in August. Typically, I would be full of excitement, eagerness, and anticipation about what the new year will hold. However, the 2020-21 school year began with uncertainty and anxiety because I didn’t know how to prepare for what was to come. It was hard to even determine where to start. How was I to prepare for something I had never faced? The closer we were to the first day of school, the more paralyzing this feeling became. Previously, I had prided myself in my accomplishments and what I was able to achieve in my classroom, but for this year, I was literally doing something no one had ever done.
This scenario was not something I was accustomed to. Never before had I felt so lost in my profession. In addition to preparing for what felt like an impending school year, I was in the middle of doctoral work and had a very full plate. Had I known that 2020 was going to bring such challenges, I probably would not have timed getting a postgraduate degree to coincide with it. A full plate was something I worked well with, but I began to realize that my responsibilities with school, learning a new way to connect with students, delivering instruction virtually, and balancing graduate school was quickly becoming a buffet that was overwhelming me. The only comfort I found was in knowing that I was not in this alone. Educators across the country were experiencing the same situation.
As the year began, I found myself working ridiculous hours preparing for two different learning environments. Teaching students face to face and virtually began to take its toll on me mentally and physically. It was difficult to take care of myself because I was taking care of so many others and trying to manage the expectations of teaching during a pandemic. For the first time in my career, I felt like I was not being effective at anything. It became increasingly apparent that I needed to do something differently and needed to do it fast. Putting pressure on myself was not helping, so I made a decision to show myself grace and compassion.
This was no easy task. Not knowing where to begin, I chose to focus on one small change at a time to dispel the feelings of inadequacy and frustration due to teaching in the middle of a pandemic. Below are a few lessons I learned along the way that may be helpful.
If you are a “yes” person, setting boundaries can be extremely difficult. As a teacher who arrived to the classroom often before the sun had risen and was often still in the parking lot when it set, I had to learn to set boundaries with my time. Using a timer and a list became critical pieces to me finally being able to leave work at school. Once students were dismissed for the day, I set a timer to accomplish tasks such as grading, setting up for the next day, and communicating with parents. Allow yourself a 5 minute buffer to finish up a task or to make a list of what still needs to be accomplished. At the end of every school day, separate the list of tasks that needs to be accomplished into categories such as before school, during planning, and after school to help you use your time wisely. Close the door as a visual reminder of your boundary in order to work. This is not rude behavior, but it allows you to work intentionally in order to alleviate stress.
For many educators, putting yourself first is difficult. However, in order to meet the needs of other people, prioritizing your needs is essential. For me, that included paying attention to my basic needs, such as a healthy diet and exercise. What began as a screen break from virtual teaching in Spring 2020 turned into a daily exercise habit that made a world of difference for my mental clarity. Moving your body and fueling it with healthy foods helped to eliminate headaches from screen time, allowed me to refocus my attention on what is important, and helped to eliminate stress. A daily walk, even if it is just 10-15 minutes, clears my mind and provides quiet space on a hectic day. Often, after brief exercise, productivity increased and I was able to accomplish much more.
3. Permission to Say “No”
Similar to setting boundaries, giving yourself permission to say “no” is also a way to extend grace and compassion to yourself. Out of all the things I did this school year to take care of me, this was by far the most difficult. Not because it was difficult for me to say, but because it was difficult for others to hear. Too often educators become the “go-to” person for the school. Maybe you are the teacher who always says “yes” to an after school program, or always says “yes” to extra duties, giving yourself the latitude to say “no” this year can help eliminate items from your full plate that you would like to do, but need to let go of in order to be effective at the items you must do.
4. Reasonable Expectations
This school year was all about adjusting expectations for myself and students. What I expected in years past was no longer appropriate. Understanding that my students and their families were in the middle of navigating a worldwide pandemic meant that I needed to take a step back and adjust. Many families were dealing with the loss of incomes, family illnesses, and other stressors. For me, that meant simplifying assignments to focus more intentionally, spending more time learning about my students, and monitoring their well-being.
While these lessons helped me show grace and compassion to myself and students, there are still many more to be learned. However, starting these habits created a better me and a better educator. Do I still work late on occasion? Yes. Do I still struggle with having a full plate? Absolutely.
Teachers – we need your voice. This blog is a platform designed for you to share your tips for maintaining a sense of purpose and wellbeing in and out of the classroom.
We’re calling for blog submissions now! February’s theme is Inspiring Courage and Equity. What are some ways we can combat fear, empower others, and show up to teaching with courage and love?