If you’re anything like us, you’re experiencing a lot of complex emotions right now. Educators, along with everyone else in the world, are marveling at how different everything looks now compared with eight weeks ago.
Schools have gone online, educators are sheltering in place and social distancing is the new norm. Big events have been canceled: March Madness, professional sports, award shows. Schools have postponed or canceled dances, celebrations, and now in-person graduations.
As educators, we are tasked with developing brand-new lesson plans suited for online learning, while we juggle childcare, children’s homeschooling and taking care of family. However, taking care of ourselves cannot take a back seat. While we are educators, we are still learners.
Educators supporting educators
We had the idea of gathering a few colleagues from different districts to open up a conversation about educators’ mental health during COVID-19.
Presented as a web seminar, the conversation was part of the “Remote Learning Nugget,” which Matt hosts online. (The series was originally designed as virtual professional development for the district of Leicester, Massachusetts.)
Taking care of ourselves cannot take a back seat. While we are educators, we are still learners.
In addition to the two of us, the panel included Tara Desiderio, a principal for the East Penn School District in Pennsylvania; Abby French, a sixth-grade history teacher at Shenandoah County Public Schools in Virginia; and Basil Marin, an assistant principal for the DeKalb County School District in Atlanta.
We shared the following five self-care strategies to help educators maneuver successfully through these challenging times.
1. Stay connected
Meeting the dynamic needs of all of our students and staff during this time can be quite draining. Staying motivated while working from home is essential.
How do we do that? For the panelists, connection was a common thread:
- Connect with the outdoors: French spoke of a nature camp she attended as a child. There, she found a love for not only nature, but also herpetology. “Education can actually turn a perspective around,” she explained. “Nature has always been an equalizing force for me. When everything gets to be too big or too much or too loud, for me, stepping outside, finding some solitude in nature helps me reset.”
- Connect with family and friends: For Desiderio, she has been connecting with her children by doing puzzles, taking walks outside and using chalk on the driveway. She also noted how important exercise is for her new routine. Ravesi-Weinstein reiterated this: “I can’t achieve my lofty goals that I would normally, but every day I try to have one small goal.” She gets outside every day whether it’s as simple as playing hockey with her son or taking a walk, or as intense as going for a long run.
- Connect with professional learning networks: “Tap into your PLN,” Marin said. “Find people who are going to refill your cup. We can’t do this by ourselves.”
2. Reestablish your educational drive
Distance and drive can often be inversely proportional. The farther we have moved away physically from our students and staff, the more difficult it can be to find that drive—why we got into education in the first place. Panelists addressed how they are staying passionate about their work, and for each, not much has changed; in fact, the closures have simply reiterated their “whys.”
French noted her passion for student-centered learning and giving students more leadership and control. The choice boards she’s designing for her online instructional modules are allowing kids to explore who they are, what they want, and their interests and talents—a direct correlation to her “why.”
For Ravesi-Weinstein, she’s living in her why: “My passion is social-emotional learning, wellness and mental health advocacy. In a selfish way, there is no better time for me to be refueled with my ‘why’ because we are living in it.”
Desiderio is driven by her kids and taking care of those around her. “To be the best we can be, we need to be surrounded by people who promote that in us.” She explained that her administration has never been closer. She said the team spent the first three weeks just reaching out to families and making strong connections.
A champion of equitable opportunities for all students to succeed, Marin explained that there were students struggling before COVID-19. “We were spending a lot more hours than the contractual hours during the regular school day before COVID,” he said. “So a lot of us are spending 16, 17, 18 hours a day trying to contact students and help them be successful, but again this is a part of our ‘why.’ It’s a part of our ‘why,’ and we’re helping students to be successful.”
3. Find balance
Balance is key to combating how overwhelmed we are by the demands of creating digital lessons and engaging in remote meetings. Panelists discussed taking breaks and giving themselves grace to prevent burnout.
“I am about as introverted as they get,” Ravesi-Weinstein said, “so you’d think this is a great scenario for me, but it’s really not. I don’t like just sitting at a computer. What I’ve discovered is that the kind of fast-paced nature of a workday—where you just never know what’s going to happen and every day is totally different—is what keeps me fueled and going. When I am at home, I have to take breaks.”
“We really do have to be cognizant of how far we’re pushing ourselves right now,” added French.
Grace is also important. “We are all doing the best we can, our kids are doing the best they can, and our families are doing the best they can,” said Desiderio. “We need to give people grace and meet them where they’re at. I think of this as giving yourself permission to continue to be a work in progress.”
Marin took the idea of grace one step further: bringing it back to the students. He encouraged educators to balance rigor with social-emotional learning.
4. Be open to new possibilities
Teaching and leading from home may not be what educators planned, but they can make the most of it—for themselves and their students.
In this new world of “ungrading,” for instance, French reminded panelists of the importance of feedback as a tool for improvement. Educators must be partners in their students’ learning.
Ravesi-Weinstein cautioned panelists about making assumptions. Ask questions. And don’t push the panic button, she noted. “It’s okay to press reset,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you failed at something. It doesn’t mean things aren’t going well. It means you just have to push reset.”
And for Marin, he challenged panelists to put themselves in “students shoes right now and how they are feeling,” and “find a way to reach all students.”
5. Lead with your heart
“I understand that your lesson is important to you,” said Ravesi-Weinstein. “But what’s more important is that every kid knows you care about them, and that they’re well and that you’re well; everything else is secondary.”
Marin summed up: “It’s about heart work. We have to lead with the heart, and we have to do what’s best for kids.” The same is true for educators.
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC®. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts.
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.