Beyond “self-care” - powerful tips for practicing resilience as a teacher in the midst of an ongoing crisis
“Teachers are unique problem solvers by character, temperament, and resilience. Teachers cannot be manufactured” – Robert John Meehan
Life throws us curveballs. We deal with those minor setbacks as best as we can, moving forward, hoping to either never see that pitch again, or at the very least, not get hit by the ball. But what happens when we are met with a major setback - or crisis? Or even worse and entire world-shift that feels like the entire foundation of our existence has dropped out from under us? In these times, it may seem as if there is nothing that will get us past the breakdown. It may feel like there is no hope, or at the very least, that things will certainly never be the same.
So many of us have been bombarded with daily self-care strategies - things that include “sing a song,” “eat all the chocolate,” “make yourself smile,” or “have a glass of wine.” All of these are great—when we are dealing with minor stresses such as a rude parent interaction, or too many papers to grade, the internet going out, or having to take on an extra duty all week. But what happens when we are literally facing a crisis—like a global pandemic, widespread fear and depression, schools that have moved virtual, and an overall sense that life is never going to be what it once was ever again? The key is to practice resilience.
For a minor annoyance, we might say that we are having “a problem” or that we might be frustrated with an “issue.” For this, a Snickers bar may soothe us temporarily. But when we are in the midst of a nearly year-long breakdown, that “have a glass of wine” mentality to help soothe the discomfort could become a major issue when used as the coping mechanism for nearly a year! What we need in the midst of breakdown after breakdown is resilience.
For managing daily stress, or minor-is inconveniences and setbacks, you can read my article on Managing Stress and Worry, which includes ideas such as taking 4-5 slow, deep breaths, accepting “what is,” connecting with others, and more. When you’re stuck in frustration or annoyance, I also suggest taking a walk in nature, writing down 3 things you are grateful for in that moment, and reaching out to be a giver to someone in need.
Find your tribe
But when problems seem insurmountable, or never-ending, we need to practice resilience. According to the British Psychological Society in their article on Teacher resilience during coronavirus school closures, resilience is 1) overcoming adversity, and 2) being able to adapt to challenging situations. If anyone is skilled at adapting to adverse situations, I would argue that teachers are one of the most adept professionals (possibly right behind ER docs and nurses). According to the article, teachers need belonging and connectedness, first and foremost. This is in-line with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The most base psychological need is that feeling of belonging. We need relationships. We need other human beings. As a high school teacher, I rarely saw or connected with my colleagues. Since I deliberately avoided the teachers’ lounge, it would be pretty much only at our weekly staff meetings that I interacted with other adults. But even in the midst of a pandemic—even if we are not in a classroom, it is now easier than ever to connect with those going through the same struggles.
Find a tribe, join an empowering Facebook group of other educators (hint: if it becomes simply a platform for people to bitch, that will zap your energy—leave and find somewhere else). Have a Zoom call to collaborate (or have a virtual Happy Hour) with other educators. Or find something else you enjoy and seek out that tribe. This could be a Green-Thumb Gardening Group, a group for half-marathoners, or a meetup for Kinky Knitters. Whatever you’re into—find a tribe of people and connect. Facebook, Meetup, and Eventbrite have groups and events you can participate in, as well as searching Google with your keyword followed by “forum” or “blog” or “meetup,” for example: “Sharpai owners forum.” Further, make it a point to reach out to a friend, family member, or colleague who you may be concerned about. There are so many people hurting right now. Reaching out and giving of yourself authentically right now will not only heal the other person, but it will help heal you as well. To help you with connecting with others, reflect on the following questions:
- Who are you most connected with? What is this connection like? What do you value about this connection?
- What relationships are suffering from lack of authentic connection? What action can you take repair these connections?
Having compassion with yourself
Teachers across the world are facing demands that they were not ready for. They are being asked to attempt to teach in an unknown climate, under precarious circumstances, with little to no training or support. They are being asked to do this with students who may not even have their basic needs met on a daily basis. Needless to say, teachers today are faced with an enormous unprecedented challenge. Scrolling through Facebook or teacher TikTok, we can see that the tears and frustration we are seeing are real. The feelings helplessness and hopelessness are real. So how do we come back from feeling as if we are failing ourselves or our students? One way is to practice compassion with ourselves.
First, make it a practice to nip the negative self-talk in the bud. That needs to stop right now. When you find yourself starting to put yourself down, berate yourself, admonish yourself, and compare yourself, just STOP. Take a deep breath, and tell yourself something along the lines of “That’s not going to work. I am doing the best I can with the situation I am in and the tools I have been given. This is temporary. This is do-able. I can do this.” And then dig in.
One of the “problems within the problem” of facing a big challenge or crisis is moving past our own beliefs about ourselves and the world. We have stories that are as old as we are that have been rattling around within us, dictating our reactions and when facing adversity now, these narratives will definitely begin to come into play. It is important to interrupt these narratives and patterns that drive us. For many of us, we have faced trauma before, and we are now reacting similarly to the trauma of being thrown into a global crisis. It is crucial to recognize that and to first and foremost, be kind to yourself. Stop yourself when you get into those negative beliefs of “I can’t do this.” Maybe that’s how you’re feeling, but you have also never been in the middle of a freaking global pandemic, thrown into virtual teaching, with your toddler at your feet before, either! So saying you can’t do this simply isn’t true. You haven’t done this—yet. It feels insurmountable—for now. Disrupt those abusive thought patterns that only spin you out, and start taking chances—even if they are ugly and messy.
Let go of the thought that you need to be perfect. Let go of the comparison to Miss Jones who has all the digital/virtual/interactive doo-hickeys and widgets and apps down. Give yourself some grace. Give yourself some space, and simply hold yourself to how you would hold your students. Give yourself room to grow, to breathe, to create, to invent, to build your confidence. Interrupting those thought patterns and replacing them with new ones is a practice, and takes time, but is something that can be implemented immediately. This is practicing mindfulness, and allows you to have compassion for yourself.
To help you with practicing compassion with yourself, reflect on the following questions:
- How are you treating yourself, on a scale of 1-10 right now? What do you need right now? What small action can you take to show compassion with yourself and treat yourself better right now?
- How effective do you feel you are being at this moment? What small action can you take to become more effective and increase your confidence right now?
We have all heard that we cannot be effective with an empty cup. Taking the time and effort to regularly fill your cup (even if it sometimes feels like there is a giant hole in the bottom) is crucial for the wellbeing of your family, your students, and most importantly —yourself. You have everything you need within you, and with the practice of connection and compassion, you will begin to see measurable differences in not only your energy, but how you show up in the world with your family and your students.
Most of all, be kind to yourself and others. Know that you are not alone, and that everyone is facing their own struggles and challenges, even if they look like they have it all together.
For More on Teacher Resilience:
Perspective | Walking the resilience road: From overwhelmed to compassion-in-action; written by the Director of the North Carolina Resilience and Learning Project with the Public School Forum of North Carolina