Caring for Ourselves and Each Other During the Pandemic

Ashley is an elementary teacher who logs onto Zoom at 7:45 am every morning. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays she teaches 20 seven-year-olds virtually until 11:45 am. Her Thursdays are packed with online meetings and her Fridays are for virtual one-on-one student assessments.

She has never been as tired as she is this school year. Her eyes hurt, her back hurts and her hands and wrists hurt from constantly typing. She gets frequent headaches that can only be minimized by taking a nap, but she doesn’t have time to take a nap.

Ashley is one of many teachers who are facing a new set of challenges brought on by the pandemic. They are being asked to not only teach in new and innovative ways, but also help with technology and computer problems, chase down students who aren’t logging on for class and take care of their own children and families.

As with Ashley, there isn’t a part of a teacher’s job or week that hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. Teachers are facing more stress than ever before. There are teachers who are teaching virtually and feel like they are working nonstop. There are teachers who have returned to in-person instruction, where they face a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which adds to the stress. Many teachers have had to switch back and forth between in-person and online learning often with only a few days’ notice which creates another kind of stress.

 
 

The level of stress teachers are experiencing right now is unprecedented and, honestly, not sustainable. They have been operating in crisis mode for almost a year and are living day-by-day on depleted levels of energy. Many teachers say their psychological well-being is suffering in ways they have never experienced before. For the first time in their life, many teachers are having to see a therapist. Unfortunately, this can create additional stress.

Therapists don’t always have evening or weekend hours to accommodate a teacher’s work schedule and teachers don’t necessarily have the time – or spare money – for weekly appointments. Even more exacerbating is finding a therapist and then having to wait months before there is an open appointment time. The National Council for Behavioral Health reports that 52% of behavioral health organizations have seen an increase in the demand for services and 65% having to cancel, reschedule or turn away patients.

In a recent USA Today article (January 2021), Carly, a high school teacher and mother of three, brings to light the challenges many teachers are facing today. She splits her time between working on campus and remotely from home. Her two youngest children are in elementary school and need adult supervision with their own online schooling.
 
Carly keeps a color-coded daily schedule to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. But, of course, things do, including taking care of herself.
 
Prior to the school year starting, she never missed her weekly appointment with her therapist. She called it her “maintenance” – it kept everything in her life running smoothly. That changed in September when she found herself juggling an impossible burden: educating students in a pandemic while guiding her own family through the crisis. Since then, she has canceled more therapist appointments than she has kept. With everything going on, she said, “it’s much harder to justify giving myself that hour every week.”
 
She isn’t sleeping. Before the pandemic, she suffered migraines every few months and called in sick on those days. Now, she has one a week, an increase she attributes to stress. She makes herself work through the pain as there aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around. She’s exhausted. The idea of taking a day off for mental health is more work and causes more stress than just pushing through it herself.

As in Carly’s school district, there simply aren’t enough substitute teachers to meet the need in many districts. Substitutes are typically retired teachers and for districts using any hybrid or in-person model, the risk of coronavirus exposure poses a heightened threat. For schools that are remote, getting a substitute set up for online learning poses its own set of logistical challenges – getting a Zoom, transferring it over and making sure the substitute is comfortable navigating online learning software. For many, that burden factors in when determining whether to call in sick.

Consequently, all of these challenges have left many teachers, like Carly, responsible for their own self-care. While there’s a wealth of expert self-care advice available, we all know that with any advice, it’s easier said than done. Practicing self-care assumes that we all know what we need to care for ourselves and we have the resources necessary to do it. These are some big assumptions. For some of us, just doing anything for our self, by our self, can be the greatest challenge to overcome. Sometimes what we most need is not self-care, but rather community care.

The concept of community care isn’t to eliminate self-care. If you’re able to practice self-care, that’s great. Just don’t forget about the people around you. Community care asks us to take the initiative to show and give compassion to each other, especially when we are struggling with the same issues. We all still need human connection and need to give and receive love.

So, if you are a teacher who can relate to Ashley and Carly or you have a colleague who is struggling with the demands of being a teacher right now, try shifting your thinking to community care. Be willing to accept the care and compassion of others while also extending it.

No matter if you are a teacher or working in another profession, here are four ways you can practice community care:

    • Check in on each other. Just a genuine, “How are you doing?”, can really help a fellow teacher feel supported and more connected to the people around them. Vulnerability can be hard, so you may need to open up first to show you are sincere. If someone tells you they are struggling, let them know they have your support and if you can’t talk then, that you will reach out soon. When you follow up, make sure to listen to what they need; some people may need help finding resources while others may want some time to vent with someone who gets it.
    • Express gratitude. Practicing gratitude is a great way to give yourself a more positive outlook. Try to name three things you are thankful for each day. Extend gratitude to your coworkers. Thank them when they do something to help you out or make your day a bit easier. It’s a win-win for both of you. It will boost your mood while making others feel appreciated and noticed and help you all feel more connected to your community.
    • Take time to laugh. Humor can be an effective coping tool during stressful times. Don’t be afraid to lighten the mood by sending memes or sharing a funny story – just be mindful of your timing and audience.
    • Pay attention to nonverbal cues. A lot of people have trouble opening up about how they are feeling and others may not even realize that they are struggling if their mind is constantly focused on work. If you are at school in-person, you can probably pick up on which of your colleagues are having a harder time than others. Typical body language varies, but if you notice a change like less eye contact or moving or talking slower, it’s worth bringing up. If your school is virtual, think about who you haven’t heard from lately that you may have expected to. Reach out to those individuals – there’s no need for anyone to suffer alone. If you aren’t comfortable doing so, mention what you have noticed to a colleague that they are closer with or a supervisor.

Even as we become more attuned to the needs of each other and try to respond to them, self-care will continue to be necessary. We still need to clean, feed and clothe ourselves, move our bodies more, drink water, make dental appointments and see therapists. But, doing things together and for each other creates a sense of belonging which is also one our basic needs. It reminds us that we weren’t meant to walk these paths alone, but to learn from and care for one another as we find better ways to live through the pandemic together.

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