It’s March, historically one of the most challenging months in the entire teaching year.
It’s March, in one of the toughest years in education for many people.
It’s March, the second anniversary of the pandemic that upended most people’s lives in some way, shape, or form.
Who else feels like they’re just hanging on by a rapidly fraying thread?
You are not alone.
At Thriving YOUniversity, we are lucky enough to interact with hundreds of educators from around the country each month. The refrain we hear repeatedly is that this year has been more challenging than ever before. Some things we have recently heard from educators about how they are feeling:
“This has been the hardest year of my 20 year career. The kids seem younger than ever, and I am having to spend so much time reminding them about how to behave in the classroom and how to speak to each other appropriately.”
“I want to model for my students the world I want for them. It’s a harder world for me to create this year because I’m exhausted!”
“Usually, when I’m supporting my students, I’m not also going through such a difficult time. It is hard to fill student need buckets when your bucket is empty, and you are dehydrated.”
“The adults on campus have trauma, and we are not okay.”
It seems that many of our students have lost their ability to interact with one another appropriately. Many of us adults are struggling to manage our own stress and anxiety. Sometimes, it feels like the public tide of support for educators has changed from love and praise to vitriol. There is tremendous pressure to fix the “learning loss” students experienced during the shutdowns.
If you are reading this and nodding your head, know that not only are you not alone. Feelings of frustration and anxiety are normal responses to stressful/traumatic events.
Why Is It So Hard
Brains in pain can’t learn. In fact, brains in pain don’t do many things well. They expend a great deal of energy to ensure our safety and survival. Brains that are hurting also tend to latch onto negative feelings.
According to Dr. Lori Desautels, “A traumatized brain can [..] be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear” (2016).
When we are going through difficult times, our brain often lies to us. It tells us that we are the only ones feeling this way. That it will feel like this forever. That we are not enough, and that is why things are difficult.
The way you may be feeling and how your students are behaving are the byproduct of a stressful few years.
Growth After Trauma
Post-traumatic growth is possible. Healing trauma is possible if we take time to: learn about trauma responses, practice regulating our emotions, discuss our feelings and struggles openly, and focus on creating a new, meaningful way forward.
Here are some strategies you can use to begin moving forward from the stress and trauma of the past few years:
1)Practice “name it to tame it.”
When you are in a high-stress situation or are having an intense emotional response, your brain’s limbic system moves into fight-flight-freeze mode. This is a beneficial response if you are about to be mugged, but not so great when a co-worker frustrates you in the staff meeting or a student misbehaves in your class.
When you feel this response occurring, it is helpful to take a step back and name the emotions you are feeling: “I feel angry,” “I feel frustrated,” or “I feel anxious.” By taking a moment to assign words to the emotion, we allow time for our brain’s executive functioning to override our limbic system response. This enables you to choose your response to the situation over a knee-jerk reaction. The more you practice this strategy, the more agency you will begin to feel over your emotions.
2) Ask yourself, “what’s in my hula hoop?”
Most people – both children and adults – want to feel like they control their lives. Many of the challenges of the past few years have been out of our locus of control. This lack of control brings with it many negative emotions. In times like these, when so much is outside of your control, it helps to ask, “what’s really in my hula hoop of control?” Imagine yourself inside of a hula hoop. In that hula hoop, you can only place things that you truly have control over into your space.
Can you control how your students treat one another? No.
Can you control whether you model and encourage pro-social and pro-kindness behaviors in your classroom? Yes. This goes in your hula hoop of control.
Once you start focusing on what you CAN control, you may find that you’ll feel a sense of relief and, like every day isn’t an impossible grind up a steep slope.
3) WOOP Goals
Set a WOOP– or Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan– Goal. “Based on twenty years of research in the science of motivation, WOOP presents a unique and surprising idea: The obstacles that we think most impede us from fulfilling our wishes can actually help us to realize them. WOOP instructs us to dream our future dreams but then to imagine what obstacles inside ourselves prevent us from achieving these dreams.” (WOOP, 2020) Research has shown that by utilizing WOOP goals, people have overcome negative feelings and anxiety, created better habits, and gained a better overall sense of well-being.
By combining the positive feelings around the desired outcome with acknowledgment of obstacles and a plan to get through those obstacles, WOOP goals strengthen our overall performance and well-being in a way that positive thinking alone does not.
4) Practice self-care
We know, we know. The term “self-care” has been bandied about a lot in recent years, and it often feels like being offered a band-aid for a severed limb. We aren’t suggesting that a bubble bath will cure all the world’s ills, not by a long shot (though, if you like baths, it might help you feel a little better). We are talking about practical self-care that truly prioritizes your mental health and wellness above anything else.
Some self-care we recommend that can really help:
Say no. What you say no to is just as important as what you say yes to. If it drains your time, energy, or joy to do (and isn’t a necessity like going to the dentist or showing up for work), just say no. It feels difficult at first, but once you start saying no to things that drain your bucket, you’ll find that it gets easier. By saying no to something, you allow more space in your life for the people and activities that fill your bucket with joy.
Sleep. Really. An increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions has been linked to a lack of sleep. Sleep plays a significant role in brain health and, in addition to emotional and mental health, it facilitates better thinking, learning and memory. Try setting yourself a bedtime that allows you to get 8 hours of sleep (or as close to it as possible). This may mean saying no to things (see point 1) or prioritizing your rest over other tasks.
Single-tasking. When was the last time you closed all the tabs except for one on your mental browser? Focusing on one task at a time can decrease your stress levels. It likely won’t be possible to single-task while your classes are in full swing, but we encourage you to try to single-task as much as possible whenever you can. Not only does it lower your stress, but single-tasking helps you to get tasks done in less time and with greater accuracy.
Me time. Nope, we don’t mean a spa day or laying on the couch eating bonbons (though, again, if that is practical for you and brings you joy, do it). Find activities that make you happy – that you do just for the pure enjoyment of it. This might mean taking up a new hobby or resuming an old one. Or it might look like taking time each day to go on a walk or practicing meditation. The important thing is that you consciously prioritize activities that help you recharge your emotional batteries.
QTIP. “Quit Taking it Personally” is the advice we often give educators regarding student behavior. It is essential to remind yourself that your struggling students aren’t struggling because of you. They are likely working to overcome issues in their own lives and show this in unpleasant ways. When students are behaving in challenging ways, try to remind yourself that they aren’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time.
The past few years have been hard for many of us, but don’t lose hope. These feelings and struggles will not last forever, and it is possible to bounce forward.
Desautels, Lori. 2022. Brains in Pain Cannot Learn! Edutopia.
Tedeschi, R., 2022. Growth After Trauma. Harvard Business Review.
WOOP my life. 2022. Science — WOOP my life.