Part I: Mental Health Support for Educators
On March 15th, Mayor de Blasio announced that non-essential businesses and schools in New York City would close. The past month has been surreal, challenging, inspiring, overwhelming as I’ve tried to adapt to remote learning along with 75,000 other adults and more than one million children
At some point, maybe two or three weeks into the experience, I found myself thinking, “How long can I do this? Will I crack?” The combined stress of the pandemic, my social isolation, and adjusting to my new job felt like it might break me. Around that time, one of my third graders posted a number of very worrisome messages on our Google Classroom page. It became clear that I needed to gather some advice around mental health during remote learning (aka disaster distance learning).
I was lucky to connect with Erica Wortherly, a social worker, and a former middle school teacher. As a teacher, Wortherly worked with students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Since leaving the classroom, Wortherly has merged her passions of mental health and education to design Teach Whole and Teaching With Mental Health, both of which provide mental health resources for educators. In addition to her work as an educator and social worker, she has spoken at numerous conferences, including The Educator’s Room Teacher Self-Care Conference.
After speaking with Wortherly, I felt reassured that I am not alone in my stress, anxiety, or my concern for my students during this time. Furthermore, I left our conversation with a great toolbox of strategies for myself and my students. What follows is a synthesis of our conversation.
How can educators monitor our own mental health? Are there warning signs we can look out for?
1) Sleep patterns: “Are you getting too much sleep? Are you tired all the time? Or are you just not sleeping?” The first thing to look for according to Wortherly are disruptions to our sleep pattern. Insomnia or too much sleep are both signs of waning mental health. Disruptions to sleep are to be expected, especially for teachers at this moment, Wortherly explained. “Being a teacher you have a very specific routine, it’s not like other jobs… teaching is very regimented, so with the routine changing that can have a big impact on your sleep whether hypersomnia or insomnia.” On top of our disrupted routine, comes the stress of adapting to remote learning, as well as boundaries between work and home that may be blurring with students, administrators, or families contacting us at irregular hours.
2) Negative self talk: We all talk to ourselves, whether or not we have these conversations out loud. The conversations we have internally can reinforce or damage our mental health depending on the message we’re choosing. “People can do this unconsciously sometimes,” Wortherly says, “You need to be able to catch those times,” when we’re choosing negative self-messages. Wortherly encourages educators to notice and reframe these moments differently. Instead of, “Oh my gosh, I’m so stupid,” the message might be, “No, I’m not stupid. This is new. I’m still learning.” In other words, it is important for us to embrace a growth mindset now, more than ever. We are all learners, and we are all living through a scary and stressful crisis. We should be mindful of negative self-talk that ignores this reality.
3) Excessive worrying: At first I was somewhat skeptical of this point. How is it possible not to worry during a pandemic? But, Wortherly distinguishes between worrying and worrying that is nonstop or uncontrollable. “If you’re worrying about yourself, your family, people in your community, your students; if you’re doing that continuously, that will have a major impact on your mental health,” Wortherly says. “Anxiety is normal,” Wortherly explains, “but excessive worrying is something more serious when you tip into your thoughts will spiral into something that may or may not be happening, may or may not exist, and may or may not ever happen.”
It is important to pay attention to our worries, what might be triggering them, and use inquiry to unpack them. If you haven’t heard from a loved one for example, and begin worrying that they’re in the hospital, it might be helpful to examine the steps from the first point (lack of contact) to the final outcome you’re concerned about. What other explanations exist? What is the likelihood of that worst-case scenario? Who else might have been in touch (in this situation) or might be able to offer different/more information? To reiterate, it is completely understandable to be anxious, especially now. But we can still be mindful of our anxieties, and make sure they’re not controlling our thoughts.
Okay, so there’s plenty of mental health warning signs we might be experiencing. And during a pandemic, they feel practically unavoidable. Thankfully Wortherly had a number of ways we can support our own mental health in the midst of these challenges.
What are some ways educators can support our mental health during remote learning and teaching?
1) Limit your media intake: There are lots of reasons to be glued to your favorite news app or TV station. We want to know how to stay healthy and safe, we want to know what’s going on, and we want to know when this will be over. But there’s definitely such thing as too much information. “Find a way to get the bullet points,” Wortherly recommends. “What do you need to know. Keeping the news on all day and watching all of the press conferences and all of the news, that’s not healthy.” Wortherly suggests giving yourself a time limit or a set schedule of news intake. For one client who suffers from anxiety, Wortherly recommended filtering her news through her husband. If you’re worried about binging on news and the impact on your mental health, it may be helpful to find a trusted friend or loved one who can give you the key information you need.
2) Set a routine (that’s flexible): Having a schedule is especially helpful for teachers. Remote teaching and learning require a big adjustment from our previously structured lives. “Having a schedule, but one that’s flexible, that you can stick to so [administrators] know what you’re doing, and you know what you’re doing.”
Part of your routine should include limits or schedules for checking e-mail. As our work transitions from our classrooms to our laptops, many of us are experiencing a deluge of electronic communication, whether it’s e-mails, texts, or student comments on online learning platforms. Wortherly encourages educators to be discerning. Those dozen e-mails from Pearson, Harcourt, and the district special education office might not be urgent, but you may want to respond to e-mails from colleagues at school or students. Your schedule should also include letting students and families know your “cut off” times where you will not be checking or responding to communications.
Wortherly stresses that your schedule should give yourself time to take care of yourself. That includes eating, resting, and moving your body. Whether it’s a simple stretch break or something more vigorous, it’s vital we find ways to keep healthy in whatever ways we’re able. “Exercise for everyone is different,” but one possibility Wortherly offers is to use the time that would normally be your commute for exercise, meditation, or whatever you need to calm your mind as you transition in or out of your workday.
3) Set realistic expectations for yourself: Wortherly points out that many of us teachers are perfectionists by nature. I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist, but like many teachers, I hold myself to high standards for my teaching that sometimes feel out of reach. The transition to remote learning has been challenging as I learn a completely new way of teaching. I’m not familiar with Google classroom, tools for screencasting, or recording myself. As I navigate unfamiliar ways of teaching, I feel a lot of anxiety as I notice the gap between a job I used to feel comfortable with and a job that feels completely foreign.
On top of this discomfort, we may be feeling general concern for our co-workers, our students, and the unknown ending of our school year. “We don’t know where this is going,” Wortherly explains, “Do your best to not think so far in advance, and really just take things day by day.” By getting caught up in speculating about our futures, we aer possibly exacerbating our anxieties. Wortherly suggests setting realistic expectations means focusing on what needs to be done today and what you can control individually.
4) Know who your social support is: One of the major lessons of this pandemic for me has been the interdependence of human beings. In the United States, there is a strong culture of independence and self-reliance. But no one of us can survive truly alone. Wortherly emphasizes the need to cultivate our social networks. “Family, friends, having regular contact with people, whatever that looks like, that’s definitely needed. You don’t want to go days without actually talking.” Contact with loved ones, whether through socially distanced walks or video calls is necessary to maintain the connection. Staying in touch face to face, whether in person or through video calls can also help assuage any fears or anxieties that may be welling up. “It’s helpful to see somebody is okay. People are really worried about the people they can’t see,” Wortherly says. Being there for our loved ones, and receiving care in return, is an indispensable part of surviving this pandemic.
The word “unprecedented” has been used so often to describe this moment, it has quickly become cliche. Nonetheless, it rings true. I personally find this whole experience feels surreal as if I’ve unwittingly stepped into a Black Mirror episode. As we try to adjust to remote learning amidst this crisis, naturally anxiety and stress will grow. But we’re not alone. And we’re not helpless. We can lookout for ways our mental health may be diminished, and we can implement a range of tools to take care of ourselves and each other.
Be sure to look out for Part II of my conversation with Erica Wortherly, LCSW, for tips on taking care of our students’ mental health.