Teaching in a Pandemic: Your Mental Health

I got a text the week before school started asking, “Do school counselors also counsel teachers?” No, no, we don’t, but that doesn’t mean your mental health doesn’t matter to me. I’m more worried about teachers right now than ever before. The amount of stress and ambiguity they are under is enough to send a sane person right over the edge.

Another counselor asked a counseling Facebook group that I am part of what everyone else was doing to “support their teachers,” and the comment section blew up. Other counselors admitted to barely hanging on themselves; the sheer weight of their job was too much to consider taking on the teachers’ burdens. A few counselors posted some comments about goodie bags and donuts, but I’m not, nor have I ever been the type to make cute gift bags. For context, my daughter is the kid who rolls into school with pre-made cookies for the bake sale (don’t judge me), so I am certainly not going to bake to share my love and support for my teachers.

After receiving yet another message asking about my ability to counseling teachers, the third in as many days, I laid out the seven skills I thought my teachers would need to make it safely to the other side of teaching during a pandemic.

#1 Welcome the Fear

If you think about all the world’s problems, it becomes overwhelming quite quickly; hunger, war, division, homelessness, abuse, and suffering. You cannot help everyone. One person can not do all the things, but we can do something. I would encourage teachers, and other school staff, to focus on the one kid right in front of you. Focus on the one task you are capable of achieving. It feels like the schools have been asked to solve all the worlds’ problems. But the world is too big for you to solve all of the issues. Focus on what you can do and who you can help.

Name the feeling–is it stress, fear, anger, or something else? Naming the feeling is the first step toward controlling your emotions. So, for me, the idea of working in a school during a global pandemic and a local spike in cases has caused me to feel worried and afraid. The fear of the unknown. I’ve learned over the years that our lack of control often manifests fear. However, I know the truth; control is only an illusion.

We must first learn to sit with fear. Business is a trauma response. That desire to keep moving, keep going, and not stop. That’s you trying to outrun your fear. Don’t try to outrun it. Numb it. Or distract from it. When my daughter was little and sick, I tried everything to distract myself from my situation’s terror, but none of it worked. It wasn’t until I began to sit with my fear and welcome it that I could manage it. So, we must say to it gently, kindly, “you are welcome here.” Remember that fear has been good to you. It keeps you safe. Fear is wisdom in the face of danger. 

#2 Draw Your Emotion

We can’t always articulate our emotions into words, which is why drawing can be such a powerful tool. I once watched a video of a girl who was struggling with body image issues. The girl said she drew her feelings as a frat boy with a popped collar and could regain her power because her feeling was no longer this nebulous idea; it had a look, one that she knew she was tough enough to manage.

#3 Writing to Get the Ick Out

Writing is scientifically proven to help individuals who have experienced trauma move forward with their lives. I’ve been writing since I was in elementary school. For me, it helps get all the “ick” out. If you’ve never journaled before, write the word “write” for two minutes, or until your brain picks up on your stream of consciousness and you start to write what is going on inside your head. I’m always stunned by the thoughts that are lurking in there without my knowledge.

#4 Gratitude

When I was in the 5th grade, my family bought a black Dodge Dynasty, and I suddenly started seeing them everywhere. Have you ever had this happen to you? Have you gotten a new car and suddenly you begin to see that car everywhere? That’s your reticular activating system at work. Once we prime our brains to start looking for things in our environment, it finds what we have primed it to look for in the world.
Searching the world for things to be grateful for is the same concept. I used to make a list of three basic things I was thankful for, such as running water, food, and a functioning car. Then, I’d give one specific instance of a moment in the day that made me feel something intensely. I am fortunate enough to have done this exercise when my daughter was a baby, and I documented the day that she reached up and touched my face with her little hand for the first time. I not only had the experience itself, but of writing about that moment, and now, years later, reliving it by reading about it.
Caveat: I want to point out that this is NOT for everyone. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, that’s okay. For some people who have experienced trauma, this can be triggering. But for others, it’s like the Tetris effect and allows them to start looking in the world for good.

#5 Commit to Physical Movement

Commit to taking a 5-minute walk. Seriously, even if you don’t want to move, scratch that, especially if you don’t want to move. Remember, keep it simple and just do baby steps to get you going. The movement releases chemicals inside your brain to make you feel happy. Start small, and it can have a considerable impact.

#6 Body Scan

Last year I asked my intern to do a body scan with a student. The student’s mother called me a few days later and said, “Elishia, I love this body scan stuff….he was feeling anxious, and he’s like ‘mom, you can’t tell it, but I’m tensing and relaxing my toes right now to help calm me down'”. There are so many incredible body scans on Youtube; everyone should find at least one that works for them.

#7 Ask for Help

We all know at least one teacher who has said at dismissal, “You know, I totally forgot to eat today.” Are you serious? Girl, call me, I will teach your kids about body language while you go eat your frozen meal! So many of our teachers are used to giving and giving until they have nothing left to give. We have to remind them that they are not alone. They do not have to give until there is nothing left, and they are not weak for asking for help.
Our school offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for our staff who has our insurance, and I am quick to remind everyone that this is an option. I let them know that it is not the same as talking to a friend and way better than just “dealing with it” on their own. I think so many people feel broken and ashamed of their brokenness that they are afraid of being judged, but I try to help them reframe it as an option to find someone who can help bring out the answers that are already there inside of them.

What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ asked the boy. 

‘Help,’ said the horse. 

-The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse  by Charlie Mackesy

If you find yourself in a similar position and would like to share my words with your staff, they’re free, and you are welcome to pass them along to your teachers in need. *It’s not necessary to watch the video; the audio will do just fine. I hope it finds them well.

I know someone out there will email me to tell me how taking care of the teachers is not their “job.” In many respects, you are right; my job is not to counsel them. However, I will point out that when your teachers are emotionally healthy, so are your students. So, making this 20-minute video for them was well worth the investment of my time. Because when my teachers can take space between the stimulus and response, they are less likely to go off on the kid who is also struggling to regulate his emotions. It’s a win-win.

I firmly believe that we are all doing the best we can under suboptimal conditions. I know that this is tough, and I am trying to remember to give grace and empathy. None of this has been easy for any of us.