Last spring, when Covid-19 made distance learning the most viable option to keep school communities safe, teachers adapted. But it was hard. Physical separation from students and colleagues forced some educators to learn how to manage loneliness. Some teachers felt guilty teaching remotely because they didn’t feel that they were teaching effectively. Communicating care through computer screens felt impersonal.
When the pandemic struck, the world asked teachers to do things they hadn’t learned in “teacher school.” They had to become skilled in the pedagogy of love and loneliness. I recently reached out to some of my colleagues from my district and beyond to find out how they are coping during this difficult time.
“Educators are overstressed, underpaid, and student caseloads are high,” said Dr. Katie Dockweiler, a school psychologist. “Before the pandemic, educators were requiring more mental and emotional supports for their well-being, and the pandemic has increased that need.” To cope with the mental health implications of teaching during a pandemic, Dockweiler says, educators are trying to “normalize the not normal.”
And here we are again in a déjà vu moment with so many school districts beginning the school year with distance learning. This year, teachers have had more time to prepare to teach remotely; however, they’ve also had more time to be anxious about their performance. Fear of failure and feelings of guilt may intensify this fall. Increased training, their desire to improve, and the pressure to perform well may be sources of stress.
Despite saying they don’t expect to be perfect at teaching remotely, some teachers feel the desire to be just that, even though they know this is an unfair self-expectation.
Teachers should keep things in perspective and forgive themselves for being less than perfect. This past spring, when many schools transitioned to distance learning, teachers gave it their all instructionally. Despite working under difficult circumstances, they showed love to their students the best they could. We must recognize how Covid-19 has turned everyone’s world upside down. “No matter what is going on outside of me, I always work to control what’s going on inside my classroom,” said high school teacher Necielle Driskill, who noted that everything changed during quarantine. “I didn’t have that control. That’s hard.”
Teaching methods had to change after the pandemic. We face the same challenge this fall. Teachers mustn’t internalize guilt for being unable to demonstrate love in the ways they did before Covid-19. They must let go of feeling responsible for things they can’t control.
Teachers should focus on the fact that they did their best to repair harms that Covid caused and restore student trust in their ability to show love through teaching and learning. Sustaining mental well-being was hard in the spring, and it will be hard again this fall. Fortunately, our experience with Covid-19 to date has left us with some lessons learned in ways to show love through teaching and mitigate loneliness.
Teachers should be intentional in efforts to keep themselves calm and mentally centered. Dana Fergins, a middle-school teacher, explained, “What you can do, you do. What you can’t do, let it go. As educators, we’ve got to learn to attend to our own mental health.”
Do things that reduce stress and keep us balanced. Exercise. Take advantage of tele-therapy to cope with the stress of isolation and loneliness, and proactively maintain mental health and wellness. For some, that might mean practicing yoga and/or meditation. Others might find comfort in spiritual texts and through participating remotely in faith-based activities. “As educators, we’ve got to learn self-preservation,” said Fergins. “It is OK to be a little selfish. Now is the time to meditate, refocus, reflect, and reshuffle goals in life.”
During periods of social isolation, embrace healthy habits that create joy outside of work. Commit to doing what makes you happy, and indulge in self-love without guilt. Keep enjoying book clubs, connecting with family and friends, and remaining committed to personal goals. Have a stay-at-home dance party. Find joy in artistic pursuits, an edupreneur side hustle, or even something as simple as walking your dog.
Times like these necessitate that teachers make care, connection, and community part of their daily routines, so they don’t lose themselves while helping others. For teachers who work with the most disenfranchised students, such as incarcerated youth, maintaining one’s sense of self is essential.
Claudia Kuzniak, a teacher at a prison school, shared her experience teaching during quarantine. “Other teachers were able to collect work from students and continue teaching during the pandemic; I could not,” said Kuzniak. “My students weren’t allowed to have personal computers, and I couldn’t see them. There are so few distractions during the quarantine that teachers had little choice but to think about teaching challenges.”
To avoid lingering on challenges, maintain routines that keep loneliness at bay. Keep nurturing new relationships, even while physically distancing. And stay involved in social justice efforts.
As schools transition to remote learning once again, teachers have to make self-care a priority. Loneliness and feelings of inadequacy can be uncomfortable, and the pain they cause may feel like grieving. At minimum, teachers are grieving the loss of familiar routines.
By engaging in self-care and mastering the pedagogy of love and loneliness, we’ll make it through this difficult season together.