The Unwind: How teachers are coping with back-to-school stress during the pandemic
The Unwind is a new, recurring feature in which we share the ways we’re finding moments of peace, levity and inspiration during these trying times. From adopting soothing strategies that boost our mental health, to losing ourselves in virtual social calls, newfound passions and other joyous diversions, these are the things getting us through the pandemic. The days may feel uncertain, but beauty and bright spots abound.
Back-to-school season is in full swing, which means many teachers are being tasked with mastering remote learning — and battling distracted kids, a lack of one-on-one instruction, and spotty Wi-Fi and other technical glitches in the process — while others must risk their own health by heading back into the classroom. So what are some ways to successfully keep those sky-high stress levels in check? For this edition of The Unwind, we asked teachers and faculty members around the country to share how they’re making their well-being a priority.
Online teaching used to sound like such a dream job, but in practice, not so much. Online education has added stresses to the already stressful situation of educating students. It includes the added worries of technology, student engagement and not being able to move from the computer to monitor students. Also, not being able to see students, not having them able to see “the teacher look” and not being able to help students one-on-one privately. Just listing these stresses is stressful. And then I have my own family and kids to monitor. I need to relax. I would not have thought that online teaching would drive me to find stress relief in online exercise, but it has. I join two friends early in the morning for online yoga six days a week. I have never done yoga before, so I was very skeptical, but it does relax me — even though I cannot do many of the poses on the first try. The soothing voice of the instructor and the encouragement of my friends (fortunately they cannot see me) both relax and strengthen me to be the best I can be. And I get better every day. The patience and humor of my students and the support of parents and colleagues also strengthen me to be the best teacher I can be. And I get better every day. I am stretching to be the best me in yoga, and stretching to be the best teacher in the online environment. — Patty Duncan, middle school teacher and educational expert at Vooks, Portland, Ore.
I have been meditating regularly using the Calm app, and it has helped tremendously. My students and I began using it at the beginning of the last school year to aid in better focusing and we loved it. I have many of those same students again next year, so I’m excited that we have a resource that we all know how to use together — especially in a time of such stress. I’ve also been making an active list of things that I can control and cannot control. Seeing how much is in my control really helps with my stress. For instance, I spent last night shopping online for the PPE that makes me personally feel safe when returning to my school building. — Stephanie Ambarsumyan, high school teacher, Queens, N.Y.
Getting crafty on TikTok
I am starting my 15th year of teaching high school. A year ago, I would have told you that I think I have seen it all. Well, the truth is, I hadn’t. Life for me as a planner is an emotional rollercoaster because I am not knowing what my life looks like week to week, when I used to be able to predict almost everything. So I have focused on my hobby of sharing kind words of encouragement while crafting and creating videos … I have actually grown my TikTok channel to over 120,000 followers — that isn’t too bad for an old high school teacher. Crafting definitely is my self-care during long weeks. Being able to come up with a design and try to make it happen is soothing to me. Then teaching my craft and inspiring others through video is fun. — Enza Ketcham, high school computer science teacher, Kansas
I’ve been teaching online since late March, but the prospect of physically returning to the classroom soon is causing lots of stress. To take my mind off it, I go the escapist route and play video games. I know increased screen time isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but for me, it is otherwise hard to escape the feeling of constantly being “on” with the constant work emails and impulse to reply instantly to every single one that comes my way, even during off-hours. — Will D., elementary school teacher, Austin, Texas
I’m a novice blacksmith, so heating and beating steel is a really cathartic experience. I’m also leaning on my co-curricular teachers a lot more for heavier collaboration. — Darin Roodman, middle and high school teacher and AP streamer with Fiveable, Nevada
My school is opening with remote learning. Leading up to the start of school, summer vacation was anything but— utilizing every spare moment for drafting plans, communicating with families and ordering the necessary supplies to enable a successful start to the school year this fall. In an effort to calm my mind of racing thoughts, I began practicing yoga twice weekly along with spinning on a stationary bike and engaging in meditation. Each of these activities, in short bursts, allows me to step back from the stress and pressure of meeting the needs of my 250 students, 30-plus staff members and hundreds of parents, and take time to reflect and restore my perspective so that I am a more creative, capable leader. — Meredith Essalat, elementary school principal and author of The Overly Honest Teacher, San Francisco
Prioritizing to-do lists
We started the 2020-2021 school year on Aug. 10 in person. With all of the stress, I find myself learning to take time each day to prioritize my tasks. With everything going on, it sometimes feels like we have to take on the world and solve big problems, but that is not the case. Some things are completely out of our control. We can not worry and stress each day about the “what if.” If we just “think” of all the things we need to do, it can become overwhelming. That is why we need to take time, to make time. Take the 15 minutes of quiet time each day, write out the tasks to be done and then prioritize them by what has to be done within 24 hours, what can be done later in the week, and what can be done in the future. Just doing this will alleviate stress and calm your mind! As a school owner in the middle of a pandemic, this is by far my best tip for coping with all of the stress. — Lisa Collum, owner and principal of Coastal Middle and High School, Lake Park, Fla.