Several weeks ago, I had a Saturday with far too many things to do than I had time for. I resolved to get a stubborn tree stump out of my yard before one of my boys had a morning soccer game, so my father-in-law and I got to work as soon as the sun came up. He used a spade shovel to dig up the roots and dirt around the stump while I hacked away at it with an axe.
It wasn’t long before I was tired and frustrated. Each swing seemed to sap a bit more of my strength and enthusiasm. Our progress slowed, and it seemed like we were making less and less headway.
My workmate suggested that we pause, take a break, and use a file and stone to sharpen the axe blade. Through gritted teeth I grumbled that we were in a rush and didn’t have time. He smiled knowingly, shrugged, but didn’t argue.
As the job wore on, my work worsened, as did my temperament. About half an hour before we had to leave, I threw the axe on the ground in disgust and went inside to get a drink and to check whether my sons had completed their chores.
I came back with the intention of calling it quits, when my father-in-law handed me the axe and suggested we work for about 20 more minutes.
Reluctantly, I went back to hacking away. I was surprised and pleased to see how much quicker the job went. We didn’t get finished before game time, but we sure got close.
On the way to the game, my wife asked if we had been able to get the stump out. I told her no, but mentioned how it seemed like we had gotten more done in the last twenty minutes than we had in the previous two hours.
When she asked us why, my father-in-law said simply, “He just needed a break and I needed to sharpen the axe blade.” It was only then that I realized, chagrined, what he had been up to while I was inside.
Many educators now find themselves in a similar situation: fatigued, stressed, strapped for time, and floundering to find success in the fog of COVID-era teaching. It’s both taxing and disheartening for each of us to struggle so hard and feel as though we are accomplishing so little.
Ask any of my former students from the past 18 years to describe me, and they would likely mention words like energetic, patient, and optimistic.
If, however, you were to ask my current students, I would wager that they would have a few other, choice words… such as stressed, overstretched, and irritable.
I’m not the only one feeling frazzled. One of my fellow educators described it this way:
“Teaching during COVID feels like you are trying to keep your head above water while swimming upstream and juggling at the same time.”
According to recent studies from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and National Institutes of Public Health, increased angst, stress, and negative emotions are widespread among educators and are the result of heavy workloads, time pressures, and a long list of new challenges facing teachers during the pandemic.
Equally alarming is the finding that, for many educators, an emotionally draining, chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing work environment has become the new normal (Hadar, Ergas, Alpert, & Ariav, 2020).
Since the stressors of COVID teaching are likely to be around for the foreseeable future, it behooves each of us to pause and take time to explore a few strategies for reducing stress/angst and bolstering our capacity to cope.
When we get busy and overwhelmed, it’s far too easy to let things get out of balance. For example, a typical response when we don’t feel successful is to assume that we need to work harder and put in longer hours.
While hard work is important, it can be fruitless if it comes at a cost to other, worthwhile activities that keep us thinking clearly.
► If ever there were a time to carve out a half hour or so to exercise, it would be now. For decades, a vast body of research in medicine, psychiatry, and other fields has underscored the importance of 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular activity. Taking a walk, going on a jog, or loading up a quick HIIT workout on YouTube is by far one of the most effective ways to alleviate tension and to improve mood, clarity of thinking, and sleep (Stubbs et al., 2017; Wegner, et al., 2014).
► Basic mindfulness techniques designed for teachers are another powerful way for educators to reduce emotional exhaustion, burnout, and stress (Maricuţoiu et al. 2016).
According to researcher Cynthia Taylor and her colleagues, these include trying out different approaches for stress reduction, emotion regulation, and interactions with others (Taylor et al., 2016). Simply summarized, teachers need to sample some strategies in each category to find a few that feel comfortable and work well for them.
► Taking time to build and maintain a strong social support system at work is equally important. For teachers, this means forging connections with others who help us feel supported and encouraged in our efforts (Kinman, Wray, & Strange, 2011). Educators can start by doing a quick assessment of their social support system using the following questions:
• How easy is it to get practical help from my colleagues when I need it?
• How many people am I close enough to that I can count on them if I have great personal problems?
• How much interest and concern do the people around me show in what I do?
This self-inventory allows us to identify where we feel we can lean on our colleagues and those around us, as well as what connections we still need to make.
While writing this post, I reached out to my colleagues and online teacher network to see what suggestions they had. Below are some of my favorites:
► Making a list of things that need to be done, then prioritizing them and crossing them off to see that progress is being made
► Taking a 20-minute break at home to have a few bites of junk food and watch a bit of your favorite show on Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, etc.
► Choosing something from an angst-reducing activity menu of things to do during times of stress and uncertainty
► 4-Square breathing is frequently taught to first responders and military personnel to decrease their stress during emergencies and combat. A friend of mine with a PhD in counseling psychology made this handout to help get people familiar with the process. He explained that, in actuality, any skill that helps regulate the breathing will help decrease the stress response in the body.
► A number of educators and psychologists suggested exercises in grounding. Grounding helps teachers anchor their awareness back to the challenges of the present moment instead of being overwhelmed with everything else that needs to be done.
When feeling distressed, we simply focus on the 5 senses. What are 5 things you can see around you? 4 things you can touch? 3 sounds you can hear? 2 smells? 1 taste? Some video clips that help illustrate the technique include clear the mechanism from For Love of the Game and take out the trash from Peaceful Warrior.
► Do you remember those carefree ‘foot-loose’ moments as a kid when we used to turn up our favorite tunes and dance like crazy? I was thrilled by the number of grownups I talked to who suggested closing the door and having a quick dance party from time to time.
All it takes is a private place, a great song, and a willingness to dance like you don’t care who sees…without letting anyone see, of course. I tried it and had a blast. My favorite dance grooves, by the way, are Billy Idol’s Dancin’ With Myself and Soy Yo by Bomba Estéreo.
► I found a self-care exercise called “trace your hand” really interesting…and effective. Teachers start by tracing their hand on a piece of paper. Then, in each finger, they write down something they like to do. This could be a hobby, interest, talent, or anything you deem satisfying and fun.
The purpose of the activity is to remind us that when we are engaging in the pursuits we find meaningful, we tend to feel better. But when these interests become blocked or compromised in some way, perhaps due to fear, worry, doubt, time demands, insecurities, or a perceived sense of guilt for doing anything but schoolwork, then one by one these fingers bend until you have a closed fist. And what emotions do we associate with a fist? – anger, stress, tension, fear, doubt, anxiety.
► Several teachers, particularly those newer to the profession, commented repeatedly on the need for each of us to regularly carve out time to create something or learn something new. Many insisted that it needs to be a “choice activity,” or something we really want to do or learn (like play the guitar, paint a picture, bake something new) rather than something we feel like we have to do.
The development of mobile health and de-stressing apps has mushroomed in recent years, resulting in a variety of free tools to help people alleviate situations where we feel emotionally hijacked. These apps (and websites) now make it easy to try out simple psychological techniques wherever and whenever you feel like it.
If you don’t know where to start, consider the following tools recommended by psychologists and teachers alike.
Much like removing my tree stump, teaching takes an incredible amount of hard work. We are all having moments when our efforts are blocked or compromised in some way due to time demands, worry, doubt, and a perceived sense of guilt for doing anything but schoolwork.
Each of us, however, must also be willing to recognize when – despite our best efforts – our progress eventually slows and stalls. In these moments it’s essential that we heed the advice of my father-in-law: Pause, take a break, and sharpen the blade so that your hard work continues to pay off.