Caring During a Global Pandemic

Caring During a Global Pandemic

This post concludes a three-part collaborative series on COVID-era teaching and mental health. Click to view Part 1 and Part 2.

Cindi and Karyn are instructional coaches, Cindi at a K-12 public charter school and Karyn at a public high school. Although their job descriptions mean they are caregivers (curriculum support and emotional support as well) for staff members in their respective schools, they also have responsibilities at home that can be challenging when facilitating remote learning. Cindi is currently living with her 93-year-old mother who is a cancer patient and who is also losing her vision. Karyn is the mother to kindergarten twin boys who are getting their first school experience on a computer, and she is married to another teacher. So there is so much care to give...it can get chaotic. Here are their remote learning stories:

Cindi - I have seen teachers cry before, but this year is a doozy. I have witnessed tears while watching teachers try to assist their own school age children and teach a “live lesson” to students at the same time, I have heard first year teachers say they wonder if they’ve chosen the wrong profession, and I’ve seen the pace and the workload affect everyone on the staff - assistants, teachers, and administrators. The technology expertise required (for adults and students) can be frustrating and terrorizing, especially to those of us who are “digital immigrants.” Teacher friends of mine are sharing that colleagues of theirs are leaving the profession, which, in turn, leaves them with over 200 students in their online classes. Students, also, are struggling. Parents have shared concerns over depressed and anxious children since we began remote learning. I often wonder if we’ll make it out of this pandemic unscathed. Will we have post traumatic stress episodes? Will we tell our grandchildren “I was a teacher in 2020,” and that will carry an unspoken meaning for years to come? How can we meet these challenges head on and stay healthy mentally and physically?

Karyn - As a two-educator household with twin kindergarten students, I started the school year with a detailed, color-coded Excel calendar. It looks pretty, but it doesn’t really do much other than remind me that we are like ships passing in the night with our online schedules. Like so many caregivers, including working parents who aren’t educators, the work day feels like it is full of endless interruptions and tasks to be submitted in our different virtual portals. I’ve had to mute myself to get my kids to stop chasing each other around the house during virtual PE. I’ve wiped away tears from a child struggling to figure out an assignment while still typing on my computer because I needed to send an email to a teacher panicked about Google Meet not working.  My children have become cameo fixtures in my coaching sessions and professional development offerings, hopping onto my lap in the middle of a presentation or interrupting a heartfelt conversation with a teacher to ask for a snack. It feels like our lives are consumed by “doing school,” and my husband and I often find ourselves working early in the morning or late at night to have a few hours of uninterrupted work time. I see similar appearances of coworkers’ children during meetings and hear the same stories: it all feels unsustainable, and the amount of work on teachers has increased drastically. In addition to the technology burden, teachers are trying so hard to keep students engaged and to work with those who are falling behind. Virtual piles of make-up work dating back to the start of the year loom over teachers trying to finish first semester grades, full parent communication logs sit in front of them, and academic contracts to help students recover are being drafted as I type. The mental and emotional toll of caring so much about so many--both those in and out of your home--weighs heavy, and the uncertainty of how long this will last adds to the burden.

The concerns about finding a work-life balance while working from home, the desire to protect those in your home from COVID-19, and the genuine concern for those in your work environment can lead to a lot of stress.  According to research collected in the spring, evidence suggests that the more caregiving responsibility an individual has, the more acutely they feel the effects of dealing with a worldwide crisis. This research also reveals that “child disaster outcomes are worst among children of highly distressed caregivers, or those caregivers who experience their own negative mental health outcomes from the disaster” (Russell et al., 2020). When you compound personal caregiving responsibilities with a profession that is all about caregiving, the potential impact on mental health can take its toll, but the need to maintain a healthy mindset is critical for caregivers to support those they love.

Tips for Fostering Good Mental Health During COVID-19 Teaching

  1. Cindi - My principal keeps saying it: just step away. As difficult as it is, and as little time as we have, we MUST take breaks from the computer. Walk outside, drive up the street, meditate. My colleague did a three minute meditation exercise during our last grade level meeting. It helped! There are numerous exercises online. Three minutes! You can do it!
  2. Karyn - Find your happy space. For me, it has been starting to run again. The quiet I get during that time helps me get into the headspace I need to approach the day in a more positive light. What is your happy space? Maybe it is in the pages of a book or magazine, doodling, coloring, creating, baking, or something else? Carve out a little time to go to that happy space.
  3. Cindi - My daughter is a psychologist and over the years I’ve asked her how to help a struggling teacher here and there. She always asks the same questions first: what are they eating, and how much are they sleeping? Recently, I’ve gotten emails from teachers that were sent at 2 AM; I’ve even received them at 5AM from teachers who haven’t been to bed! It’s a cliché, but like the oxygen mask on a plane, you can’t help your students or your family if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
  4. Karyn- Don’t get caught up in the transactional nature of existing in a virtual world. Sometimes I find myself rushing my kids through work in SeeSaw so I can get back to my own work. The rushing and not stopping to appreciate the creative and learning processes that are at the center of our work makes everything lose a sense of meaning and intensifies the anxiety in my household. When I start emphasizing productivity over learning, I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and search for value over simple completion.
  5. Cindi- Throughout my career I’ve played a daily “game” with myself I like to call “Who was it today?” At the end of every day, I ask myself if there is a colleague or student that I have helped in some way. Have I made a difference with anyone? Sometimes it may be as small as a smile following a compliment or as big as talking a student out of suicide (yes, that happened), but every day I challenge myself to make a difference. Making a “remote” difference may seem impossible, but if anything, our colleagues and students need inspiration more than ever. Impact others, and you will feel the positivity as well.
  6. Karyn- Reach out to your friends, especially those in a similar situation. Join them for a socially-distanced conversation to share your experiences, engage in group text chats to get advice, or whatever format works best for you. The camaraderie helps remove some of the isolation we experience in this new normal, and it always helps to know you are not alone in your struggles.

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that when a community comes together, even while keeping six feet apart, we can accomplish much more than when we work in isolation.

When you care for others for a living, it sometimes feels like it hurts too much to keep doing the work, but we chose this work because we care. Sometimes that care has to be balanced between caring for and about those in our households, those in our buildings, and those throughout the world.

Recently, a group of teachers sat, six feet apart, for some conversation after school. The only topic these days seems to be distance learning, of course, and the stress that each scenario brings. But one twenty-year veteran summed it up nicely, “Challenges don’t mean we don’t do it. We always do it, no matter what.”

Teachers will continue to “do it.” We always have, and we always will. It doesn’t make it any less hard, but we continue because it matters. And it always will.

Cindi Rigsbee is the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year Finalist. Karyn Dickerson is the 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.  

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