Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

Year after year, I have watched my fellow teachers selflessly give drastically more of themselves than they are required to by their primary job description because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. They spend hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) from their own income to create safe and inviting classrooms with activities that engage the senses of their students. Many tutor students during every free moment they have before school, during their minimal lunchtime, and after school has let out. Since much of their ‘planning’ time is taken up by conferences, meetings, and completing required paperwork, they chip at their personal time to manage the tasks that are impossible to complete otherwise.

I see the same thing with school administrators who assume the stance that they be the first one in the building and the last one out (which in my experience has been most). They plan and attend an extensive amount of school activities, juggle the mandates from the district and state, and attend to the constant flow of administrative requirements. They must do this all while attending to the needs and desires of their staff. They also chip away at their personal time to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of an educational leader.

Educator burnout has been cited as one of the leading causes for educators leaving the profession for as long as I can remember. However, many of the colleagues I have watched leave the profession citing ‘burnout’ described something far closer to demoralization. Though, I will admit that I did not recognize it until I read Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession and How They Can Stay by Doris Santoro.

The line of teachers entering the profession has gotten shorter and shorter. Going into the COVID-19 closures, we were already in a critical, nationwide teacher shortage. Veteran teachers were already feeling the strain of teacher shortages with larger class sizes, more duties, and the near-constant need to support long-term substitutes and new-to-the-profession teachers. Alternative certification pathways are rapidly becoming a lifeline for districts as they seek to fill vacancies, especially in their higher needs schools.

We are hemorrhaging good teachers, and there is no stockpile of qualified candidates to fill the voids. We have to stop the bleeding, and that means addressing the issue of demoralization, both for ourselves and our colleagues.

Demoralization Versus Burnout

One thing that has always irritated me was the way that ‘burnout’ puts the emphasis on the shortcomings of the educator. It centralizes the blame on the struggling educator for not being able to continue in the profession due to a lack of resilience, dedication, and skill sets. It is often dismissed by citing the low pay or the demands of a culture hell-bent on maintaining a standardized testing focus. People just assumed that more teachers were coming, so those who burn out are simply absorbed into other professions as the world kept spinning.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is most often caused by prolonged stress. Educators who feel burnout describe feeling overwhelmed, emotionally spent, and no longer able to meet the constant demands of the profession.

Demoralization looks almost identical at this point, but there is one major difference: the presence of a moral source. When faced with consistent and pervasive moral conflicts with their work, educators can begin to feel that they have no power to alter mandates they believe could be harmful to their students or staff. They watch things happen that damage and denigrate the teaching profession while feeling powerless to make positive changes.

Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”

Doris Santoro ~ Philosopher of Education, Bowdoin College (and former classroom teacher)

To put this in perspective, demoralization is one of many processes used during warfare to erode morale 0n the other side and to encourage enemies to surrender or defect. It is psychologically damaging to stay in a state of demoralization for both individuals and organizations. I do not draw this comparison lightly, nor am I implying that it is being done intentionally to educators. I simply want you to understand the gravity of demoralization in order to mobilize you to action.

Causes and Effects of Demoralization

The causes leading to demoralization are a little different for everyone, but there are some overarching themes.

  • Lack of workplace trust
  • Ineffective or absent emotional and mental health supports
  • Having no voice and choice with regard to mandates and management
  • Feeling micromanaged
  • Being forced to take actions while feeling morally in conflict with them, especially if your struggle is not acknowledged
  • Not receiving feedback and/or appreciation
  • Casual disregard of time and workload by leaders
  • “Lip Service” – being asked for advice and insight with no discernible response to concerns raised

Demoralization takes time as a process. We must catch it early. Then, we should focus on how to prevent it in the first place. It is important that you recognize that feelings of powerlessness play a huge role in the development of demoralization. When dealing with someone who is showing the signs of demoralization (even if it is yourself), finding where the powerlessness stems from is crucial to identifying how to intervene and improve the situation.

Dealing with Demoralization as a Teacher

As you have been reading, you may have developed or confirmed a suspicion that you are feeling demoralized. You are not alone. Chances are you work with several colleagues who are in the same boat as you. Your bosses may even be dealing with it. In truth, much of the nation is feeling demoralized, given the absolute chaos of the pandemic and social crises in our general lives.

The members of our society will be looking for us to manage our own feelings while providing for the needs of our community’s children. That means that the education community must pull together and address demoralization as a whole. It is the only way to stop the nearly constant loss of experienced and effective teachers and educational leaders. There is no option: We have to be healthy and empowered as individuals in order to provide our students with all that they will need.

Ways to address and combat demoralization for yourself:

  • Build or become part of an authentic professional community (even if you have to leave your school or even the district to find one that fits)
  • Address the frustration you are feeling
  • Educate your social community and seek their support
  • Become your students’ ally (they are dealing with demoralization, too!)
  • Practice and maintain cognitive flexibility
  • Educate yourself and progress your career
  • Make sure your basic and higher needs are taken care of
  • Get involved in policy-making or with organizations that affect policy-making
  • Act on your passions in the field (start a club, join a task force, etc.)
  • Seek the support of a trained, mental health professional
  • Identify ways to address the physical and mental health components of demoralization (exercise, meditation, healthy routines for sleep and eating)
  • Constructively communicate your needs to your leadership
  • Practice self-care as a habit

Addressing Demoralization as a Leader

While I wrote the above section focusing on teachers, school leaders are also in a precarious position to suffer the effects of demoralization. All of the suggestions for addressing it listed above apply to school administrators as well.

Please note that by creating a school environment for your teachers that has components to address and prevent demoralization, you are creating an environment that can do the same for you.

  • When a teacher brings a concern to your attention, look for the deeper moral concern behind it
  • Recognize that most teacher concerns revolve around three key issues: their ability to be responsive to students’ needs, their ability to meet the demands of the job (time), and things that impact their wellbeing (emotional and mental health)
  • Even if you disagree with a member of your staff on issues, you can still acknowledge their concern and validate their experience
  • Be the gateway for issues and initiatives that will impact your teachers. Recognize what is non-negotiable and help them navigate what can be ignored or sidelined
  • Frequently meet one-on-one or in small groups with your staff to provide support and encouragement
  • Nurture a school culture that champions transparency, empathy, and empowerment
  • Set the expectation that teachers self-care and provide resources/time for it
Instruction in Empathy Must Be Balanced

Instruction in Empathy Must Be Balanced

Writing an article about the importance of preparing early to teach empathy in response to current events seemed like an easy home run, but then I started researching and realized that focusing solely on empathy would be an unbalanced approach.

Much like the term ‘mindfulness,’ empathy has taken on a pop-culture meaning that is far simpler than the nuanced reality that it is. In order to teach something, it is important to understand the content fully. With this in mind, I went in search of what skills should be taught so that a healthy sense of empathy surfaces in our students.

The deeper you dig down the empathy hole, the more difficult it is to find sources that don’t associate empathy with morality. As a teacher, I start to get unsettled here. Now we’re talking about teaching morality?! Whoa, wait a minute. This is a weird gray area for educators. It is general practice in most American communities for families to impart moral teachings to a child. We, as educators, are to model positive universal truths (i.e. kindness, integrity) and the positive morals appropriate to our community and national culture.

Come on now. If you have ever been a teacher, you know full well you have played a role in the moral development of the students you have taught.

Deeper still: How can we, as educators, objectively teach students the skills necessary to be moral and empathic members of the community, while setting aside our own biases and misunderstandings, if necessary?

Now I am getting to the big question: What factors will maximize the likelihood that our education system helps provide the community with new members who are both capable of empathy and predisposed to continue improving both their own and their community’s well-being through moral acts?

I am going to first break down the components of empathy, each of which must be coached and taught for authentic and intentional empathy to take place. Then, I will discuss executive functions and their role in empathy (and…dare I say…morality). But before I do, note the most important factor.

Even with all of these things in place in the classrooms, there is one key ingredient that makes it at all viable: a deep, culturally responsive, and enduring partnership with the parents of our students and the larger community that they live within.

Understanding the Components of Empathy

There isn’t a great deal of literature on the components of Empathy. Most academic papers all pointed back to a single source: Decenty and Cowell’s 2014 article, “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” They describe empathy as a “catch-all” term for three decidedly different processes: Emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective-taking.

Some level of these three characteristics may be instinctual and initiated very early in a child’s development. However, instruction in the areas that inform appropriate behaviors around empathy is critical during the time students’ brains are developing their prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things essential to social interaction: how we regulate emotions, control our impulsive behavior, assess risk, and make long-term plans. It isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. Take note! The things I just mentioned are executive functions, which I will certainly get to shortly.

Meanwhile, take a look at the three proposed processes forming authentic empathy.

Emotional Sharing: The experience of feeling distressed at observing others in distress is known as emotional sharing.

Empathic Concern: The motivation to care for an individual who is either vulnerable or distressed is referred to as empathic concern.

Perspective Taking: When you intentionally put yourself into the mindset of another individual and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, you are taking on their perspective.

I have seen each of these processes played out NUMEROUS times on playgrounds, in cafeterias, and at track practice (which I coached). Our high expectations of our students must include high expectations around their use of intentional empathy. So how do we get them there with the consistency of high expectations in all grades?

Let’s Get a Round of Applause for…

Executive Functions

One quote sent me down a rabbit hole that changed my entire view of teaching empathy in the context of conflict. “In resource allocation situations, [when morality and empathy are in conflict], empathy can become a source of immoral behavior” (Batson et al., 1995).

As I processed that last statement, something became very clear to me. It is one thing to teach empathy, but what is the point if empathy can be subverted so easily by the need to belong? That led me down a path to anti-bullying instruction. I began to see a pattern emerging across this and all of the socio-emotional curricula I have taught throughout my career in special education and teacher training.

The common thread was that true empathy is made more intentional by the thinker’s executive functioning skills. If we are going to teach our students empathy, we must also strengthen their executive functioning abilities. I propose that this will also have the wonderful consequence of positively impacting student engagement.

What exactly are executive functioning skills?

As you read through this list of commonly recognized executive functioning skills, ponder two things. First, what functions are necessary for intentional empathy? Secondly, which ones are essential for school success? (Hint: They are all essential for both empathy and school success. More bang for your buck!)

I have included resources for teaching and strengthening each of the following examples of executive functions across all age groups after each function.

Sustaining Attention:

The ability to maintain attentional focus on relevant stimuli, such as listening to others, watching a presentation, and listening to instruction. In regard to empathy, this comes into play when you consider active listening, which is necessary to fully understand the experiences of others.

Impulse Control

The ability to refrain or delay response to a sudden strong urge or desire to act. Giving the brain time to fully understand and process information is imperative to intentional empathy. This is also a very important skill in the emotional self-regulation toolbox. You could look at impulse control as empathy for your future self, as it allows you to step into your own shoes and consider the effects of your behaviors before you act.

Emotional Self-Regulation

The ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts, particularly the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. The link to empathy and moral action is clear with this function. Understanding one’s own emotions is key to the ability to control one’s emotional expression and responses to the experience of empathy. This is a key function that is often negatively impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma.

Planning/Prioritizing

This involves the ability to select the most important/time-sensitive tasks, think about the activities required to achieve the task, and to make a plan to meet the goals of the task. When deciding what actions to take during and after an empathic response, planning is important. This is especially true when dealing with a moral issue or when attempting to change factors that are causing distress to an individual or larger groups.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to switch between thinking about multiple different concepts, tasks, or strategies simultaneously. This is a key function in being able to adapt to new situations and environments. This skill allows us to persist with current behavioral strategies for as long as they are productive at achieving goals and to be able to switch approaches and strategies when there is a change in the situation or environment. This is especially important when there is a plethora of information that is available, which with the internet is the norm. It is a required skill for perspective-taking, which is very important for intentional empathy.

Working Memory

The ability to keep anything you need in mind while you are doing something, like a phone number as you are dialing or keeping story events in order as you process the meaning of a book. This is essential when processing cause and effect accurately.

Self-Monitoring

The ability to observe and evaluate one’s own behavior or keeping track of one’s performance in order to make adjustments. This is an important function for becoming an independent learner.

Task Initiation

This is our ability to become motivated, to take on new tasks, to persevere at those tasks until their completion, even if we encounter challenges. It is one thing to have an empathic response. It is a whole other matter to initiate and persevere at tasks which deal with systemic changes.

Organization

The ability to put things together in a logical order, often by creating systems. As we watched the Nation’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that they became more and more organized. Organizing our behaviors is one way to make the maximum impact when we begin taking action. This is also crucial for every type of schooling and career.

Concept Formation

The ability to sort specific experiences and information into general rules or classes. Concept formation greatly impacts how students respond when they practice intentional empathy and make decisions about how to react.

Understanding Different Points of View

This is essentially perspective-taking, being able to understand a situation from the point of view of another person.

Next Week: I Will Discuss Metacognition and Mindfulness

One of the best tools you can provide your students with as they strengthen their executive functioning skills are metacognitive strategies and skills. Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking. If you would like to prime the pump, check out this resource on metacognition from Vanderbuilt University.

As you process this information on executive functions, consider how you can embed practices and strategies for their development within your content area and for your specific age groups. These are skills that will pay dividends in their ability to function as empathic learners.

Shifting the Educational Zeitgeist from Compliance to Community

Shifting the Educational Zeitgeist from Compliance to Community

In August, the families of our communities will once again entrust us with their most valued of all things: their children. On the surface, they will count on us to manage their intake of knowledge. Please make no mistake about it, though; they are counting on us to support their children as they navigate massive societal changes when trust is challenging to come by.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines zeitgeist as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.” For more than 18 years, a zeitgeist of testing accountability has dominated our field. It has had the unintended consequences of disillusioning a generation toward schooling and driving away dedicated teachers until we faced a national shortage.

This disillusionment, in turn, drove the need to establish management strategies aimed at extrinsically motivating students with external rewards. While I support Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) over the control-by-punishment methods, I have often felt that it was a retrofitted solution that only salved a deeper problem. (Ask any teacher who has spent hundreds of dollars from their own income to meet the students’ escalating expectations for rewards.)

Finally, a new movement has begun taking root among my colleagues: increasing student engagement. Authentic engagement cannot be bought. Only the outward appearance of compliance can. So, this new aim to get students excited about learning (intrinsically) stands as a beacon for me as I train and support first-year teachers.

As I contemplated recent events surrounding the pandemic and social unrest regarding race relations in our country, I began processing how to prepare our teachers to receive their students when the new school year begins in August.

Educators will be faced with supporting students and colleagues who have experienced isolation and trauma of varying degrees. Where do we even begin with less than three months to prepare? We begin by getting inspired to be change-makers.

I have gathered together some “taster talks” that are intended to inspire you to research further as you prepare for this daunting task: shifting the zeitgeist of education from compliance to community.

First, We Must Prepare for Healing

What used to be the language of special education and other specialized educational and social service fields will need to be brought further into the lexicon of general education. Fortunately, there are pioneers in the following approaches that have paved the way for us to get a head start.

Building Healthy Relationships

I could go on and on about this one, but I think that Rita Pierson says it best. Unfortunately, Ms. Pierson is no longer with us, but her message is timeless and powerful.

Culturally-Responsive Educational Practices

Culturally-responsive teaching practices acknowledge, respond to, and celebrate fundamental cultures while providing equitable access to education for students from all cultures.

Here I want to share the inspiring message of Jeff Dessources, the Director of the Center for Leadership and Engagement at New Jersey City University.

Resources for Culturally-Responsive Practices

Trauma-Informed Educational Practices

There is little doubt that each of you will be faced with supporting students and colleagues who are traumatized on some level. Trauma affects the brain in all humans, but the impact during the time when the brain is developing can have profound, long-term effects.

This talk is by Mark Sander, the Director of School Mental Health in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Resources for Trauma-Informed Practices

Shifting the Zeitgeist

If I have learned anything during the pandemic lockdown it is this: Educators are a powerful force in our society. Released from the confines of compliance, I have watched teachers rise to the occasion of engaging their students while growing meaningful and empathic relationships with them against the odds.

Join me in embracing a new educational zeitgeist defined by making connections with the community, being responsive to the needs of all learners, and healing our communities while building up the resilience of our future community leaders.

When the Mind Moves into Dark Space

When the Mind Moves into Dark Space

I hit a wall at the end of last week. Then, I slid into a very dark hole. It wasn’t depression, per se. It was more of a void: a total lack of contentment, meaning, and purpose.

Thanks to chronic insomnia, I have been averaging only 4-4.5 hours of sleep per night for six weeks, but I have used self-care and naps to cope. Aside from missing my tribe, I felt I was managing well.

Perhaps it was my exhaustion along with the cumulative effects of quarantine isolation triggered by the realization that I had fallen into the trap of writing like a textbook rather than from the soul. Maybe it was the suppression of grief from my break up with my partner after a difficult 9 months. In all honesty, I was likely hurtling toward this dark space since March, and I couldn’t see it because I was busy being diligent with writing and helping others through their dark spaces.

But mental health disorders are often unpredictable like that.

I reached out to someone in my social support tribe to ask them whether they had the mental space to help me process what was happening. He assured me that he did, listening patiently as I talked in a stream of consciousness.

When I reached a pausing point after realizing I had been talking non-stop for over thirty minutes, I waited for my friend to respond. He took a long, slow breath and said, “You are one of the most positive people I know.” Another pause. “Do you realize how nihilistic you sound, Jenna?”

The question jarred me. It left me frantically sifting through my segmented memories of the things I had just said to find some shred of evidence that he had misunderstood my message.

What is the point? My life feels meaningless. My impact on the world is so small. When I die, I will only have mattered for as long as the memories of my loved ones can sustain snippets of who they perceived me to be.

Perhaps I will write a book, and someone, a hundred years from now, will quote something I have said. It is unlikely; everything has been said before. Originality is only a function of exposure.

I am a speck of stardust on a rock that is hurtling through space. Insignificant to the Universe.

I had even quoted the Epicurean paradox as I ranted about the pandemic and how the prayers from around the world were not stopping its spread.

I sat there, stunned. I had unknowingly stumbled into the realm of existential nihilism, and I had wandered in so far that I couldn’t see even the slightest sliver of meaningfulness on the horizon.

Don’t Google “nihilism” and begin judging me as a godless Being without morals. The first definition that comes up is biased in its brevity and dangerous in its assumptions. It is insulting and presumptive to lump me in with Nietzsche as if the direction he took nihilism in is the only perspective that can come from realizing that most of the striving we do in life is pointless in and of itself.

In our darkest moments, we can surrender to the shadows, or we can fight them with our light. I started fighting by researching, as is my way. The starkly pessimistic words of historical nihilists resonated with my dark space. I began questioning whether I was becoming informed or falling farther into the hole, but I kept scanning the texts for a way out.

Then, I was met with salvation as one quote jumped off the screen at me.

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

The Ego Falls Away

When I was 15 years old, my Theory of Knowledge teacher took us to a field and told us to go lie in the grass alone and ponder René Descartes’ declaration, “I think; therefore, I am.” Being the unassuming rebel that I was, I sat there and made a chain of clover flowers thinking that I existed simply because I existed and that I didn’t need to understand why.

How could I have known then that the experience she had gifted me would connect with existential nihilism almost 30 years later only to give me the power and purpose climb out of my dark space?

I have suffered for countless days wondering why I was made to exist in a world that wouldn’t have missed me if I was never born. This is a gift of periodic depressions and the darkness of mood swings.

The roots of my darkness run so deep that so far, I have only managed the symptoms when it takes over. Being bullied by “mean girls” as a pre-teen adolescent tore wounds into my ego that would take nearly three decades and a lot of therapy to heal. This is where the ego comes into play.

I have been consumed by worrying about what people thought of me for most of my life. Even as I write this, I feel the sting of fear that someone I know will judge and reject me as I begin opening up windows into my mental health experiences in this blog.

Psychologically speaking, the ego is “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” (Oxford Languages). Ego is more commonly understood to be one’s sense of identity and self-worth.

Several spiritual and religious paths guide us in releasing the ego for enlightenment, altruism, and the glory of a higher power. We can experience huge shifts in our ego toward peace and acceptance only to find ourselves battling the ego again only days, weeks, or months later. This is part of the human condition.

The negative things that happen to us can feed a pain body within our ego, making dark thoughts part of our personal narrative. It is easy in troubling times for this pain body to take over and move us into dark space.

The first step in battling the pain body of the ego is to acknowledge its presence. Stare it in the face and say, “I see you there. I know you are not me.”

What now?

Now that I realized my ego’s pain body had pushed me into the wall and rolled me into the hole, I began searching for inspiration in one of my favorite places. I started watching TED Talks on depression, nihilism, and mental health. Enlightenment came with the seventh talk I listened to.

I have been isolated from the work I love, which is supporting teachers in personalized, face-to-face coaching sessions. I have had very little social interaction. My one remaining connection to the servant leadership that is essential to my self-worth, namely this blog, had plateaued in readership.

Then the epiphany: In the absence of service, belonging, and impact, my ego becomes nihilistic.

I had taken the next step to weaken my pain body after calling it out: I had identified what fueled it. Now I could take steps to dismantle it.

Belonging is Essential

Much of our life is spent striving to belong. It is an essential need that even Maslow had identified in his hierarchy.

The connections we make with ourselves and others are the fabric of happiness and purpose, and we create that on our own. Even the act of surrendering to a god is a personal choice meant to bring belonging and meaning where there was none; it is part of our essence that we bring into the world by pure will. Call it faith if you wish.

Steps to Grow a Sense of Belonging

  • Change your personal narrative with positive self-talk. If you catch yourself ruminating on the rhetoric of your pain body’s darkness, reframe it into positivity by keeping a gratitude journal, developing goals with a plan, creating a vision board, or using positive affirmations with yourself.
  • Practice loving-kindness with yourself. There are even meditations for this! Unconditional self-acceptance is crucial to shrinking your ego’s pain body.
  • Look for ways to integrate the best parts of your various personas. If you have been segmenting your life into work versus social versus the self you give your significant others versus who you are when you are alone, find a way to reintegrate yourself. I am not suggesting you take down barriers that help you. Instead, find what personas and skillsets you like most about yourself and invite them into the various compartments of your life.
  • Make healing a priority. I would not have come so far in my mental health progress without therapy and other expert resources. The book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown is a powerful place to start.

Service and Impact

The ripples we make in this life define who we are for others and invites belonging.

I am a deeply spiritual and moral woman because I choose to be for the comfort of my soul and those around me. I have always recognized that it is the impact we have on others and the feelings we cultivate within ourselves that brings meaning to this existence in the brief time we are a part of it.

How I treat one person can change them for the rest of their lives. That change could impact how they treat everyone they know and what they choose to do to bring their own life meaning.

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Find out how you can provide service to those you wish to belong with. For me, that is continuing this blog despite the fact that I may never have thousands of readers. Even if I only impact one person in a positive way, the ripples of that could spread that positivity to others they know. Ripples.

In Summation: A Call to Arms for Educators

If we are to equip our youth with the tools they need to make their own meaning in this world, we have a moral responsibility to define and strengthen the meaning of our own lives.

We also have a moral responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues. Goodness knows there will be plenty of people dealing with the reality of mental health disorders and emotional struggles as we emerge from quarantine for the next school year.

I am still struggling with my dark space today, but I can see hope on the horizon. Instead of dwelling in the nihilism, I am accepting it as a stage I must move through to deal with the scars of my past. When you feel lost in the darkness, don’t ever stop looking for the light.

You are important. You are worthy. Now, go make your own meaning!

How to Prepare For the End of the Quarantine When There’s No End in Sight

How to Prepare For the End of the Quarantine When There’s No End in Sight

In mid-March, educators joined the masses of workers across the nation who watched in varying degrees of horror as the self-care barriers they had built between their work and private lives dissolved right before their eyes. Spaces used for eating and being with their loved ones became impromptu classrooms for virtual lessons. Those with children of their own saw their already meager personal time become a thing of the past. Social outlets vanished, replaced with virtual get-togethers on top of the online time they had already dedicated to their jobs. 

The general consensus among my peers is that we cannot wait for schools to reopen so things can begin to stabilize closer to the norm. I am finding that few of us have really thought through how that could actually unfold. In fact, assuming we can simply go back to “normal” is probably holding us back when it comes to making preemptive decisions that protect our well-being.

In the writing of this article, I do not intend to give you false hope that this is almost over. Estimates for the end of the shutdown range anywhere from four to six months at a minimum. The conservative estimate of Trump’s Coronavirus task force projects the potential death toll to be between 100,000 and 240,000 American people. As of today, the known death toll in our Nation is around 45,200. It is likely going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

You’re probably wondering why the hell I would write an article on how to prepare for the end of quarantine only to backhand you with such frightening numbers.

First and foremost, hope is an essential building block for positive mental health; however, acceptance of reality is equally vital. You need both if you are going to make it through this crisis.

“Your Search Yielded No Results”

When I began researching for this article, I was befuddled to find that there was very little out there on how to end quarantine with positive mental health in mind. The majority of sources regarding the effects of extended isolation related to resocializing prison inmates, interred refugees, and soldiers leaving high-tension situations. Some sources skirted ideas to support medical personnel, but I could not find a single source on how educators could prepare themselves to return to the classroom after an untold number of weeks of living in isolation. 

What little I could find on the after-effects of quarantine were based on isolation cases of much shorter duration within societies that bear little resemblance to our current reality. None of it was even close to the scale we are going to experience. We are setting precedence and likely living through one of the most norm disrupting global events of our lifetime.

Contagion in America Not So Long Ago

Chances are good that unless you are older than 70 years of age, you likely have no idea what returning to society after self-isolating for so long will look or feel like. 

The Poliomyelitis Epidemic swept across our Nation beginning in 1894 with infections surging well into the early 1950s. Commonly referred to as Polio, the virus killed without regard to age and left thousands of survivors with lifelong health issues. Children were especially susceptible and paralysis was common if the affected individual lived through the infection. Thankfully, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine against the disease around 1954.

I have personally spent quite a bit of time with an inspiring woman who not only lost her twin sister and young son to polio, but who also lost the use of her own legs when she contracted the disease while caring for her family. A woman of grace and fortitude, she seldom spoke of the illness and the damage it exacted in her early adult life except to say she missed those she lost. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her for advice.

Polio reached epidemic proportions across approximately 60 years. We are dealing with an outbreak that became pandemic within four months of the first known case. 

Although our society looks very different than that of the mid-1950s, I assumed records of the time would have some guidance to offer on dismantling a large-scale quarantine. I was wrong. I looked for research and historical notes on the best ways to prepare to reemerge, but I came up with only crumbs of ideas with very few sources to cite beyond personal memoirs, textbook blurbs, and historical fiction. After days of looking, I could not locate any reference material on how to resocialize and restore society after an extended quarantine…in any language.

Despite the lack of resources, I will do my very best to provide enough kindling to start a fire you can use to light your own torch. Then it is up to you to carry this light back to your communities and set the signal fires ablaze.

Seeds for Thought

I am going to seed this article with a lot of ideas. Over the coming months, I will expound on as many of them as possible, particularly the keywords and phrases I have italicized in bold print. 

Despite the sobering (and frankly terrifying) estimates for when this shutdown might end, it is best we prepare for the earliest predictions so as not to be caught off guard while steeling ourselves for much longer than we expect. It’s a strange balancing act that requires us to be both grounded and innovative.

For educators, it may make this unfathomable task more approachable to consider what adjustments you typically make when the end of summer break approaches. I caution you, however, if you only prepare for the reestablishment of pre-quarantine norms, you may not be equipped for the realities you will likely face. 

Research Pertinent Topics Proactively

Educator, educate thyself! Set aside time each day to learn something new and keep a notebook or file folder for things you want to keep in mind. 

Learn to recognize the symptoms of post-trauma mental health issues with special attention to the demographics of those you serve as an educator. Be prepared to identify them in both yourself and the other adults around you. 

Be aware of the signs of neglect and abuse, and know your legal responsibilities and district policies as a Mandated Reporter. (Note that you are still required by law to follow up on suspicions of abuse, even in the virtual world.)

Deepen Your Understanding of differentiation. Besides classroom management, differentiation is often an area of struggle for new and veteran teachers alike. Regardless of how diligent you have been with your distance learning plan, many students will experience a learning gap due to their extended separation from direct, in-person instruction. Find new ways to scaffold, accommodate and modify (when appropriate) your classroom instruction. 

Some highly productive search phrases for identifying resources on differentiation:

  • Content, process, and product differentiation
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • Backward design of lessons
  • Formative assessment strategies 

Connect with Yourself 

Find some time and space to brainstorm both short- and long-term goals you wish to accomplish during and after reintegration. Write them out or record them for reference in the event you feel lost later. 

Consider locating a therapist if you don’t already have one. Mental health should be tended in the same manner as cardiovascular health: early intervention and consistency are key. Finding a good-fit therapist who has room to take new patients will likely become more and more difficult in the coming months. Start now and consider virtual options if you cannot locate one nearby.

Your brain may have changed the way it processes inputs while isolated in quarantine. For example, if your safe space is considerably quieter than your typical workspace, consider resensitizing yourself to noise. It may even be beneficial to read about sensory processing sensitivity and strategies for managing the sudden change in sensory input that will come with returning to work, dealing with crowds (and traffic), and resocializing into your school community. 

Prepare for the varieties of anxiety that may develop as you move closer to leaving the safe space. Check out my video titled, “What a Shame: Let’s Destigmatize Educator Anxiety” for an in-depth discussion of symptoms associated with anxiety. It was my first video…don’t judge me; I was anxious.

You may feel separation anxiety, or you may have to support loved ones who do. Things may feel surreal, making it difficult to put your finger on what to do to feel more normal. Your typical stress reactions may be amplified. Feelings of distrust and insecurity around others may persist even after the threat of the virus has passed. 

Brace for the impact of having to multitask on a grander scale again. Establishing boundaries, routines, and schedules that are similar to your actual workday may help. So might a little mindfulness…

Cultivate Your Mindfulness Practice

Whether you have already begun practicing mindfulness or you are just reading about it for the first time today, I cannot overstate the importance of training your brain to manage thoughts and external events without overreacting or shutting down. Mindfulness is an intentional set of behaviors that allow you to do just that. Go deeper by reading my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”

Pace Your Reintegration

The ambiguity of our timeline for reemerging from quarantine makes this one a tough one, but you can still be intentional if you start as early as possible. Move deliberately and in phases.

Socialize virtually. Build (or repair) relationships now that will serve to sustain you later.

Resist the urge to over-schedule your social calendar early in the reemergence. You may miss human contact now, but by not giving yourself time to process the early abundance of sensory inputs that will come with returning to school, you could overstimulate your system quickly. This comes with knowing your own limits and respecting yourself enough to put boundaries in place. 

For those of you who are true extroverts, this may not be the case for you. You may need as much human contact as time will allow. Just be aware that the introverts in your life may be standoffish at first. Let them know you’ve got their back.

Know and Respect Your Own Limitations

You know your body’s response to extreme stressors. Honor those signals and apply self-care liberally.

Get your personal spaces organized while you have more time at home so you have less chaos to return to after working outside of the home all day.

Our environment is often a reflection of what is going on inside us. 
If your home is a mess, clean it up.

For some, your safe spaces are already spotless and in order. If that is the case, consider the files on your computer. Have you always wished you had a better filing system? Move on that now.

Consider Edutainment

Play and supported exploration are both very important factors in healing, regardless of age. Edutainment offers both to students of all ages. You probably already do some edutaining, even if you haven’t heard the term before. Some of you had a crash course in it when you found yourself teaching a classroom of students virtually. How do you keep their attention? Props, visuals, jokes…

Get them laughing. Teach them to ask higher-order questions themselves. Plan lessons that culminate in fun and exciting ways.

There is no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone.”

(Various attributions, including John Maxwell)

Deliberately Destigmatize Mental Health Discussions

Whether you experience mental health issues in the wake of the quarantine or not, someone you work with or teach will. We need to be talking about things like anxiety and depression in open and supportive ways.

As an educator, you have the responsibility to maintain a safe space within your school or office. Be intentional and cautious with your language. Using phrases such as “made me crazy” and “it was insane” could clam up someone who was (and may still be) dealing with genuine mental health concerns. 

If you haven’t already, create some low-stimulus, safe spaces within your classroom or school building. Make sure students and staff know who they can safely talk to in the event of an emotional or mental health urgency. Guidance counselors and most special education teachers are specially trained in emotional and behavioral de-escalation strategies. Your employer likely has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place. Check near the OSHA Regulations board in your breakroom for flyers or contact Human Resources for more information. 

Reestablish Your Expectations 

While your emotions may tell you to ‘go easy’ on your students when they return, recognize that they will likely need structure and predictability now more than ever. Start reading about classroom management now. Treat your first days back like the first day of a new school year or the return from Winter Break. 

If we return to work this school year, directly teach and reinforce your expectations. Be liberal with specific praise and champion growth mindset practices. Instead of teaching to the test (because standardized testing is temporarily a non-issue for the first time in most of your teaching careers), teach to the needs of the students and prepare them as much as possible to move up to the next level of schooling or into the workforce.

Consider building in (more) brain breaks and structured downtime for resocialization and pleasure.

Build Reflection Time into Your Day

Start the habit now, while you have the time. Once we return, the days are likely going to move faster than you anticipate. Whether you teach or manage those who do, a reflective practice helps you gain new insights over time so that you can adapt to a rapidly changing environment. 

The most effective method I have found involves intentionally planning my day first thing each morning and reflecting upon that plan and the events of the day later in the evening. I use the Evo planner (No, I don’t get paid to say that; it’s just the best one I have found for me.) 

In closing…

This article wasn’t written to give you the comprehensive answers on how to prepare for the eventual end of the quarantine. The experience of reintegration will be different for each of us. My purpose in writing this is to get you asking the right questions and to spur you into having crucial conversations with your loved ones and colleagues. 

Stay strong. Stay positive. Stay mindful.

References

History of Polio. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline/polio

NMAH: Polio: Timeline. (2005, February 01). Retrieved from https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/timeline/index.htm

Quality, Not Quantity

Quality, Not Quantity

First, let me say thank you to those of you who are following me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and on the website itself. I have been humbled by the amount of people who find value in my work after only a week of going live. I want to honor your time while allowing myself a schedule that gives you high quality content.

With that in mind, I have made the decision to reduce my post days from three per week to one in-depth article every Wednesday along with a high-quality video every other Monday. The Monday posts will be on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month. Every once in a while, I may throw in a bonus article or video.

Ask Jenna

My greatest goal in this endeavor is to give you well-researched and trustworthy content on questions and ideas that are pertinent to you right now and for when we return to traditional schooling after the quarantine. So, I need to know what is in your full mind.

Please, go to my webpage and select ASK JENNA from the menu. You can submit questions and comments with a username you create to ensure your anonymity. Entering your email is optional, and it will never be made public. If you want a personal response that comes directly from me and is not simply used to inspire public content, you can enter your email address and request an email rather than waiting for it to get worked into a post.

My privacy notice is very clear on the fact that I will never spam you nor share your email with any outside entities for any reason…ever.

Please Follow My Blog Directly

One of the ways I can grow the attention this movement deserves is by growing my team of Followers on the website directly. Even if you are already following me on another social media platform, please consider going directly to The Mindfull Educator website to subscribe.

Once you subscribe, you will receive my new posts directly to your email without having to surf for them. Again, I will never spam you.

Who is Jenna Glenn?

In case you missed it on Saturday, I posted a fun video that will help you to better know the source of the much needed information in this blog. Check it out now.

May Be

Take a few moments to read the story below. It highlights the mindfulness practice of non-judgement. After reading this, I encourage you to consider the paradigm shifts that will benefit not just your mindfulness practice, but also your teaching and administrative practices.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

I humbly thank you for your support!

Stay strong. Stay positive. Stay mindful.