This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Courtney Jones.
Dear reader, I am sorry, because yes, you are going to read another blog post dedicated to encouraging you as you continue teaching during and after the pandemic. While appreciated, I’m sure you also find this tedious, especially after a year that feels like a lifetime.
Teacher to teacher, I understand. Remember the Snickers bar commercial, “When life comes at you fast…”? Well, I too, was unprepared for the fastball of teaching in 2020.
I started the pandemic by separating from my husband and moving back with my parents. I entered the long hot summer completely inside, separated from most human interactions except over Google Meet and then Zoom. While I hoped my community would follow public health recommendations, I watched dreams of perhaps beginning the fall in-person shatter as people continued to have gatherings and the virus spread.
As a Black educator, I advocated that my life and other Black lives mattered while I watched countless Black lives perish at the hands of police officers. I pushed for the safety of my students and colleagues as transmission numbers kept rising.
Right after Thanksgiving, my father decided he had enough of Parkinson’s Disease and passed away. My last goodbyes were on Zoom because I couldn’t afford to contract or transmit Covid-19 to my loved ones, my coworkers, or my students.
Adding insult to injury, our society’s constantly shifting perception and respect for education have made this year one of deep reflection about the profession in general. A quick scroll through social media channels reveals the trauma, the sadness, the disappointment, the rage, the fear, and the grasping for small happy moments that educators worldwide are dealing with.
I’m there too, sometimes cycling through all of those within minutes.
And to be honest, I know that though my year was rough, I’ve been one of the really lucky ones.
As we come to the close of the 2019-2021 school year (no, that was not a typo), I have had three realizations that have helped me survive teaching in the pandemic and remain in the fight. While not immensely profound, I hope these lessons may help you as well.
#1 Self-care is about boundaries, not massages.
Teachers are the ultimate givers. We are early risers to help our families before rushing to school to put the finishing touches on lessons for the day. We stay late into the evenings working on lesson plans, grading, attending students’ games or other activities before getting home to make dinners and squeeze out one last burst of energy for our children and partners. We get email after email, request after request for just one more thing, giving until there is nothing left. Then we find ourselves bombarded by messages in emails, the internet, social media, or television about self-care accompanied by images of yoga, spa massages, and bubble baths.
Self-care more than what those photos show you; it is setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them. As education professionals, we prioritize providing the necessary instruction and social-emotional support to promote success for our students.
We cannot perform our jobs if we are running on empty. We must critically examine our mental, physical, and emotional health and priorities.
If you can say no without putting your job or another high priority in jeopardy, say no. Don’t feel guilty, and don’t explain; “no” is a complete sentence. If you can’t say no, then try to find something else that you can set aside for the moment. We may be the ultimate jugglers, but balls are going to be dropped.
Knowing which balls must be kept in the air is significant. Let the balls that drop be those that are least important whenever possible. Remember, you are human. You are doing your very best and that is good enough. Be kind to yourself.
#2 Find a therapist.
Like most, I enjoy chatting with coworkers. It is helpful to commiserate with others about all the things — the good, the bad, and the ugly — that occur each day. Most of us have perfected compartmentalizing our emotions and experiences to be the rocks that our students and families need.
During this year and even after, you may need more than that. I certainly did. I needed an objective outsider with the knowledge and skills necessary to help me process my thoughts and feelings and work on a plan to get through each day without having a breakdown.
Most of my coworkers have therapists; did that make the idea of finding one feel comfortable? No, not really. Though messaging has changed around mental health to normalize counseling and therapy, it still felt very strange to me.
After putting it off for a long time, I finally decided to find a therapist, but then I had another challenge: finding an affordable one. Fortunately, there are a few companies that provide tele counseling with licensed therapists, and most of them have sliding fee scales. I did my background research and found one that worked for me.
Frankly, it was the best thing I’ve done. I have someone who will hold me accountable for taking care of myself, remind me of my priorities, and make room for me — the me that has hobbies and passions outside the classroom. While I have a little financial wiggle room for it, I’m going to continue to invest in this to try to be the best me I can be. Isn’t that what my students need anyway?
#3 Don’t feel guilty if leaving education is the best option for you.
Let’s be real. In the best of years, teaching is a trying experience in which some think about leaving permanently. The past year has been anything BUT ordinary; I don’t know anyone who hasn’t entertained the thought of leaving the K-12 classroom.
Teachers have been heroes and villains, selfless and selfish, compassionate and careless, and flexible and rigid according to anyone and everyone who isn’t in the classroom, including our colleagues, administrations, districts, politicians, friends, and immediate families. Teachers have navigated the nasty vitriol while trying to maintain quality teaching while focused on students’ social-emotional needs while attempting to keep themselves and their families safe from the virus. Whew!
Many have left the classroom for the short-term while many more have left forever, either retiring or seeking other employment. But that’s not a bad thing — it’s heroic. It takes a lot of courage to know when what you are currently doing professionally is not what’s best for you anymore. I speak from experience.
Before teaching, I had a successful career as a public health professional; however, it was stressful and taking a real toll on my health and my relationships (Sidenote: I know some of you are thinking, and she decided to switch to teaching? That’s another story for another day. Suffice to say, after public health, nothing in the classroom could surprise me). I felt like a failure, but sometimes success means knowing when your time is up, that you have given everything you can, and the system you are a part of (like the American education system) is too much for one person to take on. You are your best expert. If you need to leave the profession, don’t feel an ounce of guilt for doing what is best for you.
The school year is over. We have more bruises than we thought we would, but we’re (mostly) alive. Unfortunately, the pandemic is still ongoing. Many of us will work through the summer. In the fall, those of us still in education will face greater demands as we try to address all the things COVID-19 took from our students, our communities, and us.
As we continue teaching through this natural disaster, I encourage you to think about what I’ve shared here. You are more than educators. You are humans with lives, families, dreams, and limitations.
Remember to show yourselves the kindness and compassion that you show your students and your communities.