With the summer behind us and COVID-19 restrictions beginning to loosen, teachers and students are heading back into the classroom. The back to school transition is often hectic for parents and students, but it can be demanding for teachers as well. Some teachers may be excited to return to work, to have a consistent routine, and to meet their new students, but in light of the global pandemic, many teachers may be experiencing added stress and uncertainty about the impact of this social contact on the spread of the virus.
It is normal to be experiencing these emotions and nervousness as you return to work. The classroom and school routines aren’t likely to resemble the ones you are comfortable with and have developed over years of experience. While you may have previously been confident in your ability to run a new classroom, this pandemic year poses novel experiences that are hard to prepare for.
This school year is complicated by social distancing, mandatory personal protective equipment policies, and other procedures or routines to reduce the spread of the virus. Teachers are also facing anxious students, anxious parents, and the added worry that they or their students will become ill and spread the virus to others. Teachers may also contend with parents, students, or other teachers with varying degrees of compliance to new COVID-19 procedures, potentially putting themselves and others at risk.
The role of the teacher will become more challenging this year as they continually balance their obligation to teach the curriculum and assess student learning, all while ensuring safety, compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, and monitoring for ongoing behaviours and potential mental health challenges. These additional roles and restrictions can make it difficult to teach in the effective ways they previously did, and safeguard student learning. Some teachers may be in new school locations if large schools have been separated or managing new curriculum if they were reassigned to teach new grades or subjects. These reassignments can mean that teachers feel ill-prepared to teach, teachers bring work home to get prepared, and have trouble managing their work-life balance as a result.
Teachers may not be the only ones that feel unprepared for the classroom, but many students may feel behind as well. With the implementation of distance learning in the previous year to reduce the spread of the virus, it was expected that teachers and students quickly adapted to continue learning in a new way. For those that struggled this new learning model, it means that they may have missed out on several months of critical learning, especially those in key learning and assessment years. This added pressure to get back on track, worsened by the pandemic restrictions and uncertainty about the future, can make the transition challenging for students as well.
Helping Students to Face their Worries and Uncertainty
The added stress and pressure can lead to an increase in emotional outbursts, anger, frustration, and tears, in the classroom, particularly with students that have difficulty communicating their feelings and their needs. Students that are feeling unsafe or unsupported in their home life may also feel unsafe at school. This insecurity can lead to more frequent reassurance or safety-seeking behaviours from students in the classroom as well.
Here are some tips to help students to feel safe and secure and manage the uncertainty of the pandemic in the classroom:
Listen to students as they express their concerns to you, acknowledging and normalizing their feelings or worries, even if they seem unrealistic. Use empathy to understand their perspective and offer support or resources if needed. Express your gratitude and praise their courage to share
Know your student’s developmental age and share information with them that is appropriate. Be honest with students about the potential risks if they ask questions and avoid using blanket reassurance statements to try to minimize their concerns. This will only build mistrust if they feel they are being lied to or their concerns start to come true
Teach students to tolerate some levels of uncertainty and fear and explain the negative impact of avoidance behaviours on anxiety. Avoiding situations and letting fear control your actions can make anxiety worse. Assist students to use relaxation, mindfulness, or grounding techniques to calm down, facilitate alternative thinking and problem-solving skills, and build plans for self-care. Helping students to work through their fears and uncertainty can help them to build trust in themselves and feel more secure as an individual
Students are sponges as they watch, listen, learn, and grow. Modelling good behaviour to students can have a positive impact on their behaviour as well. Keeping calm, being honest, and demonstrating that you care can help students to feel comfortable and do better in the classroom. To demonstrate positive coping behaviours with students, it is important to check in with how you are managing and coping as well.
Healthy Teachers are Necessary to Foster Healthy Students
To be able to effectively help students to manage their stress and worries, it is critical that you feel safe and calm yourself. It can be incredibly difficult to help others when you need help yourself. This is a challenging time for everyone, and it is normal to need a little extra support. Recognizing and acknowledging that you are struggling is the first step.
Here are some tips to assist you to feel better, be effective, and stay motivated:
Know the expectations and restrictions around the pandemic and review all guidelines and materials provided to you by your employer. Know what is expected of you, and what you can expect of others. Consult with school administration, your union, or other governing bodies if you have specific questions or you are unsure
Monitor for unhelpful negative thoughts, judgements, and self-criticism, and swap them for self-compassion. Give yourself credit for how you have managed so far as you are doing best you can given the circumstances. Acknowledge that you cannot fix or control every outcome and the responsibility for student safety and success isn’t all on you
Remember your purpose, goals, or drive for becoming a teacher. Bring reminders of this vision into everyday life to help to maintain a positive outlook and stay motivated during challenging times
Find ways to build gratitude and kindness into your every day and into the classroom. These practices produce positive emotions, build stronger connections and relationships, and improve overall feelings of joy and wellbeing. These encouraging moments will be helpful to students as well
It is important to set boundaries to maintain a good work-life balance. Try to find ways to give yourself time and space to separate your work and home life. Learn to switch off your workday, implementing an end of day ritual might be helpful
Debrief with other colleagues when you need to consult or reflect on your experiences and mentor those needing added support as well. Connecting and sharing ideas can help to build solutions, as well as help one another to learn, grow, and cope during difficult times
Schedule self-care on a daily basis, even if in small doses. Ensure that you are mindful of your emotional, physical, spiritual, and social needs. Connect with friends and family, participate in enjoyable hobbies and relaxation activities, integrate humour and reflection, or use rewards to celebrate and appreciate small wins and goals.
Choose activities that give you energy, reduce stress, build positive emotion. Avoid substance use or self-indulgence for coping. This might include drugs and alcohol, overeating comforting junk food, or engaging in risky behaviours. These behaviours may feel good in the short-term but aren’t effective to you feeling better in the long-term
Maintain healthy routines to ensure you are giving your mental health a head start. Proper nutrition, sufficient water intake, quality sleep, and regular exercise and stretching are important to ensure the body has what it needs to achieve optimal functioning. Poor health habits can have an impact on mental health and one’s overall wellbeing
Use stress and anxiety reduction techniques if you are feeling overwhelmed. Deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness, and grounding exercises can all be helpful tools to assist if you are struggling in the moment
Seek professional assistance if you are having trouble getting started or if you are still feeling unwell after implementing some of these strategies. We all feel anxious, sad, or overwhelmed from time to time, and the pandemic can make things more difficult. Our counselling team can assist you if you are struggling. Connect with your EAP for further assistance.
Additional Resources for Teachers: