By Stephanie Filio
I am an existential counselor through and through. Like all existential counselors, I believe that the only way to cope with the anxiety of existence is to find meaning in our lives. I believe we find that meaning through the purpose we feel within ourselves and how we serve others. Watching society manage the threat of the fast-spreading COVID-19 virus has truly been a testament to this counseling theory.
We are staring into the great unknown from atop a cliff that feels crumbly at best. We are going to learn about what we value in life. We are going to learn how we operate and feel in the face of a more desolate existence. And we educators are going to do it while we instruct our students from home.
In my state of Virginia, we have recently learned that school buildings will be closed through the end of the school year. For my division in particular, that means we’ll be ending distance learning in mid-June—after about three more months of school (a full quarter of the school year). We’re in it for the long haul, folks. Though we in education remain hopeful, recent changes have undoubtedly left us anxious, as we realize the weight of what we are tasked to do from home.
One of my favorite tenets of existentialism is the way it views negative emotions and suffering. Viktor Frankl, an existential psychologist, said that the ultimate human condition is our insistence on spending our lives avoiding pain, when in fact suffering is the only thing we can definitively expect in life. This is not intended to be pessimistic, but rather a statement of freedom. Let’s stop spinning our wheels trying to avoid what we think might hurt us and instead live our lives striving for what may bring us contentment and joy, even in the face of negative emotions.
So far, within my mourning of the school year, I have experienced an almost euphoric appreciation for my profession, my peers, my students, and my opportunity to work with kids who teach me a great deal. The part I’m working on is allowing those positive feelings to come through, even amidst the anxiety we’re all feeling.
A Time for Change
When faced with the sudden absence of anyone or anything, we know that our appreciation often soars. These moments of absence shape us as we move. Our current situation is no different. We miss our hallways, our students, our colleagues, our administrators, our families, our friends. And in this, our appreciation is strengthening.
The school closures due to the spread of COVID-19 escalated rapidly, and I think it is safe to say that scrambling to set up digital instruction while grappling with intense anxiety has been an experience unlike any other. Instilling lifelong lessons in children, balancing rooms of 30 students, and adhering to standardized testing can all be taxing. Those of us in education thought we knew pressure . . . and then the universe decided to give us one big gut check.
As educators, we have spent our careers planning and overplanning, basing our decisions on data and established instructional methods. This is a time of uncertainty, and every day may bring a shocking twist—so we have to plan on un-planning. We must use our digital resources, lean on our content knowledge, stay true to our most basic tenets of how to reach children, and then see how it turns out.
How do we start to unwind the years of planning for scenarios A, B, and C after we realize that we never even thought of Z as a possibility? We embrace change.
Without a school building to go to every day, I cannot remember the last time I wore a lovely pair of earrings or packed lunch in some hipster glass container, let alone walked quiet halls before students arrived to take in the day’s possibilities. Now that I am without these things, I’m naturally trying to find ways to fill the void. Our priorities are changing, and it’s important to remember that that’s okay. At first it is easy to resist changing our priorities because it’s kind of scary, but we’re learning lessons we didn’t know before.
Daily Schedules Change
For the first week or two of moving my school counseling practice online, I struggled to figure out how to arrange my time. I had tasks I wanted to do, and I tried to outline a plan, but I felt frustrated at the end of each day. I realized that I was setting goals based on how I would typically organize my day, in the separate spaces of school and home. I have had to reframe my new day and this new way of working to find a feeling of contentment.
Educational Habits Change
In our offices and classrooms, we all have our tried-and-true methods for reaching and instructing kids. As we discover how different the digital learning environment is, we are having to adjust. Some of our old habits can be altered. But some just won’t work in this new environment, so we have to ditch those and find new ones. Letting go of the methods that can’t be used anymore will help us recognize the new ones we are feeling emerge.
Strategies for Self-care
At the end of the day, the best thing teachers working from home can do is stop holding themselves to impossible standards. Because this situation is unprecedented, any goal we set may or may not even be possible. To avoid burnout, it is imperative that we remain flexible with the expectations we have for ourselves.
When the anxiety creeps up, stay in the moment. Focus on what you are doing right then, and if necessary, take a break and do a little busywork to get your mind turning. Follow that up with a little meditative moment, and then get back to the virtual classroom when you are ready.
Talk It Out
Our first couple department meetings consisted of us counselors staring into our screens saying “This is crazy” over and over again. We may not have gotten much accomplished, but I felt renewed every time! It is important to have friends and colleagues to vent with, and equally important is that you are honest with your administrator about difficulties you are having with your home instruction or mental health.
Accept That You Can’t Fix This
Let go of emotions that are representations of your desire to fix things. We are indeed heartbroken for our students, but we cannot change the circumstances. We will do our best, and our students will be better for it, but we can only do as much as we can control.
Know When to Get Offline
School divisions are setting guidelines for home instruction, but remind yourself that this is all new to them too. We will be able to function well in the long term if we take care of ourselves in the moment. If you need to log off for a bit to be able to stay healthy, do it.
Hug Your Pets
This should be a no-brainer. Animals give us all the good feels!
Let the Emotions Flow
Some days I wake up and I’m excited to create a video for my students and log onto our digital meeting place. On those days, I am cognizant of the challenge and ready to tackle it. Other days, I want to stay in bed and cry over YouTube videos of puppies. Being able to identify and remain in majority control of our feelings is important, but so is embracing what we say (and now type) to our students on a daily basis—that we have a wide range of emotions for a reason, so we should feel them all and be human.
If we know anything to be true about this global pandemic, it is that we are all experiencing it at the same time, together. This being so, we can bear the weight of the burden collectively, lightening our individual loads. We can take care of our students by taking care of ourselves and by remembering that we are all trying our best, and that is good enough. You are good enough.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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