By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis
The division I live and work in doesn’t start receiving students until mid-September. However, staff are already back in the building and have been busy preparing our rooms and tidying the hallways. We are all fluttering around, planning and having meetings. The words we use with each other are careful and we are cheerful. So very cheerful.
But let’s face it, we are all pretending—pretending that everything is great! So great! Even as we wear a forced look of cheer on our faces, what we really are is a bit scared. Or scarred? Scared and scarred. Last year’s in-service week was the weirdest experience of most of our careers. We attended our meetings via video conference and felt deflated once the first-day excitement fell into a pattern of flat, quiet, and odd days. Here is the kicker though: as strange as last year was, the year before was normal.
When our emotions are tied up in the school closures and COVID chaos, we can find it difficult to remember that it is actually the year before COVID—when everything was normal—that is bringing us the most heartache. We’re not really reliving last year’s disappointments; we’re replaying the time just before the pandemic, when we thought everything was perfectly fine. Should we have been better prepared? Were there signs we missed? How can we know if something like this is coming again?
As anyone who has experienced abrupt trauma or loss knows, these questions are perfectly normal. They are agonizing, but they are part of processing the experience. You’ll never find true answers to them, but you’ll eventually realize that there is no truth to the hypothetical answers either. What you can do instead is refocus on the things that can help you cope with the present, stop living in the past, and feel safe about the future.
Here are three ways educators can work through their trauma about the pandemic.
1. Be Comfortable in Your Own Skin
Spend some time reconnecting with yourself—it is important. This restoration is not just about finding the right gym, however. It is about remembering who you are and allowing yourself to be the true you—the you that you are when you are cozy, or maybe creative, or just content to be resting in your head. Finding moments to reconnect with yourself, even if only for a couple minutes, helps you bring this person, this you, with you to work. Finding space for your true self at work might also be comforting, especially when what-if thoughts creep in.
Sometimes it feels as if we have to keep our true selves hidden to be seen by students as authority figures, mentors, or “serious” educators. Luckily for us, though, what students actually express is that they engage more when teachers show their true personalities, flaws and all. What this means, then, is that you are actually doing more as an educator if you allow yourself space to be the quirky, funny, and slightly strange authentic you!
2. Enjoy Your Work
I know we like to say, “Remember why you started” in education. But that advice isn’t always what we need. Our lives are fluid, and, if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that we have less control over them than we’d like. Maybe your “why” has changed. Or maybe you have seen new sides of students and peers. Maybe your role took on a different form, or maybe you’re finding that different things bring you joy during the day.
Though sometimes this change is scary, and though sometimes trauma can bring about feelings of doubt in ourselves and our abilities, start to conceptualize yourself as a piece of your job instead of the whole. What if one day you decided to simply come to work, do your job, and not let the details weigh you down? I mean, now that we know we can do everything right and still have the year fall apart, what is holding you back? Try to enjoy the fun parts of teaching!
3. Let It Go
This point takes a little clarification: we cannot and likely will not “let go” of the emotions we are feeling from the pandemic, the social changes, and the school closures of the last couple years. What we can do is let go of trying to recuperate the missed time, energy, and norms. You are not individually responsible for correcting it all for everyone. Let. The. Pressure. Go.
I know that educators are feeling anxiety and pressure to establish a new “normal” for their students: normal daily routines, normal planning patterns, normal (and rigorous) learning environments. You probably feel as if you have no time. And yet, I challenge you to take all the time you need to do what you need to do to feel secure again. I believe that this sense of time running out is where much of our inner tension is coming from. We feel the pressure to ensure that our students catch up before they hit adulthood, but they are in the same boat as all students around the world. So what are we “catching up” to?
How can we measure if we have done enough? The middle child in me happily and loudly says that when there is no measure . . . we get to create it! You cannot go wrong if you remain updated on information about student learning, keep your educational practice student-centered, and remain compassionate. If we then treat ourselves as kindly as we do others, we are in for a great—albeit wild—year!
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.
Stephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.
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