– Jake Habegger –
Afraid. Excited. Anxious. Exhausted. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Andrew Spracklen, Ph.D., has cycled through a range of emotions more in the past nine weeks than he has in years. The Mayo Clinic states, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Spracklen, a lecturer in the Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, is a classroom teacher dealing with a stressful transition that is challenging educators around the world.
Unless teachers had past experience with true online learning before COVID-19, it is fair to say that this describes the overall experience of what the “COVID Spring” has felt like for many educators around the world. While talking with teachers working in different states, subject areas, and grade levels, this constant theme of mixed emotions seems to be the epicenter of our conversations. What do we do with this weight of emotions we are carrying into our summer “break?” How can we recover from this burnout of pandemic proportions?
Luckily, Kate Habegger is an in-house expert in this field, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). (And I do literally mean “in-house”- she is my wife!) Habegger has worked in crisis settings where the issue of burnout is discussed and experienced frequently. She has advice for teachers struggling with issues that can lead to burnout. In education, teachers generally feel “safe”, in terms of job security, and autonomous, having control over their learning environments. Habegger points out that many teachers are not familiar with this level of stress, especially unknowns of what the future will bring. Although students alter from year to year or from one semester to another, teachers aren’t used to the type of rapid transition that COVID-19 has brought to education as a whole.
In addition, teachers who have felt they were experts in their fields shifted overnight to a world they were unfamiliar with, unprepared for, and had no control over. Brynn Baumgartner, a first-grade teacher from Ohio, has struggled this spring to connect fully with her students due to the distance COVID-19 has created. She states, “While FaceTime, Zoom and Google Meet are great tools, they cannot replace the relationships built when you’re learning together in the same physical space.” Baumgartner also talked about her struggles with a visually impaired student in her class who couldn’t utilize all of her online resources. These types of situations have added to the struggle for some teachers, leaving them feeling like they aren’t succeeding in their profession. This sort of self-doubt can be a factor that leads to burnout, which brings on another set of issues.
While job security is still not an issue for most K-12 teachers, some professors at higher education institutions have an added level of anxiety in this area. Michael R. Allen, a senior lecturer in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design at Washington University in St. Louis is one of many non-tenured employees who faces the possibility of an unrenewed contract for this fall. “We’re stuck in a complete limbo, and without any contract yet, they have full leverage over us,” Allen stated in The Chronicle for Higher Education. For Professor Ryan Huntley, an adjunct English instructor at the University of North Alabama, this comes with a variety of feelings. “Even considering the pandemic, I feel I have a secure position. Most people don’t realize that adjunct instructors teach many of the lower-level courses at the majority of universities across the country. As expendable as we [adjuncts] may feel from time to time, the modern higher education system would be impossible without us.” On the other hand, Huntley has some fears about future enrollment at higher education institutions. “The real fear is that enrollment drops and, as opposed to teaching three, we only end up with one or two classes. Adjuncts are paid per class, and like any mercenary working job to job, the fear of work drying up is always there.” Huntley has been able to identify his value and the positives of this situation along with the fear, which Habegger states will aid in avoiding burnout and is essential in dealing with any stressful situation. Being able to talk about the fears, but in a solution-focused way, is productive and helps with managing what we actually can control.
Luckily for Spracklen, the fear of job security is low on his list, but he is overwhelmed by having to adapt to remote learning for the fall. Although he taught this content before, he may still need to create a solid framework through online learning, which takes time. It is difficult to fully disconnect for the summer when there is a chance that courses will need to be completely revamped for the fall. Habegger notes that disconnection and taking a mental break is very important. This disconnect will be a challenge but one that should be at the forefront of teachers’ minds. One key way to disconnect and recharge that Habegger suggests to those in education is to:
Due to the exhaustion from over-exposure to technology and screen time, disconnecting from technology will be essential to helping with the mental load.
Baumgartner feels that the uncertainty of what the fall may look like feels overwhelming. She states, “For me, the idea of trying to instruct both in-person and online simultaneously sounds taxing.” She hopes to teach with all of her students in her classroom in the fall, but she is unable to properly plan for the fall without more guidance. Like many teachers, Baumgartner has heard many ideas from school leadership and public officials of what the fall “could” look like. Habegger encourages teachers to not focus on all of the possibilities and the potential mandates but to actually disengage from these types of conversations or thoughts. The news has changed so rapidly, and from now until July, there will most likely be more changes. Instead of adding more worry and anxiety to the situation, try to not to watch the news or media that talks about the “what if’s” and wait until it becomes closer (and until you receive a clear mandate from your leadership) to have a better picture of what things will actually look like. Adding more worry due to uncertainty doesn’t help anyone, and the more we can give ourselves permission to actually take a break from this, the more accepting and refreshed educators can be when school begins again.
How do we prepare for the unknown and take a break at the same time? Spracklen and Baumgartner both plan to take an extended break, but they have different approaches to how they will prepare later in the summer. For Spracklen, he had planned on moving toward a flipped teaching model before COVID-19 became a credible threat. For him, this is the perfect time to move forward with this approach in the fall. For Baumgartner, the plan is to include webinars and perhaps an online class to better prepare her for a possibility of continued remote learning in the fall.
As many veteran flipped teachers are also transitioning to online learning, moving the face-to-face interactions into the digital space is another level of work that must be figured out. Dan Jones, a middle school English and Social Studies flipped teacher from Ohio, spent much of his spring semester focusing on how to engage students in this new setting as well. For him, the struggle was not in the content. Having already flipped his classroom, his students knew exactly how to access and engage with digital content. “The issue was that students were not wanting to talk. They were scared, confused, and processing their new normal.” Robert Taibbi LCSW talked in Psychology Today about life transitions. “We are out of our comfort zone; our imaginations run wild; we worry about an unknown future.” Students are going through a “psychological state of grief, however small.” It will take time for our students to also feel comfortable having discussions with teachers and peers in this new setting, and that is okay. Habegger suggests allowing students to share non-threatening personal anecdotes regularly for a while to begin building a culture of acceptance, just as any teacher would do in the classroom. For the students, this is not merely a different setting, but also a change of how they interact with their peers, their teachers and the content.
Regardless of where teachers were before COVID-19, we are all being called upon to make rapid transitions into a new era of education around the world. Habegger summed it up best by offering this piece of advice: “The stress of the unknown can easily shift into burnout. It is crucial for teachers to truly disconnect for a season to be ready for the fall, now more than ever. Know that your impact on students depends on the self-care you give to yourself.”
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