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December 1, 2020

Coping with Change and Uncertainty

How educators can regain a sense of control during these tumultuous times.

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Nearly halfway through an unpredictable school year, educators may find the ambiguity of their working lives as distressing as the tangible losses they're experiencing because of the pandemic. In a 2016 study, researchers at University College London found that participants who were told they had a small chance of getting a painful electric shock felt more anxious than those who knew they would be shocked. And in a systematic literature review, sociologists in Germany found that job insecurity can exact as big a toll on mental health as unemployment (Kim & von dem Knesebeck, 2015). Perhaps not surprisingly, a new study published in JAMA revealed that the prevalence of depression symptoms in U.S. adults has tripled since the pandemic began (Ettman et al., 2020).

Educators, in particular, are struggling to maintain an even keel. "We can take guidelines and operationalize a plan, but the greatest variable is [that we are all] human"—unpredictable by nature, says Sarah Sirgo, director of learning, achievement, and administration for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. As schools return to hybrid or in-person instruction, for instance, districts can mandate that students wear masks, but they can't guarantee perfect compliance. And while leaders can implement safety precautions, they can't eliminate all danger or predict how individual teachers will cope with the stress and fear. "One of the biggest challenges is how different people will respond and react to the unknown," adds Jae Lee, principal of Carderock Elementary School in Montgomery County.

As a school counselor, I am aware that everyone from parents to educators to children is feeling the stress of uncertainty. Many parents worry that their child has regressed, withdrawn, or disengaged from school. Educators have rapidly acquired new instructional delivery methods, and some are balancing both in-person and remote instruction. Even teachers with decades of experience feel like they're back in year one, and educators across the country are on the receiving end of a steady stream of demoralizing criticism. Meanwhile, emotions are contagious, and children are absorbing all the ambient anxiety.

Amid all this, how can we regain a sense of control? Based on my research and experience, I have identified six ways that educators can cope and be a reassuring source of strength for students when the only constant right now is change and uncertainty.

1. Reframe your personal narrative.

"The linear life is dead," says Bruce Feiler, author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age (Penguin Press, 2020). His data show that people go through three to five "lifequakes," massive life changes with aftershocks that can last five years or more. Everyone hits bumps in the road, he explained to me, but this is the first time the entire planet is experiencing a lifequake simultaneously.

Given the current pandemic, it's easy to sink into pessimism, question others' judgment, or focus on what we've lost, but it's far more productive to alter our mindset and recognize that peaks can't exist without valleys. When we let go of preconceived ideas about what life should look like, we have an easier time self-regulating our emotions.

Rewrite the narrative, casting yourself as the hero—as someone who discovers their strength because of the pandemic. As you frame your story internally, focus on the skills you're acquiring, such as flexibility and self-compassion. Boosting resilience may represent the upside to the pandemic, Feiler points out. "I believe—as scary and sad as it is—we're going to make a lot of calluses and forge a lot of transition-management skills."

2. Prune and preserve relationships.

In times of stress, we have fewer reserves. Uncertainty feeds anxiety, fear, and anger—emotions that hinder the ability to read social cues and adopt someone else's perspective. We are also more susceptible to others' negativity. To sustain stamina, curate your social network. Limit interactions with friends and colleagues who drain or deplete you and protect relationships with the people you've come to trust and who are engaged in this crisis with you.

This can be challenging in times of stress, when people are not at their peak and may be more easily provoked. Following a series of negative interactions with frustrated parents, for example, a trusted administrator may exhibit less patience with a teacher. To limit misunderstandings, know your own triggers, whether that's ruminating about an outcome you can't alter, spending hours with someone who complains incessantly, skipping your morning run, or "doomscrolling" through grim newsfeeds.

Recognize that social distancing can also heighten sensitivity. "One of the reasons why this is hard for everyone—hard for me—is that before, we were getting all this positive energy from daily interactions and reaffirming relationships," notes Lee. He recently had to reassure a staff member who called him and said, "Hey, Jae, I want to make sure you're not mad at me."

Even when educators are physically together, it's harder to accurately interpret someone's tone through a mask. We need facial expressions to decipher emotions in ordinary times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic. "Our nervous systems get activated when we feel threatened, and we can't access our prefrontal capacity as well," explains psychologist Tina Bryson, coauthor of The Whole-Brain Child (Bantam, 2012). Before you react with a strong emotion, take a deep breath and consider whether you're likely to elicit the desired outcome. Lashing out in anger or placing blame tends to be divisive and counterproductive. As the pandemic has illustrated, we're stronger when we work together.

"I hope we all can show a little grace and resist the inclination to be swept up in alarm," notes Sirgo. As one of the officials leading the design and recovery work in her district—as well as a working parent—she knows that everyone is experiencing angst and frustration. "When I think about extending grace, the following things come to mind," she told me. We must

seek to understand and ask questions before reaching conclusions; assume positive intention and the supposition that people are trying to make things work and giving it their best; use language and messages, particularly in email, to communicate in ways that are clear and kind; and be deliberate about recognizing our own stress and anxiety and not placing that on others with frustration and short-tempered reactions.

3. Build community and foster collegiality.

Kingswood College, a K–12 school in Victoria, Australia, is several months ahead (pandemic-wise) of schools in the United States. The school made an initial shift to remote learning, then transitioned to socially distanced, face-to-face instruction, and then—when COVID-19 infection rates began to rise again—returned to distance learning. Adam Somes, head of Kingswood's middle school, told me that staff members continue to take the disruptions in stride, a "rare feat" he attributes to "communication, connection, and community."

Administrators at his school are transparent and honest and have a "we can do this" attitude, he explains. They consistently underscore the importance of optimism, resilience, and being nimble. The entire community—staff and their families, students, and caregivers—participates in online wellness activities such as fitness bingo. The leadership team also reaches out weekly to each staff member to check on their welfare.

Bellview Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida, is taking a similarly intentional approach this year. The school's staff recently turned over by 30 percent, in part because of challenges specific to COVID-19, says Nathan Maynard, coauthor of Hacking School Discipline (Times 10 Publications, 2019). Maynard has been working with Bellview's principal to improve school culture during the pandemic, he told me over the phone, by incorporating more relationship-building strategies among colleagues. For example, he says, "Staff are doing virtual and in-person check-in circles to support each other, to integrate new staff, and to proactively address any issues that might arise."

Schools can also use a "tap in/tap out" system like the one at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee (Berger, 2018). The principal there adopted the approach to encourage teachers to call on their peers when they need to take a short break or step back from a tense situation. Instead of losing their cool, they can leave the classroom and take a breath while a designated colleague steps in. Educators in virtual environments could design a similar system: They could partner with a teacher who has a different schedule and exchange phone numbers and links to one another's virtual classes.

4. Be specific when naming emotions.

When we're able to label emotions with specificity, we can take steps to manage them. If you simply feel overwhelmed, you might get stuck. But if you know that you're exhausted from worrying all night, or that you're resentful that you're too busy helping others to find time to exercise, you can work to prioritize better sleep and self-care habits.

Once you've pinpointed the feeling or concern, ask yourself, "Does worrying about this help me or get in my way?" Make an effort to extinguish defeatist self-talk. If you're telling yourself "I'm miserable," try reframing that as "I'm sad now." If you're thinking "This is too much for me," try saying, "I can handle tough stuff."

There are four types of grief, and nearly everyone is experiencing two or three of them right now, says psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect (Harper, 2014). In a recent conversation, she explained to me that there is ambiguous grief, "which is free-floating—the loss of summer, the pervasive sense that we've lost so much." The opposite of ambiguous grief is acute grief. "That could be not being able to pay rent or a partner getting furloughed." A third type is anticipatory grief. "What will school be like? How many hours will I be expected to be in a Zoom classroom? How will I manage distance learning with my own children? Will I get in trouble or lose my job if kids don't show up?"

Many individuals are also experiencing moral outrage grief—the fourth type—which is a sadness for what's happening in the country and the world right now. As she explains, "You ask people, "How are you?" and there's this hesitancy [in their response]."

Educators can't vanquish such grief, but as with any emotion, they can "name it to tame it." In other words, they can develop a game plan, whether they reach out to a friend, take a mental health day, or see a therapist.

5. Exercise agency.

It's easy to feel powerless in the face of a pandemic, so focus on what you can do to improve your situation. That could mean reaching out to human resources to inquire about leave or child-care options, contacting an employee assistance program about teletherapy resources, incorporating movement or relaxation practices into your day, or signing up for school or district-sponsored professional development or psychoeducational programs. For example, Christina Connolly, the Montgomery County district's director of psychological services, recently worked with colleagues to create "Waymaking," a set of videos for staff and families covering everything from stress management to the impact of racism on mental health.1

If you're working in a school building, you can take steps to mitigate risk, such as wearing a mask and washing your hands. "It's important to remember that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted via the respiratory tract and largely through lengthy person-to-person interactions," says Tim Lahey, infectious diseases physician and professor of medicine at the University of Vermont Medical Center. "That means you can rank teacher-student interactions along a gradient of risk. A quick pat on the shoulder or tousle of the hair by a teacher standing briefly by the student's side is extremely low risk," he told me, while "interacting face-to-face or close-up for longer periods of time raises the ante."

You can also strive to establish healthy boundaries, such as setting personal policies around when your workday begins and ends, when you turn off the computer, and when you stop returning emails.

6. If you can't fix it, aim for acceptance.

There are many facets of the pandemic that are out of everyone's control. You can't unilaterally determine whether your school—or your child's school—operates virtually or in person. You can't guarantee you'll reach every student, and you can't eradicate tough emotions. In fact, you might feel worse if you try to push your pain away. As Carl Jung famously said, "What you resist persists."

Acceptance doesn't mean that you like the current reality; it just means you stop fighting it. It can take awhile to reach this point, but if you stop trying to fix things you can't change, you can then devote your energy to coping with disappointment and unmet expectations. You might even be able to identify a silver lining—or at least some shades of gray. For instance, virtual learning has given principals an opportunity to focus more on instruction, Sirgo says. "Think about the things that can often be distractions that principals no longer have to do—office referrals, lunch and recess, sub coverage, in-person evening events," she explains. As her district moved through the initial stages of planning a return, "principals found ways to look at the fall diagnostic data, talk with teachers about what they were seeing instructionally, and lead more directed conversations with staff about student learning and well-being."

If acceptance is too lofty a goal, try projecting into the distant future. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that when people can imagine how they'll interpret an upsetting event many years later, they experience less anxiety, sadness, hurt, and anger (Bruehlman-Senecal & Ayduk, 2015). This type of "temporal distancing" can help educators internalize the idea that distressing experiences aren't permanent. You don't want to make rash, long-term decisions because of your passing negative emotions.

Weary But Unwavering

It's not easy to accept uncertainty with patience, let alone tranquility, and it may be difficult to remember why you chose this profession in the midst of so much turmoil, change, insecurity, and self-doubt. And yet, while educators didn't choose to work with children through a screen or from a distance, they are choosing to work tirelessly to reassure, connect, help, and teach. "I'd be lying if I said I am not weary right now," says Tara Christie Kinsey, head of The Hewitt School in New York City. "But when I consider why and for whom I do what I do, I remember what a blessing it is to be an educator, what an honor it is to serve, and what an opportunity we have to shape our world for the better. One child at a time."

References

Berger, T. (2018, February 5). An inside look at trauma-informed practices. Edutopia.

Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Ayduk, O. (2015). This too shall pass: Temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(2), 356–375.

Ettman, C. K., Abdalla, S. M., Cohen, G. H., Sampson, L., Vivier, P. M., & Galea, S. (2020). Prevalence of depression symptoms in U.S. adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Network Open, 3(9).

Kim, T. J., & von dem Knesebeck, O. (2015). Is an insecure job better for health than having no job at all? A systematic review of studies investigating the health-related risks of both job insecurity and unemployment. BMC Public Health, 15, 985.

University College London. (2016, March 29). Uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain: Knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing that you will definitely be shocked. ScienceDaily.

End Notes

  1. Watch the Montgomery County district's "Waymaking" video series at https://sites.google.com/mcpsmd.net/shriver-counseling/mental-health-supports.

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