If you think it’s difficult managing students in a structured classroom, consider what it’s like in a large mechanical room with tools that could seriously injure. Listen to how Trevor Geisz, an educator from Mercer County Technical Schools approaches his HVAC-R class.
Please enjoy this Q&A with educator Nicole Cocco, about the life and work experience in a New Jersey school district. She is interviewed by the TeacherCoach representative, Mark Gallo.
Please enjoy this Q&A with educator Devon Murtagh, about the life and work experience in a New Jersey school district. She is interviewed by the TeacherCoach CEO, Dr. Jared Scherz
As the holidays approach, we are reminded about the goals we have yet to accomplish. New Year’s resolutions are one time we universally reflect upon the future we wish for. Here is a short story to help you begin your process, so we can improve the likelihood of meeting these goals and fortifying ourselves in the wake of unhealthy stress. This conversation takes place in a teachers lounge, somewhere in NJ.
Ms. R: This time I’m really going to do it. No more junk food, and no more extra weight. I’m also resolving not to take so much work home with me every weekend. I have to get a better work/life balance.
Ms. I: I hear you. I’m hoping for a healthy year too and looking forward to creating some special memories with my son. He is 5 already! I have set an intention to make healthy choices and slow down when I’m with my son.
Ms. R: I do this every year. But this time it’s going to be different. I want to lose 20 pounds and work out three or four times a week so I can be the size I was when we first got married. I have a high school reunion this year and I want to be able to hold my own with my classmates.
Ms. R has set some firm resolutions for herself. She has identified what she wants to change and has a plan for how she’ll make it happen. Ms. I, at first glance, doesn’t seem to be as focused. So who’s more likely to see the changes she hopes for in the new year?
Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening. Ms. R is focused on what she sees as problems she wants to fix. She knows a lot about what she doesn’t want and some idea of where she hopes to be – 20 pounds lighter and perhaps not grading papers on the weekend. So she’s holding two sets of information in her head at one time, what she wants to leave behind and where she hopes to be, or, what exists in the past and what might exist in the future. Ms. I also has a vision for what she hopes for in the coming year. Because she hasn’t started from a place of fixing a problem her attention is focused on the change she hopes to experience.
So who’s more likely to be successful? Ms. R. has a specific number of pounds she wants to shed, so she can easily measure when she’s a quarter of the way there, a half, etc. Ms. I’s goal to be healthier in the coming year seems to lack a measurable outcome. What constitutes greater health? How will she know she’s on track?
Imagine we’re back in the lounge a couple months later. Ms. R is picking the cheese off a piece of pizza some parent has provided for the staff.
Ms. R: I know I shouldn’t have this. In fact, I don’t know who I think I’m kidding, I’m going to eat the crust anyway. I am so bad at dieting! I lost 7 pounds in January, but I put them all right back and then some! It’s all the stress of this job. It just gets to me. How about your ‘intentions’? How do you work on those with all these tests to mark?
Ms. I: It really is tough. I hate when I have papers to grade at night. My son and I have a little game we’ve been playing lately when I bring work home. He puts on my old reading glasses, gets out his coloring book and starts circling the words and letters. Then he writes A++++ and laughs and laughs!! It helps make the work seem less intrusive. I also tend to eat a little more during exam season. I’ve been trying out new healthy recipes, though and the family seems to approve.
The challenge Ms. R is having is that she is not trying so much to BE something, rather she is trying NOT to be what she currently is. All of her attention is focused on what she doesn’t want. Our actions tend to move in the direction of our focus. Think of the Pink Elephant experiment. If I tell you that for the next three minutes you must NOT think of a Pink Elephant, that pachyderm is going to creep right into your thoughts – if even to note that you are most definitely not thinking of it.
Ms. I’s intentions allow her to imagine and hope for changes. Her energy is future focused and the desire is present for her in her daily routines including preparing meals. She hasn’t stopped taking work home, but her intent to make memories with her son has shaped how she meets that demand.
What is likely to happen in December? Ms. R may or may not have been able to shed the pounds. If she has lost anything less than the 20 she resolved to lose, she is likely to count this as a failure. She may feel resentful of the work she is still bringing home, possibly increasing how out of balance her work and life feel. If she stays mindful of her intention, Ms. I will make moment to moment choices throughout the year that are directly related to the change she wants to see. As she sits to write her lesson plans, she is aware of her intent to create memories with her son and actively looks for ways to attend to him and incorporate him into what she’s doing. Her intention becomes a force of energy rather than a chore or obstacle and is likely to lead to a more sustainable change long term.
So what intentions do you plan to set for the coming year?
We know this school year represents the unknown. We don’t know how health will trend, how student behavior will evolve, how the public will support educators, or how our our resilience will be impacted.
This is a quick note to let you know that we are here to provide support and are always seeking creative mediums and content areas. If you have suggestions, please let us know. You can write to us directly at email@example.com.
We are looking forward to working with you again this year.
We are a society of quick fixes, conveniences, and immediate gratification. Our intrinsic inclination to avoid pain and seek pleasure makes us susceptible to reflexive decision making, setting the trap for a cascading effect of more complex problems.
Whether it’s putting in stents for heart disease or prescribing medication for anxiety, we have a healthcare system that encourages dependence without exploring the etiology of dis-ease, helping to make us amongst the wealthiest yet sickliest countries in the world. The drug companies, medical device manufacturers and corporate healthcare insurers profit off our quick-fix myopia.
Fast Food Genocide is a powerful book by Dr. Joel Fuhrman warning us about the dangers of processed foods, another convenience-turned-deadly syndrome. When inflammation, reportedly instigated by sugars, salts, fats and chemicals, causes the majority of our health problems including childhood obesity, heart disease, strokes and cancer, we don’t ask why. Instead of exploring our diet we jump on the carousel of emergency room visits and pharmacology.
Education has also been influenced by this trend of immediacy. With declining academic achievement on the world stage, we turned to testing and standardization of curriculum. While we made testing companies wealthy, we did little to help educators better engage with regressed and infantilized students. In class we have cut back on writing assignments because English teachers are too busy to grade 30 papers and now we have a generation of kids who can’t construct a simple cover letter. And we have turned to technology to make learning fun without any idea how to discern the plethora of data available to them.
While this brief article is not focused on medicine, nutrition or education, it is important to understand trends taking place across society. Our 280 character movement is not learning pith, but a dumbed-down manual on short cuts that bleed us of our tolerance for distress. Our low threshold for emotional pain is the primary factor in nearly all psychological distress which we seldom consider. Our inability to endure unpleasant feelings (what many call negative emotion) is analogous to hidden damage done by inflammation and depleted probiotic production. In fact emotional stress and physical dis-ease are inextricably connected.
It isn’t reasonable to expect classroom, school or district leaders to protect the well-being of students when there is so much suffering among the adults. Schools look for help, considering outsourcing prevention or intervention, but there are too many competing products and services with too little time or expertise to adequately vet the right one. Experienced leaders may realize the need for support with a strong paradigm but most will be seduced by cost or quick application.
If we prioritize etiology as the foundation of any solution, we decrease the risk of falling into the immediacy trap. If we ‘treat’ the underlying causes of dis-ease instead of the symptoms, empowering the ‘patient’ to become the expert, we have a new model of wellness. Empowering people to take charge of their well-being is the first step. Understanding how nutrition feeds our immunity allows us greater agency around health, much the way we can curate student voice in stimulating engagement.
When people feel empowered with knowledge and understanding they are better positioned to determine what they need to learn and how. If K-12 developed ecosystems where older students learned how to create learning for younger students, we could help unburden educators, address shortages, and infuse new energy into the system. Esther Wojcicki and her CEO Ari Memar are pioneering that very paradigm through their Tract App. The medical school model of see one, do one, teach one can also work in primary education. And, this same model can be used to promote mental health and SEL in a similar manner, saving teachers the unfair burden of being classroom therapists.
It’s time for a meaningful change in how we approach teaching and learning, both to grow resilience in the wake of spiking mental health problems (which also give rises to school violence) but also to improve academic success. We simply won’t have enough educators and support staff to maintain our antiquated model of education and the ones who do endure are too close to burnout to maintain their current level of responsibility. In order to help educators become facilitators of learning, they will need support both personally and professionally to evolve this new role.
The support we provide currently isn’t enough and in some instances made it worse. Teachers got tired of hearing about self-care during the pandemic because it felt prescriptive to them. “You should meditate or do yoga” many would say with good intention. The degree of stress saturation was too much however to believe reducing the source or improving the remedy was or is adequate for improving resilience. Educators need opportunities to understand their duress, recognizing how to get their needs met without overutilizing their protective mechanisms. This is ultimately the definition of SEL or more aptly, psychosocial emotional learning, which is part of Prosilience (the art of growing our tolerance for distress).
Strong PSEL programs incorporate equity, mental health, organizational health, school violence prevention (bullying, suicide and more), as well as recruitment, retention and burnout for the adults. Effective prevention and intervention includes the way we differentiate between real and perceived threats or how we fortify our ego strength. Our intra and interpersonal skills are a result of what we learn about ourselves, and are only valuable when we can apply them reflexively because they make sense.
Time is not on our side to escape the allure of immediate mental health solutions. Our growing reliance, dependence, and addiction to technology is the latest quick fix plaguing our society and much like the innovation of opioids during the civil war which alleviated suffering on the battlefield, it quickly became an obsession out of control (and continues today at epidemic levels). Technology is having a deleterious impact on our mental health including concentration, attention, and mood. With the pandemic serving as a catalyst for sensory deprivation and stress overload, the impacts of this tech addiction-induced a sharp spike in mental health issues.
We can’t look to government bodies to solve this problem. The same people who subsidize corn, sugar and wheat instead of carrots, legumes, and seeds will put profits before wellness. We can’t look to school boards, parent-teacher organizations or even vendors to solve this problem for us. Expertise is lacking and opportunities for profits influence bias. It’s well worth it to take time this summer and read about the importance of adult SEL, helping adults to embody important principles of living as opposed to implementing another curriculum. SEL is a lifelong journey requiring self-examination, which can then ready us for new ways of getting our needs met.
SEL is not, or more accurately, should not be a convenient system of skill building for students. That’s like saying that exercise alone (for the kids) will improve the entire family’s health. Skill building is generally the very last step of personal growth work we introduce to stressed people and needs to follow understanding of the “why.” Unless we want to repeat the same patterns in how we respond to stressful situations, which beget largely the same outcome, we require a multimodal perspective that inspires self-generated solutions. Those answers will come when educators become facilitators who can inspire rather than bludgeon with information.
Here is what we know for sure. Health, physiological and psychological, is heavily influenced by lifestyle. We know that education continues to be among the most stressful jobs in the country. We know that stress impacts telomeres (in our genes) which shortens our lifespan. And we know that quick fix solutions are not sustainable solutions for any of these problems. Let us ensure that that we don’t get led astray by tempting offers to solve our mental health crisis, but instead look with a more critical eye toward rebuilding from the devastation of these past two years.
Stephen Cappello is the Superintendent of Cinnaminson School District in New Jersey. He is well aware we are in a long cycle of rebuilding, requiring greater attention to community well-being. He isn’t convinced however that anybody has the answer to how to accomplish this but remains open to looking for support that is anchored in theory and amenable to regular evaluation. This guarded openness is a thoughtful leadership approach to growing our school communities.
In the meanwhile, as we iterate new approaches to growing resilience that don’t dilute the important missions of academic success, let’s not reinforce the widely adopted model of societal sickcare inside our schools teaching children that quick fixes and fast remedies are the answer. Whether it’s punitive responses to student behavior, sugary foods in the teacher’s lounge bringing temporary happiness and long- term misery or buying expensive SEL programs that don’t address the larger picture of mental health, we need to do better by our educators and subsequently, our students, in order to break the toxic, quick-fix culture we’ve created and cultivate one of sustainability and longevity.
Apathy and blame are two extreme forms of detachment, arising from a lack of hope and an unwillingness to be hurt. Over time these protective mechanisms interfere with meeting our needs and we become further discouraged. It matters less whether we point the finger inward or outward, as it all is self-defeating. Discouragement turns into despair and our detachment becomes a strong self-preservation instinct, breeding even more lost hope.
Our educational system is drowning in too many who have lost hope and too few to replenish the furnace with good sustainable forms of energy. We can expect administrators to endure feeling unappreciated, but to feel blamed as well. We can expect educators to sacrifice, but to have that sacrifice drain them of energy they can’t recover for their family, is not tenable.
As we ended Part One, the solution to this syndrome was said to be complex and not obvious. This problem was not born out of the pandemic alone, in spite of the name. The syndrome is years in the making the solution a combination of short and long- term strategies with a mix of patience and creativity.
In the near term we need incremental and transitional change. Small measurable steps that will help educators feel valued while reducing the pressure. Implementing physical and psychological health supports is a simple way to let some of the proverbial steam out of the pressure cooker. Prosilience training will need to become a higher priority, implementing yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to get people back into their bodies, pushing back the deluge of technology that rescued us right into another dependency.
Schools need to become the hub of community healing. This will only happen if we learn now to debate, how to discuss with curiosity and how to use dialogue for constructive differencing. Schools have the potential to bridge the chasms created in society, students learning and then teaching adults the importance of embracing what scares us.
These enhancements serve the dual purpose of making schools more competitive in attracting new hires. Showing your commitment to the faculty can help a perspective educator find a second home in your district, meeting quarantine depleted needs for belonging. Believing they are joining a movement, not just launching a career will tape into the need for purpose. Becoming part of a team that grows their family and stimulates their sense of meaning are powerful benefits to promote. These are the small steps districts can take yielding big dividends.
For transitional change, people need to know the burden they are experiencing is time limited. Establish recognition and reward programs to spell people before they feel taken advantage of. If you are forced to ‘lower the bar’ with regard to new hires, set up probationary periods with clear objectives and adequate support to give people the greater chance of success.
Have your students and teachers work to solve these real world problems like labor shortages, which is infinitely more rewarding right now than standard proofs in math class. Put their creativity and hard work to use helping overworked HR directors. Imagine a campaign to recruit and retain educators, driven by the students. Commercials created and acted by students, as part of a larger project to teach multiple skills. This will also bring together Math, Social Studies, English and other departments who work together instead of in siloes. This type of change from passive learner to active doer will stimulate excitement for adults and students.
Transformational change is the least familiar. In historically top down organizations, educators are near the bottom often feeling like students are imbued with greater power. If we emphasize process over outcome, we look at how the school operates, including decision making. Include educators in problem solving so they feel less helpless and we begin transforming the culture of that school. Collaborative leadership is practically important and timely, tapping into more brain power, empowering the teacher leaders, and easing the burden of administrators.
In the long term we need to rethink how schools operate, placing the teacher closer to the center and not at the periphery. Administrators who become nuances in empowerment, seeing their primary role as support and then accountability, will engender greater loyalty. Learning how to provide support may seem trite, but it can be powerful, cost effective, and easy to implement, leading to immediate rewards.
Hardship can be turned into cohesion under the right conditions. Being in a foxhole with people you care about can produce deep and long lasting connections, the antithesis of detachment. Syndromes, like the dehumanization we have been describing, can be redefined. While typically thought of as having an adverse impact, a healthy syndrome, perhaps the first of its kind may arise out of this awfulness. Pandemic Resilience Syndrome can represent wide scale healing leaving us all stronger and wiser.
Ultimately, we need to do a better job of balancing the needs of the institution and the individual. We have become so conditioned that school is ALL about the students, forgetting it’s also a workplace. And it’s one of the most dangerous places to work in the minds of many. With a bit of creativity and the restoration of hope, we can turn this around to make schools the most desirable places to work, creating competition for the best jobs which will in turn drive benefits and salaries to match.
Every week in my role as CEO of TeacherCoach I’m meeting with struggling district leaders from around the country. These leaders are afraid of losing discouraged administrators, concerned for educator burnout with the restricted pipeline of new talent, astounded by the increasingly odd behavior of students, and guarding against unhappy blaming parents on social media.
Exasperated leaders remark that ‘it’s only October’, wondering how they will make it through a year with their energy divided between mental health concerns the continued polarization of communities. This was supposed to be a recovery year, relief at the dissipating fears of illness and quarantine. Students initially seemed excited to return to school and we could begin to make up for lost time. But this not the case for most and it’s left leadership concerned, wondering if it may even get worse.
No matter what we do, one remarked, “there is either a lack of appreciation or outright blame of the administration who are simply trying to get back on track”. How can this be? Why do people seem to have so little resilience and be devolving into self-harm and violence? Most importantly, what should we be doing as community leaders for both the short- and long-term restoration?
Pandemic Flux Syndrome is not an actual diagnosis, but a term used to coin a constellation of symptoms from a unique set of experiences we’ve not experienced before. While labeling can be often counterproductive, it does seem helpful in this instance to describe the widespread psychological plague impacting so many people.
We can look to natural disasters to make some sense of what is taking place. In a small percentage of the 500,000 earthquakes each year a Tsunami is triggered. Of these events, only a small percentage reach shore and impact people. Those that do can be devastating because of how unprepared we are, still focused or recovering from the first disaster. It isn’t the initial tidal wave that does all the damage, so much as the resulting flooding that can literally change entire landscapes.
Our collective mental health crisis is the result of being unprepared, flooded with acute and chronic emotions leaving people exhausted from treading water often gasping for air. The combination of emotional fatigue from prolonged helplessness/ hopelessness, with our current effort to adapt to a changed world, leaves us unfamiliar with this new landscape we cautiously navigate.
When people undergo long term hardship and ongoing disruption to their activities of daily living, we can wither under the persistent pressure. There is a limit to the time we can stay afloat before our depleted energy influences judgment and reasoning. As we lose perspective, each stimulus is experienced as a real threat, even if it is innocuous. Every expectation, every rule, ever task, can seem like the final drop that makes the cup spill over and hence we resist or rebel. On a large scale, occurring within an organization, subgrouping occurs as a means of self-preservation.
Each level of the system under its own pressure, pushes against the other subgroups, viewing the other as the problem, unable to clearly see the entire landscape. Blame is deflected so fewer take ownership of their actions, allowing small increments of negativity to surge into full scale uprisings.
Here is how this looks in a school: A couple of students exhibit behavioral problems that disrupt the classroom. The concerned teachers inform the parents who in turn grow defensive, taking to social media to express their displeasure against the school leadership, inviting others to join their cause. The counselors are called upon to put out fires, becoming displeased with the teachers who aren’t looking for scalable solutions within their classrooms, so much getting through the day. Each of these subgroups unite around their displeasure, pointing fingers instead of looking inward at their contributions.
Just as the individual impacts the system, so too does it work in reverse. We don’t realize how we are fragmenting our organization; we simply feel the effect of it. And with our mental health already feeling fragile, our diminished resilience leaves us unwilling to explore etiology, instead looking for quick fix relief. Our instinct under these conditions is to survive, just as the heart channels blood to essential organs in an emergency. We put less energy into depth of contact, vulnerability, impulse control and other intra and interpersonal essentials for happiness, divesting full energy into self-protection.
Recently, a teacher learned that she had been exposed by a student to Covid. She was upset with her district leadership for their policy to keep educators in the dark about student health and lamented about the potential spread at a wedding she attended. She messages her union representative to ask about for clarification on the policy and felt dismissed by his slow response. This veteran educator decided her administration and her union couldn’t be trusted and the job search began.
Burnout had already been established as an actual diagnosis prior to Covid, fueled by this apparent ‘lack of humanity’ described by this same teacher as ‘nearly dystopian’, and we have a new wave of destruction in our schools. Thus, the cumulative toll of this long-term disruption seems to negate the relief that our health crisis may be abating. We are cautious to come out of survival mode, unsure of our careers, reassessing relationships, and dealing with the emotional residue from all we have suffered.
Adding to our inability to heal is our widespread fallout of polarized communities, in complete disagreement about how to navigate community health versus individual freedom, unable to negotiate these differences without contempt. With another national election looming, battle lines are continuously drawn by politicians looking to stir up their constituency.
Thus, the solution to this syndrome is not simple and not obvious. A combination of incremental, transitional, and transformation change on both an individual and systems level will be needed. Leaders will find ways to balance the needs of the institution and the individual, Prosilience training will need to become a higher priority, and debate will need to evolve to dialogue, using constructive differencing. This will be the subject of Part II.
As a teacher and a school counselor since the early 90s, I’ve worked in schools where there are periods of acute trauma. A heart-breaking event happens, and the school community comes together to help individuals, families, and classrooms heal in the context of school. I’ve also worked in a school serving historically underserved populations, where students and families have experienced both generational and chronic trauma. It is an honor to be part of this community. It is also an imperative opportunity to employ educator well-being. I’ve seen my physical and emotional health worsen as my responsibilities in dealing with others’ trauma increased.
Education in the time of Covid-19 has become even more challenging and without the positive rewards that we normally receive in our day-to-day lives. We are isolated from our colleagues and students. I can empathize with district leaders who are feeling the tension of balancing organizational needs and individual needs, and I can feel frustrated when their decisions seem tone deaf to the feelings of staff. Band-aids of self-care are offered up like another layer of teacher responsibility. When we express our feelings, some push back by encouraging us to keep adding more to our plates like we have an endless appetite for toxic positivity.
Even before Covid-19, vicarious or secondary trauma invaded classrooms and leaked into the hearts of educators who carry the emotional burdens of their students. What is the difference between acute/chronic trauma and what we are experiencing now with this mass experience of pandemic and unrest resulting in our own trauma? The distinction here is important in terms of how we can help and support our educators, and in turn, our students. I feel a heaviness and fatigue that is palpable every time I speak with a fellow teacher.
On the flip side, what kind of social and emotional learning is taking place in this difficult time? What new skills will emerge for both students and adults as we emerge into a transformational era of education?
Leaning into the discomfort and exploring our feelings is vital during times like these. Our bodies guide us with sensations of distress. We can take moments to distract, but the feelings are not going to go away. As we develop self-reflective practices, we can understand that the sensations point us in the direction of our unmet needs. What I am feeling and hearing from my colleagues is an exhaustion that is hard to describe. I feel tired from trying so hard to connect and being met with very little. The fatigue is physical and is also emotional. I am starting to sense the signs before the full-blown reaction happens. I notice the tightness on one side of my head and the hurt feeling around my heart. It is an observation that I am learning to meet with unplugging from the computer (as soon as I am able) and doing some kind of movement, preferably in nature. I live in Seattle, and so weather is often prohibitive.
By expressing those needs and negotiating how to get those needs met, we are building social emotional skills within ourselves. Expanding our capacity and talking about it with our students can be the greatest teaching we can offer. We model self-care not as another chore, but rather as part of our lesson plan that builds both teacher and student wellness.
We heal in relationship with each other. Educators are accustomed to creating and maintaining a community. We establish rituals that create safety and meaning to our work. We feel competence as we create these secure attachments where students can safely risk as they grow academically and socially. There’s a reason for our work. We are meaning makers.
I can tell the difference within myself when I have taken the time to employ my mindfulness practice. I have more room in my body and mind to tolerate the stress of the day. I am able to regulate faster. My window of tolerance is expanded. When I bump out of my window, I am able to get back into the zone more quickly, and I feel my resilience expanded. I realize that my inner life of mindfulness can be the same as my outside life. That feels better. When I sense my ancestors standing with me, I am empowered with strength.
We need to honor our educators and their work by offering time and space for their own self-care. Then, we help them stay whole to enjoy long, healthy careers being present for students and their own learning. And we can’t make self-care be just another add-on. We need to walk alongside educators and support them compassionately as people who have families, dreams, and aspirations.
We are increasing our collective tolerance for distress and accessing deeper levels of compassion for ourselves and others. Most importantly, we don’t have to do it alone. TeacherCoach, LLC offers personal and professional development that can help you feel heard and less isolated. I’ve created some engagements on the TeacherCoach platform that educators can use to explore well-being strategies. As we feel better, we make room for students to develop their SEL capacity. My wish for you is that you know how much you are needed.