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.