How Teachers Can Navigate Difficult Emotions During School Closures

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Here are some tools for staying calm and centered amid the coronavirus crisis.

The COVID-2019 crisis has forced educational professionals across the globe into taking a collective breath. What’s the Whether we’re actively planning online lessons from home or bingeing more Netflix than we’d ever anticipated, we’re faced with so many unknown factors—and more time to spend with our emotions.

We may feel overwhelmed by our emotions, afraid, and emotionally fragile. Perhaps also restless, boring, and helpless. With so much uncertainty surrounding us, how can we navigate these range of emotions? After all, researchers tell us that our stress management skills ultimately help our students stay calmer.

Here are some simple and easy-to implement practices that you can draw from to manage difficult emotions.

Soothe yourself

Start by acknowledging the emotions you’re feeling right now and genuinely offer some understanding. Researchers Kristin Neffe and Chris Germer invite you to take a moment for a self-compassion break—a gentle, reassuring habit that you can try anytime in your day when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, discouraged, and frustrated. For what it’s worth, I practice it every day. My teenage daughter finds it comforting and calming, too.

To begin with, think to yourself, “This thing I’m dealing with is tough.” Or “This is a moment of pain,” or whatever words feel natural for you. The idea is to “be with” the moment of emotional pain and accept that it is occurring.

Second, acknowledge that there are many people who experience the same sense of overwhelm that you’re feeling right now.

Third, offer yourself a few kind words and even a comforting gesture or touch (like touching your heart). We are wired to respond positively when we hear soothing voices and feel gentle touches. Use your own style. You might say, “May I be kind to my self today” or “May I be especially gentle to myself today.”

If you’re interested in deepening your practice self-compassion, then you might also try writing yourself a compassionate letter, listening to this mindfulness practice, or even taking an online self-compassion course specially designed for educators.

Affirm your values and strengths

What if restlessness, cynicism, and feeling ineffective at work seem to prevail, and there seems to be no way out? It’s important to keep coming back to “What matters most” for you, again and again And, more importantly: Seek opportunities to act upon your values in small ways every day.

You can give yourself a little boost by reaffirming your values. Where do you want your attention and energy to be right now? On beauty, humor and spontaneity, curiosity and creativity, connection? What nourishes you? You can use this Affirming Your Important Value exercise to reorient yourself in the moment. One study found that affirming your values when feeling helpless can help protect our moods.

It’s helpful to have a guiding light, but so is having a concrete plan. Try this Exercise: Choose a Personal Strength—Courage, Teamwork, Humor—Consider One Simple Way You Might Use It Each Day for a Week, Then Act On Your Idea Whenever the Opportunity Arises.

For example, you may view “perseverance” as a personal strength and attribute. How might you model your strengths through your interaction with students, colleagues, or family members? You could share quotes and notes that highlight this value, create a daily ritual for children and families to rely on, or feature stories of perseverance from your online history course. Research suggests that identifying your strengths and using them daily for just one week may actually increase happiness and help prevent symptoms of depression.

Send good wishes to others

During this crisis, it may become more difficult to tap into your strengths and values. One day, when I was teaching, I woke up with a visceral sense of fear. Despite my commitment to teaching my students, preparing for class each day required intense mental effort.

Here’s one simple way I found comfort and hope. As I drove into the parking lot, I thought about the people who would be there today, and I wished them well. I hoped they were safe, happy, healthy, and had everything they needed. Your “parking lot” may now be your living space, and your laptop screen could be your “building.” However, the sentiment remains the same: You’re still working from home.

Loving-Kindness Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to increase our empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. Research indicates that practicing loving-kindness for a few weeks can help people feel more compassionate toward themselves, and relieve them from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and so on.

Consider mindfulness as a way of being

Mindfulness, broadly spoken, is another form of compassion. Right now, it’s taking time to just be with your thoughts and emotions. Don’t judge. As I become aware of my mental chatter, I can also practice openness, curiosity, and acceptance as I observe my ever changing internal world.

When I first started teaching over 25 years (before mindfulness practice), I used to steal away from the stress of teaching at lunchtime, close the door for five minutes, and lie on my bed—calming my overstressed mind and body. My main focus was on the needs, lives, stories, and feelings of my 163 ninth and 10th grade students. I knew the best thing for me to do was to stop and just be for a moment, before engaging with them again. Over time, mindfulness has become more of a way of life for me as I’ve learned to infuse lots of small practices into my day—not just when I’m awake or before I go to bed.

For example, this Three-Minute De-Stressor for Teachers can be incorporated throughout the day—whether you are with your students, pausing between classes, or chatting with a colleague. Simply stand, find the center of gravity in your abdomen (two inches below your navel and about an inch into your body), and focus on this point while feeling your feet solidly on the ground.

There are also a variety of different breath practices you could try, including box or square breathing or counting your breaths. It’s especially important to simply practice extending your outbreaths (activating your parasitic or “rest and digest” nervous system) more than your inbreaths (your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system) to rebalm.

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