• Blog Post
  • September 1, 2020
  • CPI

Facing Back-to-School Anxiety

The Impact of an Unfamiliar Crisis on Teaching

In March, the novel coronavirus soon became a global pandemic that shut down our schools and resulted in widespread anxiety for students and educators alike. Our students participated in what I call crisis learning. Many experienced feelings of anxiety when school and life as they knew it changed. 
 
We heard from some parents who said their child refused to do their work or expressed their frustration with an assignment, the technology, or any one of the new challenges they were facing. Some students displayed risk behaviors that put themselves or family members in danger and prevented them from making it to the computer for their scheduled Zoom lessons. Our students were not the only ones who experienced a crisis.
 
Our educators experienced what I call crisis teaching. We worked around the clock to provide a user-friendly/intuitive virtual learning environment for our students. When June arrived and we signed off for the last time, we were exhausted. We felt relieved that we had made it, uncertain whether we had done it right, and sad that it had to end with a feeling of disconnection. 
 
Do you know what else was still there? You guessed it, the anxiety. It didn’t go anywhere. In fact, for many, those feelings of anxiety continued to grow and turned into a different set of feelings and behaviors. Many educators have become “defensive,” voicing their questions and concerns about what the fall will look like. Educators have loudly expressed their desire to be with their students in person, while at the same time being wary of the risks that are involved. They want to be sure that decision-makers are objectively considering both the likelihood of consequences as well as the severity of harm if or when they do.
 
Our educational system, along with the people that it employs and serves, has not been immune to experiencing the crisis that continues to wreak havoc across the globe. Educators have experienced traumatic events during crisis teaching. Whether or not these events have resulted in personal trauma is dependent on one’s awareness that they are in fact in a time of crisis, and their ability to cope or take advantage of available support systems.
 
What we know about a crisis is that it doesn’t have to result in a traumatic experience for those involved. For many of our students, their crisis learning experience did not result in trauma, but for others, it may have. How many educators are also experiencing trauma due to crisis teaching and what does that mean as we look toward and plan for an environment of change and heightened anxiety in the fall?

You Can’t Move Forward if You Don’t Look Back

As a CPI Instructor, I have a strong belief that the same tools that we use to decelerate and defuse escalating situations in the classroom can also help to prepare us for the new challenges and back to school anxiety that educators across the country may face when school resumes. 
 
But before we prepare for our future, we need to repair our past.
 
While districts across the country continue to work on COVID related plans and procedures for the fall, educators have a responsibility to process the effects that crisis teaching has had on them. This is an opportunity to work toward individual change and growth in how one responds to crisis. Knowing that we will likely be presented with a plan that will be different from what teaching looked like in the fall of 2019 as well as the spring of 2020, we need to do the important work that involves reflection on our responses to crisis. 
 
By doing this work, it will ensure that we gain better skills in preparing for what’s to come, much of which is unknown and ever-changing.

How the COPING ModelSM Can Help

Use this version of the COPING Model as a self-reflection guide and/or with your team(s) to participate in constructive dialogs on how to improve future responses related to the crisis teaching you have already experienced. This reflection and dialog will prepare us for the continued or increased feelings of anxiety as we move into a new school year and will help us to better manage our anxious feelings and behaviors when they arise.
 
Control
  • Check in with yourself and/or members of your team to make sure that everyone is back under emotional and physical control before discussing the effects of crisis teaching.
  • Here are some questions you can ask yourself and/or your team:
    • How are you feeling right now?
    • Are you able and willing to reflect on and/or talk about how you have been affected by crisis teaching?
Orient
  • Reflect on and/or ask members of your team what they experienced during crisis teaching. Individuals may have observed and experienced events differently.
  • Allow people to share the basic facts of their experiences.
  • Show empathic listening to members of your team as they share.
  • Key elements in empathic listening include:
    • Being nonjudgmental.
    • Giving your undivided attention.
    • Listening carefully (focusing on feelings and facts).
    • Allowing silence for reflection.
    • Restating and paraphrasing to show understanding.
Patterns
  • Think about and/or ask members of your team to share how they responded during the different stages of crisis teaching.
  • Consider the internal and external Precipitating Factors that may have impacted patterns in how you felt and how you responded during crisis teaching.
  • Internal and external factors may include but are not limited to:
    • Amount of work-related screen time one was exposed to
    • Sleep, diet, hydration, exercise
    • Illness in the family
    • Loss of income, etc.
  • Be empathetic toward team members as they reflect on the internal and external factors that contributed to their responses. This may be the first time that they have this level of awareness and they may be hesitant to share, or they may become visibly emotional. Use the same key elements in empathic listening that you used above.
  • Here are some questions you can ask yourself and your team:
    • How did you respond at the onset of crisis teaching?
    • Did your responses change once crisis teaching was well underway?
    • How did you respond at the end of crisis teaching?
    • Were there patterns in your responses?
    • Was there anything that escalated certain situations for you?  
Investigate
Consider and/or ask members of your team ways you think you can strengthen your responses to crisis situations. Share resources that may be helpful for you. Identify the positive outlets for the negative energy absorbed during a crisis. If crisis teaching has resulted in a traumatic experience, are you or members of your team in need of further debriefing or additional support from a trained counselor?
 
Negotiate
Commit to the changes that will improve your responses to future crisis situations. This “commitment” may look and sound different for each person.

Here are some commitments ideas:
  • Daily spoken mantras
  • A written contract to yourself
  • Spoken or written affirmations
  • Scheduled time in your calendar for positive outlets
  • Daily reflection
  • An accountability partner, etc.
Give
  • Express trust and confidence within yourself and fellow team members.
  • Provide yourself and one another with support and encouragement.
  • Give grace, kindness, love, empathy, an ear, a virtual shoulder, encouragement to yourself, and to the members of your team.  

3-Step Approach to Anxiety

The “known” unknowns of the 2020–2021 school year can be anxiety-provoking. Whether we are teaching in-person, virtually, or a mix between the two, we must build our skills to identify what our anxiety looks like, validate its purpose, and determine what we can do to help alleviate it. Here are some tips that can assist you in this work.

  1. Identify your anxiety.
    Anxiety can be identified when you notice a change in your behavior. This change can be subtle but it’s important to identify it when it’s happening. Examples can be but are not limited to: pacing, clicking your pen, bouncing your leg, tightening your hands, holding your breath, withdrawing, etc. When you notice it, name it. This is anxiety.

  2. Validate your anxiety.
    Your anxiety is presenting itself for a reason. Listen to your anxiety with the same empathic listening skills that you would to others. Be nonjudgmental, give it your undivided attention, listen to it carefully, allow silence for reflection, and restate what your anxiety is telling you.

  3. Alleviate your anxiety.
    When a student, a friend, or a family member is anxious, an appropriate approach to take is to be supportive. Many times, taking an empathic and non-judgmental approach will help to alleviate their anxiety. Respond to your anxiety in the same way. Slow down, listen, and allow time for your anxiety to be witnessed and heard by you. After you have identified and validated your anxiety, this is the perfect opportunity to engage in a positive outlet that you committed to yourself.

Reflect. Repair. Reimagine.

COVID-19 shut down our schools. It turned teaching and learning as we knew it into an uncertain time of crisis teaching and crisis learning. One of the things that was learned and confirmed is that educators are dedicated, we are tenacious, and we have grit. While we might not all be experts in technology, or self-care, or unmuting our mics, (“Pam, you’re on mute.”) we continue to build our skills to rise-up to the ever-changing demands placed on us.
 
It’s important that as we build our skills to meet the needs of our students, that we also build our skills in knowing how to repair the effects that crisis has on us, and how we respond to our anxiety during challenging times. Undoubtedly, there will be continued or increased anxiety as we head into more uncertain times but equipped with the skills to decelerate and defuse escalating situations within ourselves, we will be better positioned to weather whatever comes our way. 
 
Sending light to and holding space for all educators preparing to go back to school in some form or fashion.
 
Author Bio
Briona McKinney, M.Ed, is an Autism Spectrum Disorder Teacher Consultant for Birmingham Public Schools in Birmingham, Michigan and a CPI Certified Instructor. Briona has contributed to our podcast series, Unrestrained, in Episode 58, “Classroom Choreography and Improvisational Education,” and has written another blog post for us, “THINK Before You Speak, PAUSE Before You Act.” Follow Briona on Twitter.
 
Image Credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock
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