Truth For Teachers – 7 “first aid supplies” for resilience emergencies in school

Do you ever wish you had a job that didn’t require you to make 1,500 decisions in a day?

Imagine it … a job where you could stare blankly into the computer screen doing data entry while blasting 90s alternative music in your earbuds?

A job that doesn’t require so much darn enthusiasm?

If so, I am here to tell you that you aren’t alone.

Teaching is a performance art. It requires energy, stamina, flexibility, confidence, and a whole lot of love. And most days striving for that #winning performance is FUN. Work doesn’t seem like work, the kids are engaged, technology hasn’t failed, and you are up to date on grading.  The art of teaching is fulfilling, even though you go home exhausted.

Conversely, there are the “desk-job-longing” days, and it can take tremendous effort to move forward. It could be that nothing is going right — the copier is jammed, parent emails are stacking up, you’re behind on lesson planning, etc. Or it could be that you are just plain worn down, with no energy left to muster.  In these moments where we are desperately seeking strength to forge ahead, it’s imperative to reach into our resilience “first aid kit” for some self-service triage.

One day, deep into hybrid learning, I had just taken attendance in person and online. I had the projector on for the students in the classroom, I was screen sharing with the students at home, I had gotten the microphone to work, and I was settled in a chair to start the lesson on camera. The first two sentences were hardly out of my mouth when the phone rang. ALL.THE.WAY. ACROSS.THE.ROOM.

Internally, I was exasperated. The amount of organization and energy required for asynchronous teaching was off the charts and I was holding on by a string. I put the online learners on hold, took off my headset, and walked across the classroom, and answered the phone.

Turns out the secretary had called the wrong room. She apologized, and instinctively I said, “That’s okay, I needed the exercise.” My irritation had washed away almost instantly because of many years of practicing reframing my thoughts.

Emergency care for your body, mind, and spirit is located in your head.  Mindset is so powerful that it plays a significant role in decreasing stress, improving health, and increasing happiness. Our brains are first aid kits with the built-in capability to create a lasting foundation of resilience.

But, therein lies the paradox. Even though we have all the supplies readily available to us, it can be extremely difficult to access them in moments of stress.

However, with practice, there are things you can do right in the moment to build resilience when the job you love seems to be kicking your butt.

7 First aid supplies for resilience emergencies

Breathe

Every mindfulness instructor is going to tell you to use breathing and/or visualizing as a calming technique– and that is because it’s incredibly effective. This is a coping strategy that can be done in just a few minutes.

To quiet your mind and bring awareness away from your worries, take a few deep breaths. The supply of oxygen to your brain increases and the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated.  In turn, you feel connected to your body, which promotes a state of calmness. It’s easy to do in the moment.

I have been known to use deep breathing while I walk around the classroom, checking on assignments, with students none the wiser.

Do not argue with reality

I’d argue that all stress comes from arguing with reality and insisting that “things should be different.” Thoughts like, “Parents should respect me”, or “The administration is unsupportive”, or “There is not enough time to teach this curriculum” ultimately do not serve you because they create tension and frustration. They argue with “what is”.

Author Byron Katie says, “When we don’t argue with reality, action becomes simpler, fluid, kind, and fearless.” We cannot change the world around us in order to be happy or have a smoother day. Instead, accepting the reality of “what is” gives the power back to you.

Perseverating on how we believe things “should be” is unproductive; accepting “what is” helps you move forward.

Identify what you can control 

Can you stop a parental firestorm in its tracks when it’s headed your way? No, but you can control how well you are prepared for it to hit.

By focusing on what specifically in a situation you can control, a sense of empowerment follows, and positive emotions are triggered.

For example, you may not be able to control the new schedule rolled out for the upcoming school year but you do have control over making what happens in those minutes work for you and your students. Let that inform your action and you will feel good about how you choose to respond.

Talk to someone you trust

Sharing emotions reduces stress while simultaneously making us feel close to another person. Find a friend to lighten your load and relieve your stress from the situation at hand.

This doesn’t mean complaining to everyone in your school corridor who will listen. Instead, get your feelings out to one person who will support and guide you to healthy decision-making.

Just remember that repeatedly venting over and over to the same person can cause friction in a relationship. There is a fine line between healthy venting and toxic complaining. Be selective about how often you are venting and prompt the other person to offer their perspective.

Practice self-compassion

This means treating yourself warmly, gently, and fairly. Why is being kind to ourselves so difficult? As teachers, I can safely assume we are all doing the best we can with the information we have at each moment. With self-compassion, you practice accepting–rather than judging– yourself.

The teacher in the next classroom might have all their report card comments done way before you, created an amazing lesson entirely from scratch, and seems to have classroom management perfected. That is okay! None of that is a reflection on you.

Take pride in your own unique strengths, talents, and characteristics. Give yourself a break; you are amazing.

Recognize any positives in challenging situations

Staying positive in a negative situation is tough, but you can honor difficult situations and emotions while also choosing to focus on positive elements or outcomes.

This recently happened to me when I found out my principal and mentor were moving on to another opportunity. Initially, I felt sad and disappointed for myself even though I truly was happy for him. Ultimately,  I chose to focus on the fact that I wasn’t losing a mentor, but also gaining an additional teacher in the new principal that was hired.

Does this mean I wasn’t sad or disappointed anymore? No, of course, I was. But by recognizing that there were actually good things possible in the situation I eased the negative impact. With many years of practice, I can identify the positive in any negative situation almost automatically.

Complete the stress cycle

When we face anything the brain perceives as a threat, stress is the body’s natural response. Called the “stress cycle”, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let’s say you just got out of a difficult meeting with an angry parent. It was high tension and even though the issues were resolved, your body is still stuck in the middle of a stress response. It takes completing the stress cycle for your body to fully move on from the perceived threat.

Sisters Amelia and Emily Nagoski write in their book “Burnout” about six evidence-based strategies to complete the stress cycle: physical activity, creativity, laughing, crying, physical affection, and deep breathing. The most efficient is 30 minutes of exercise each day, but all work wonderfully. Take the time out of your day to complete the stress cycle.

When you build up your resilience, life flows a bit more easily. You may find that your vibe rubs off on your students. You may share the same strategies with them in moments of need, teaching them a bit about social-emotional learning in the process. And, you may also find that co-workers start to find you not only optimistic, but confident and unshakeable.

Coincidentally, these are also fantastic qualities found in the best performance artists, as the show must go on.  We carry on our daily performance as educators not only because we must, but also because we know the next day will be better. The mood will have shifted, or our energy will have resurfaced.

Besides, we all know that “desk jobs” really aren’t that great anyway.

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