Educators Supporting Educators: You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup Self-Care Webinar

Co-Written with Christine Ravasi-Weinstein

If you’re anything like us, you’re experiencing a lot of complex emotions right now.l Educators, along with everyone else in the world, are marveling at how different everything looks now compared to eight weeks ago. Big events have been canceled: March Madness, professional sports, award shows. Schools have postponed/cancelled: dances, celebrations, and now in-person graduations. Even in educational learning events such as Empower20 (where we were both speaking), Tech and Learning Live Chicago, and ISTE have been canceled or changed to a virtual format. Never in our lives did we think toilet paper and masks would become the nation’s hottest commodity.

Schools have gone online, educators are sheltering in place, and social distancing is the new norm. As educators, we are now tasked with developing brand new lesson plans suited for online learning while we juggle childcare, children’s homeschooling, and taking care of a family. However, taking care of ourselves cannot take a back seat. While we are educators, we are still learners.

One of the most important things you can do to cope with anxiety is to keep busy.  When you are doing something tactile, it’s hard to overthink because your mind is distracted. Rather than dwelling on the fact that we both missed a few national speaking opportunities, we decided to get back out there and were inspired to support; keep busy.

In diving into the issue of self-care, we were driven to not just educate, but learn what others were doing. We had the idea to gather a few educators from different districts to open up a conversation about ourselves and how we are practicing self-care. Many groups were coming together to support the “educational” side of the profession, but equally important was a conversation about educators’ mental health during COVID-19.

On April 24th, five educators, us and three others, came together as a group to share our experiences and strategies for self-care. Presented as a webinar, the conversation was part of the Remote Learning Nugget Matt hosts every Friday at 1 pm EST. The series, originally designed as virtual professional development for the district of Leicester, has since been opened up nationally. Every week educators from all over the country gather to learn something practical that they can implement today.

In addition to us, the panel consisted of Tara Desiderio, an Elementary Principal from PA. She’s been serving in her role for 12 years and is also the co-moderator of the #CultureED chat. Basil Marin, who is an Assistant Principal from Atlanta, GA and former ASCD Emerging Leader 2018. Along with Abby French, a 6th grade US History I teacher from Woodstock, VA, Co-Founder of Student-Centered Learning Team and Instructional Coach.

Matt moderated the conversation and opened by explaining the spirit of where the webinar was born. It’s the “power of partnerships and the power of staying connected,” he explained. He aimed to reach out to others to share experiences with self-care in hopes of helping educators maneuver through these difficult times successfully. Here is what came from that conversation:

Refilling your own tank

Meeting the dynamic needs of all our students and staff during this time can be quite draining. Refilling your own tanks and staying motivated while working from home is essential if we’re going to make it to the finish line. But how do we do that? For the panelists, connection was a common thread. Whether with the outdoors, their own children, or their professional learning networks (PLNs), everyone was actively working to counteract the isolation they’re feeling with nation-wide school closures.

French talked about the importance of connecting with the outdoors. She spoke of a nature camp she attended as a kid and how impactful it was for her growing up. She found a love for not only nature, but herpetology. “Education can actually turn a perspective around,” she explained. “Nature has always been an equalizing force for me. When everything gets to be too big, or too much, or too loud, for me, stepping outside, finding some solitude in nature helps me reset.”

For Desiderio, the message was similar, “Working on balance is always on the forefront of my mind…” She’s been doing things to connect with her own children: doing puzzles, taking walks outside, and using chalk on the driveway. She also talked about how important exercise is for her new routine. Christine reiterated this: “I can’t achieve my lofty goals that I would normally, but everyday I try to have one small goal.” She gets outside every day whether it’s as simple as playing hockey with her son or taking a walk, or as intense as going for a long run.

Marin expressed the impact of Dr. Rita Pearson’s work on him and the power of connections. He elaborated on the hashtag iron sharpens iron and expressed how important it is for him to connect with his students, teachers and PLN now.

No matter who had the floor, everyone talked about how important it is to find a connection with someone or something else.

Reestablishing your educational drive

Distance and drive can often be inversely proportional; as one increases it’s usually the direct result of a decrease in the other. The further we have moved in physical proximity to our students and staff, the more difficult it can be to find that drive, the why, of what got us into education in the first place. Panelists were asked how they are staying passionate about their work and for each, not much has changed, in fact, the closures have simply reiterated their whys.

French explained her passion for student-centered learning and giving students more leadership and control. She wants students to be able to recognize their strengths and pursue those within their own interests. The choice boards she’s designing for her online instructional modules are allowing kids to explore more about who they are, what they want, their interests and their talents; a direct correlation to her why.

For Christine, she’s living in her why, “My passion is social/emotional learning, wellness, and mental health advocacy. In a selfish way there is no better time for me to be refueled with my why because we are living in it.” French reminded everyone that “The opportunity to strengthen bonds is there.”

Desiderio is driven by her kids and taking care of those around her. “In order to be the best we can be, we need to be surrounded by people who promote that in us.” She explained that her administration has never been closer. Usually, she elaborated, they are busy working in their silos, but now, they are working together everyday. She talked about how the team spent the first three weeks just reaching out to families and making strong connections; something that due to time constraints never would have happened at that level otherwise. “This period of time truly gave us the gift of time,” she stated.

A self-proclaimed extrovert, Marin has found it a little more challenging to reestablish his why, but has been able to do so nonetheless. A champion of equitable opportunities for all students to succeed, Marin explained that there were students struggling before COVID. “We’re spending a lot more hours than the contractual hours during the regular school day before COVID. So a lot of us are spending 16, 17, 18 hours a day trying to contact students and help them be successful, but again this is a part of our why. It’s a part of our why and we’re helping students to be successful.”

Finding balance

In order to prevent burnout, panelists talked about two key points, taking breaks and giving yourself grace. Balance is the key to combat how overwhelmed we are by the demands of creating digital lessons and engaging in remote meetings. Zoom fatigue is real and taking the time to rest your mind is essential.

“I am about as introverted as they get,” Christine said, “so you’d think this is a great scenario for me, but it’s really not. I don’t like just sitting at a computer. What I’ve discovered is that the kind of fast-paced nature of a workday where you just never know what’s going to happen and everyday is totally different, is what keeps me fueled and going. When I am at home, I have to take breaks.”

French reiterated the importance of getting outside and having perspective especially during a season of new life. “We really do have to be cognizant of how far we’re pushing ourselves right now…so much has changed and is out of my control that seeing spring come in as scheduled, has been uplifting to me.”

Giving yourself grace was the key to Desiderio’s message. “We are all doing the best we can, our kids are doing the best they can, and our families are doing the best they can. We need to give people grace and meet them where they’re at. I think of this as giving yourself permission to continue to be a work in progress.”

Marin talked about giving yourself grace and prioritizing the emails, phone calls and texts. He took the idea of grace one step further; bringing it back to the students. It’s an unprecedented time and no one has a manual. He encouraged us to balance rigor with social/emotional learning and follow what’s best for kids.

Having perspective

When life calls for us all to get through unscripted times together, having perspective is key. We must force ourselves to look at circumstances and situations from all angles rather than seeing just what’s right in front of us. Matt asked each panelist to leave participants with one last strategy/perspective to take with them.

As we live in this world of “ungrading,” French reminded us, don’t forget about the importance of feedback as a tool for improvement. This is a time where grading practices can be looked at. What kids need are fewer percentage grades and more feedback, i.e., being a partner in their learning.

Christine cautioned participants about making assumptions. Ask questions both of others and of ourselves too, she explained. And understand that everything is circumstantial, so don’t go pushing any panic buttons, “It’s okay to press reset,” she encouraged. “That doesn’t mean you failed at something, it doesn’t mean things aren’t going well, it means you just have to push reset.”

For Desidiero, it’s about positivity; negativity is a choice she said.  “Don’t fear following your heart. Find people who are like you and surround yourself with them…Find people who truly motivate you.”

And for Marin, he challenged us to put ourselves in “our students shoes right now and how they are feeling.” He asked us to “find a way to reach all students.” He also reminded us, “Tap into your PLN. Find people who are going to refill your cup. We can’t do this by ourselves.”

Moving forward

Washing your hands and practicing social distancing are great practical strategies for taking care of your physical health during this time. But what about our emotional health? Educators are used to the hustle and bustle of schools, classrooms, face-to-face connections, and ongoing socialization. When that is removed, we try to overcompensate; take on the emotional loss for everyone. Yet we forget to address our own emotional loss and mental well-being.

It is natural to worry about the future, especially when it seems so uncertain. The key is not to get swept up in our own thoughts and the accompanying feelings of angst. We cannot get to the point of hopelessness or despair. We must continue to fight by concentrating on what IS within our control – our own self-care.

Teaching and leading from home may not be what we planned, but we can make the most of it. “As an educator we’re so stuck on the assessments and so stuck on the accountability part that we forget about kids being human,” Marin explains. “So something we are talking about a lot in our district right now is compassion over compliance.”

Have confidence in your capacity to adapt and find the sweet spot in your work-life balance. Pat yourself on the back for everything you and your students have accomplished, even if there have been some bumps along the way. “It’s all about building relationships in education, even when you’re in the building,” Christine says. “And right now, it’s all about building relationships. I understand that your lesson is important to you, but what’s more important is that every kid knows you care about them and that they’re well and that you’re well, and everything else is secondary.”

Cut yourself a break and give yourself grace. Marin said it perfectly, “It’s about heartwork. We have to lead with the heart and we have to do what’s best for kids.” The same is true of ourselves.

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