These are challenging times for educators. Many report feeling irritable, fatigued, alone, and anxious. Educators are being asked to teach in multimodal ways, pivot on a moment’s notice, and meet standards while worrying about our students in crisis. Many of us with our own children are now on totally different schedules, concerned about the well-being of our parents, and more. However, educators continue to teach, keep a calm exterior, and respond with amazing, caring, and heroic work during a polarizing social climate and worldwide health crisis.
Before you continue reading, take some deep breaths. By pausing and breathing, you have just reduced your stress response and enhanced your immune system. As we navigate the stresses of 2020 into the new year, our feelings of powerlessness and anxiousness can be cumulative, causing physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. To bring our best selves to the virtual or physical classroom each day, we need a reserve of compassion, energy, and self-care.
It is possible to mitigate the effects of traumatic responses with healing and resilient practices. We will first explore some of the biological science behind debilitating feelings and then share some tangible strategies for self-care and trauma-sensitive teaching. We will also look at ways to move from isolation to collaboration, and from fatigue to inspiration.
From Isolation to Collaboration
Are you also feeling isolated? Even before social distancing, teachers reported feeling isolated (Phillips & Hughes, 2012). When a teacher or student feels lonely—or worse, excluded—the brain responds the same way as it would to physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Weir, 2012). Social separation triggers the neural alarm system that speeds heart rates, raises blood pressure, and increases the adrenal release of cortisol. The sustained distressing experience of being left out prolongs disturbances in our limbic cell communication, which can lead to increased anger, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, and inflammation. Feelings of rejection can cause a decrease in our memory, decline in cognitive agility, and lowered immune response.
So what can teachers do to mitigate the traumatic effects of social isolation? Living in unprecedented times, your emotional first aid is critical not only for yourself and your own health but also for that of your students. Students feel our energy and mirror our responses. When a teacher’s blood pressure rises, so can the blood pressure of students around them, even when the classroom is virtual. By taking care of ourselves, we are also taking care of our students. Start by attending to your own feelings by safely connecting with others. Maintaining your social support network is as important as relying on your professional learning community. Just as our students need to feel supported through a sense of belonging in inclusive learning communities, we do also. Then, to deepen the supports of collaboration, follow three strategies: building an inclusive learning community, developing a predictable management style, and teaching emotional vocabulary.
Build an inclusive learning community. The key to building inclusive classrooms is human connection. Whether these connections are between colleagues, teachers and students, or students and peers, it is important to create spaces and opportunities that nurture the desire to connect. Teachers can serve as a protective model for making connections and responding with empathy and compassion even with something as seemingly insignificant as eye contact on a Zoom call. Teachers who purposely build caring relationships and a positive class community of learners enhance student learning (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2017) and support the conditions for developing resilience (Arincorayan et al., 2017; Brooks, 2006; Werner, 2013). We foster connection by saying “Hello,” whether it be when greeting students at the classroom door or when joining a Zoom call. We give emotional space in our overcrowded, overscheduled days with Morning Meetings and personalized greetings. When teachers and students are comfortable in their classroom, it supports feelings of safety and builds trusting, resilience-enhancing relationships. Positive social interactions reduce pain responses (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) and release opioids for a natural mood boost, which contributes to creating a joyful classroom environment. In terms of biology, with feelings of acceptance, students’ limbic systems are activated and better able to develop perspective and build empathy. Caring relationships in schools based on respect, encouragement, and attentiveness may help students elude the -adverse outcomes of environmental threats, such as the emotional stress caused by the current social and political climate during a worldwide pandemic. Human connection is critical to supporting young minds in rewiring their emotional regulation, returning faster to baseline, and improving the integrity of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that increases memory, sense of self, and compassion. Human connection is the key to building resiliency in ourselves and our students.
Develop a predictable management style. A large part of maintaining these human connections and relationships between teacher and student is a predictable management style. Caring routines, well-planned transitions, and classroom procedures developed along with a structured schedule create a safe and supportive learning environment. If students or teachers are worried about what is coming next, they may be unable to give their full attention to the task at hand. We know from experience that not every day will go precisely as planned. Therefore, clear classroom expectations prove invaluable when surprises such as a last-minute assembly or a fire drill occur. When students know what to expect, they are more readily able to adapt and respond positively. Predictable routines and clear behavioral expectations quiet down the “faulty alarm system” in our bodies and produce less activity in the amygdala (the part of our brain that helps in experiencing emotions), allowing students to focus, feel safe, and be successful. A predictable classroom environment and flexible, proactive management style is critical to maintaining our relationships, feeling emotionally safe, and developing an inclusive learning community.
Teach emotional vocabulary. One thing that became abundantly clear in 2020 is that adults and students have big feelings and therefore have an imperative need for emotional regulation. Modeling and directly teaching emotional vocabulary and regulation strategies are as important as math or literacy. One straightforward way to integrate this learning throughout the classroom is using the “name it to tame it” strategy (Siegel & Bryson, 2016). As humans, we use language to relate to each other and ourselves. Gratitude journals can be used as a recentering transition activity or as a genre choice in a writing workshop. Using language to identify and name our emotions gives us power and perspective over our feelings and the ability to modify impulsive or unhealthy responses. Having students simply name their feelings is the first step to “taming” them. Just as anger can be an important emotion, conflict is also a natural human phenomenon. We can teach students strategies to express their big emotions and deal with conflict in restorative ways. For example, you can resolve simple disputes over who is first in line by using rock-paper-scissors. Using collaborative problem-solving, peer peace coaching, restorative circles, or a peace path can support ongoing hurt feelings. We repair relationships by giving children the language, tools, and safe spaces to share emotions. We can foster students’ ability to empathize and connect with others, develop their sense of self, and promote perspective-taking. Teaching students an emotional vocabulary and coping strategies is vital to building resiliency and maintaining our inclusive learning environments.
From Fatigue to Inspiration
Are you still inspired at work? Even before the traumas of 2020, teachers described themselves as feeling demoralized and over half considered quitting the profession (McCarthy, 2019; Santoro, 2019; PDK International, 2019). Many educators discussed having trouble concentrating or a loss of creativity. Technology fatigue as well as compassion fatigue may lead to overwhelmingly burdened thoughts. We sometimes have little control over many issues confronting us today, from societal issues to student-specific issues, and it is easy to get caught up in secondary or vicarious trauma.
Students and teachers may be experiencing overwhelming feelings of vulnerability, loss of control, or inability to manage. This trauma triggers the amygdala, our brain’s emotional control center known for the fightor-flight response. A highly active amygdala can cause hyperactivity and hypervigilance, and inhibit one’s ability to learn from the moment. When these stressors become chronic conditions, it can lead to disorganized brain waves, thinning of the cerebral cortex, and gaps in the frontal cortex. Trauma gets in the way of cognitive flexibility and executive functioning, leading to academic struggles.
So what can teachers do to support learning and resilience? Once we understand the impact of trauma on learning, we can create safe, supportive, and trauma-sensitive environments (Terrasi & de Galarce, 2017). Learn to know when you need to take a break and create self-care strategies to reduce stress and inspire joy. Go for a run, garden, stretch with yoga, meditate, or have a personal dance party to shake off stress. Studies show that when teachers model personal coping strategies, their students also display healthy responses and positive learning outcomes (Flook et al., 2013). We can create safe, healthy, and enriching spaces that have a purpose and inspire wonder. The following three strategies can help support learning, neurogenesis, and resilience: change the environment, communicate high expectations and a sense of wonder, and plan purposeful lesson hooks.
Change the environment. A walk on the beach isn’t always possible to calm our nerves in the middle of the day while teaching, but try grounding yourself using all five senses. For example, find peace by changing your Zoom background to a forest scene, peel an orange, water your plants, clear out some visual clutter, or play joyful instrumental music. A change in lighting, a change in pacing, or a change in background sound can benefit both teachers and students. By adjusting the physical space with attention to sensory inputs we can reduce the transmission of stress hormones. Environmental conditions can trigger neurons in the hippocampus to address any stress. Calming conditions quiet the cerebellar vermis and regulate emotion. Paying attention to and enhancing students’ physical environments can help them better grow, learn, and succeed. Although there is no way for us to go into our students’ homes or remove their environmental stressors, it is essential to focus on what we can control to create safe spaces for ourselves and our students. Creating a calm, sensory-driven environment, in person or online, is key to supporting neurogenesis and fostering resiliency in ourselves and our students.
Communicate high expectations and a sense of wonder. In developing a culture of inquiry and learning, it is possible to over-support our students and take the joy out of productive struggle. Teachers need to balance scaffolds for independent work where students engage in problem-solving from start to finish. We communicate our belief in students’ abilities by designing complex learning activities and encouraging trial and error, not by providing the correct answers. To promote creativity and resiliency in our students we must communicate and keep high expectations. Students develop executive functioning skills when they are given choices, engage in goal-setting, and know their islands of competence (Brooks, 2006). Productive struggle activates neural connections leading to a sense of wonder. New insights build motivation for continued inquiry and often lead to an “aha” flash that produces both pride and deep learning. This moment of success brings a rush of dopamine that makes us feel good and sets us up to take on more challenges. Risk-taking in safe environments leads to students feeling inspired, creative, and joyful. Furthermore, engaging in a reflective process after a successful struggle helps promote metacognition and strengthens the executive function of students’ prefrontal cortex. Having high expectations for students, and therefore allowing for them to engage in productive struggle and develop metacognition, is key to promoting creativity and fostering their sense of wonder and inspiration.
Plan purposeful lesson hooks. Educators can inspire purpose into every lesson by infusing a social justice stance as well as linguistically and culturally relevant pedagogy. As teachers, we can cultivate courageous conversations, build unlikely friendships, nurture sensitivity, and encourage perspective-taking. All content areas (even math!) can lead to answering the “so what” question, engage advocacy skills, and include social-emotional reflection. It is more important now than ever to have classrooms with purpose. Allowing for quiet moments and creative motivation as well as grounding your work in the important issues of today will promote student self-esteem and connection to their larger community. Carefully selected literature can inspire critical dialogue and allow students to discuss issues that they see in the world and as a class explore what to do about them. We can teach students that learning is hard, but we can build our brain muscles while building a better world. If learning is culturally responsive and meaningful, then students will bolster their neural connections, organize brain waves, develop neural pathways, and strengthen cognitive integrity. Over time, the cerebral cortex thickens, which helps concentration, focus, and emotional regulation. Making sense of our learning is key to students making sense of their brain waves and making sense of the world.
From Trauma to Resilience
Even before the events of 2020, more than half of the students in our classrooms had traumatic or adverse experiences (Dube et al., 2009). More devastating is a statistic from the same study finding that one in six students struggle with complex, repeated, or prolonged trauma. Trauma is toxic to the brain. Because we understand how trauma negatively impacts learning, development, behavior, and relationships, we need strategies to build resilience and create conditions for neurogenesis.
As compassionate educators, we have the power to heal and transform our own hearts and minds and those we are honored to teach. There is incredible healing power in gaining perspective, quieting the mind, enjoying nature, and connecting with others. Practicing routines of self-care, like daily mindfulness, provide tangible benefits and balance. When we develop a strong sense of well-being it leads to more effectiveness in the classroom. Students will emulate this well-being, thus positively impacting the entire learning community.
In well-established learning communities, teachers can share learning, problem-solve, and hold each other accountable. Schools, whether virtual or in-person, need to be safe and supportive for the adults and children that work and learn together. As educators, we can create school communities that model integrity, kindness, and cooperation so that we collectively feel more secure. While the world asks us to solve its problems, we can begin by solving our own.
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