Keeping Our Heads above Water in the New Normal
Gill Johnson is a teacher/ teacher trainer with over 30 years of experience. She is the author of two ELT books and is a seasoned plenary speaker at international conferences. Until recently she was the deputy principal, at an international boarding school in rural Sussex.
Now based in south-west France, Gill is busy training teachers online, studying for her coaching qualification, walking her dog, singing at online ‘lockdown’ events, learning about Persian cuisine (and trying the results out on her husband!) and in all the busyness, learning to take life more gently. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As everybody knows, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives, both professionally and personally, beyond recognition. The impact of all this has had a huge impact on the mental health and well-being of many millions of people worldwide. While teachers are not on the front line in the same way as medical professionals, we are now under a great deal of pressure, as we work online. Think about it; we’re stuck at home. Some of us are teaching from our living rooms. Some of us have small children who we have to supervise at the same time. Some of us are lucky enough to have a quiet space in which to work, but have no physical contact with our students. Some of us love working online and doing this from home, but the hard fact is that we’re on-screen all day and we have no staff-room where we can go and offload, or have a joke with colleagues. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of marking and a lot of very needy students, worried about their exams. It’s a lot to carry.
Some of us have disengaged students, disadvantaged students, hostile or pushy parents who want us to take total responsibility for the moral, spiritual and academic education of their children and feel it’s ok to email us whenever they like and expect an immediate response. It’s a lot to carry.
Already, before the pandemic, many teachers in the UK were expected to teach their own subjects as well as personal, health, relationship and sexual, spiritual and economic education, identify and act on any suspicion of children at risk of abuse, bullying or radicalisation and now, they have to do all of that online! It’s a lot to carry.
Doing all of this consistently and well requires superhuman strength and resilience. it’s little wonder that many teachers are becoming overwhelmed by the challenge. On top of all that, the loss of real social contact with our colleagues, friends and families brings further stress and pressure.
Some of us, just keep powering through it all, but doing that means we’re living on adrenaline and that, in time, impairs our ability to make decisions. It what drove me to spending many evenings watching mind numbing mini series on Netflix with a glass of wine, or tidying the house, so I didn’t have to do any of the many tasks in front of me. That, in turn disturbed my sleep. I’d wake up panicking about all the things I needed to do and hadn’t got around to doing yet. I genuinely couldn’t see the wood for the trees. My blood pressure went sky high and I suffered a (thankfully minor) heart attack. I really hit rock-bottom and felt unable to do anything at all.
One weekend I was invited to an online workshop delivered by Doctor Joanna Martin, the founder of http://oneofmany.com/ .
I found it totally uplifting. I learned that many women felt like I did. During the workshop there were lots of opportunities to engage with other participants via breakout rooms and we had some frank conversations, laughed, danced, meditated and I began to lose a bit of the sense of worthlessness and shame I’d been carrying. I signed up for a couple of courses and my recovery began in earnest.
One of the first things I learned was that when we feel overwhelmed, it’s very difficult to structure our days and prioritise tasks we need to do. It’s much easier to let our self-critic in and keep ourselves in a state of inertia and shame. A ritual that Jo Martin taught me totally transformed my days, bringing back structure and a sense of achievement. I use it every working day now. It works like this…
First of all, look after YOU. You can’t help anyone until you can ‘get to OK’ first; just like when the cabin crew will tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else. It’s the same in life. This is now my ‘oxygen mask!
Step one: Make a list of everything you think you need to do today; big tasks, little ones.. Write them all down on a sheet of paper.
Now, imagine that you’re your own best friend. This is a person who cares deeply about you and has absolutely NO guilt whatsoever about helping you do what you need to. In NLP terms, this would be going into 2nd position.
Now, as your best friend (or in second position) just cross off everything from your list that:
- you can do nothing about
- that is not urgent in the next few days and will come up again, eventually
- will never get done, so why worry about it right now?
- will take care of itself in time.
Now, your best friend is going to help you delegate tasks or get support with what you need.
- Could someone else do this task? It might take them much less time that it’d take you and you could do the same for them one day.
- Would it take me less time to pass on the task?
- If I can assume everyone would say yes, what would I pass on?
- If there are any technical issues or worries, who can you have a chat with to help you?
Here are a couple of questions.
- In your big picture, what are the most important things?
- What are the less important things?
- What are just distractions?
- Would your world end if you don’t do some of the things on your list?
Look at your list and mark the items with:
- A (Absolutely has to be done today.),
- B (It’d be a bonus if these could be done today.),
- and C (Could do these, but they’re not crucial.).
Then number your A’s in order of importance and do the same for your B’s and C’s
Go do something for yourself for half an hour or so, to get yourself into your best emotional state: go for a walk or run, have a bath, whatever works for you…. and get ready for the next step.
Now you’re ready to start your day, so look at your list again. Are there any As on it? If not, give yourself a break to rest and replenish. You’ll be all the more effective for it.
If there are some As, start with the easiest one. Once you’ve done that, reward yourself. A few blueberries, a stretch, a walk round my garden, or a chat and a cuppa with my husband work for me, but do whatever works for you… and keep going, one small step at a time. Remember to focus on the progress you’re making. Getting to the end of your ‘A’ list is awesome and you may find, as you’re working, that something you once saw as an ‘A’ item, isn’t crucial so you can ditch that, too. The ‘B’ list is only a bonus! You’ve got this!
The ritual might sound a bit complicated, but you do get much quicker at it and once you get into the routine of the ABC list, you will find you’re feeling much more serene about the tasks you have to do, because you’re in more control. Once you’ve got that, think about setting some clear boundaries, like when you need to finish your on-screen time, so you can rest and replenish properly for the next day. I like to add on 10mins of ‘at work time’ to my day, so I can have those 10mins to ‘shake out’ or ‘release’ any accumulated stress from my work day so I can spend time with my husband; a bit like I used to do during my drive to and from work. (Yes, I was the woman singing along, at the top of my voice, with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, not at all mindful of the fact that I had the roof down and that I had stopped at the traffic lights. The face of the driver in the next lane was priceless!)
Idea for the classroom
I’ve shared the ABC ritual with many of my students and they tell me it helps them feel more in control of their workload. It’s particularly helpful for students with upcoming exams and coursework deadlines. Recognising that students working in isolation at home may find it hard to feel motivated and they don’t always value their own contributions to classes. Some students may not engage because they don’t think their contributions will be good enough. Shame and self-critics sometimes loom large. I have tried to address this by using ABC in another way.
I get the class to brainstorm positive words, beginning with A, B and C. Once we have that, before each class I will send each student another student’s name and for the last 5mins or so of the class, I’ll ask everyone to share with the student whose name they have received, one or two of these positive words. (Because I use Zoom, they can either do this in the chat box or they can say it out loud) It means they have to really listen throughout the class, so they can give meaningful feedback and I have noticed that the classes are much more dynamic; everyone has ‘upped their game’ because they want to feel valued and of value to their group.
Getting myself back to ‘OK’ was quite a journey and I learned a lot about shame and vulnerability along the way. I read Brene Brown’s wonderful book: ‘Daring Greatly’ (Penguin 2012) which helped me to dare to be vulnerable and to learn that being vulnerable and yes, failing sometimes, is courageous and that in vulnerability there is real strength. If you’d asked me 5 years ago whether I’d be writing an article like this, I’d have said “Hell, no!” because, frankly, I wouldn’t have dared to show anyone any tiny sign of vulnerability. Back then, I thought it was weakness. Now I know better and I hope that, if anything I’ve said resonates with you at all, you might want to try the activities I’ve shared. They won’t hurt, I promise!
Brene Brown: Daring Greatly (Penguin-Random House ISBN 9781592408412
Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica: The Element (Penguin-Random House ISBN 9780141045252
Please check the The Art and Skills of the Humanistic Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website
Creating a Culture of Welcoming Feedback and Encouraging Reflections: A Pathway for Professional Development
Al-Mahanad Al-Badi, Oman
Keeping Our Heads above Water in the New Normal
Gill Johnson, France