The Oxford dictionary describes trauma as “an unpleasant experience that makes you feel upset and/or anxious”. For many of us, coping with teaching from home, often under lockdown conditions, against the backdrop of a global health crisis, is indeed traumatic. Yet, strangely, many educational institutions and we as teachers are often trying to carry on as if this is normal or as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary has happened. However, we need to allow ourselves ‘permission to feel’ (Brackett, 2019). We need time to process our emotions and recognise how traumatic much of this is for us as educators and for our learners. This does not mean dwelling on or feeding our negative emotions, but we need to acknowledge them and give ourselves the appropriate space to process these feelings.
If you feel especially fragile or are struggling to cope, you should reach out for professional support. These are trying times which are placing a strain on our mental wellbeing. Needing extra help from a professional mental health advisor could be a valuable support for many people just now.
So, while our first advice is to acknowledge the difficult feelings that people are experiencing, in this blog post, our main focus is on coping positively with the current situation and retaining a sense of meaning and growth in our professional lives. To outline our thinking and making it easier to remember, we have organised it around: A, B, C, D and E.
A is for Accept.
One of the things that can cause us stress is when things feel out of our control. During the current crisis, coping with the restrictions on our autonomy is sometimes difficult. However, there are many things that still lie within our control every second of every day. To help us maintain a sense of control, it can be helpful to accept those things we cannot change and just let them go. Instead, we can focus our energies on those things we can influence such as how we spend our time, what we choose to think about, how we interact with others, how much news we read, what kinds of activities we do, etc. To feel more empowered, we can simply accept those things we cannot change and direct our attention to those things that we can influence and take action on.
B is for Boundaries.
Working from home is a challenge in all kinds of ways. Most notably, it means that the boundaries between our personal and our professional lives are no longer clearly delineated physically or even in terms of time. As such, it is easy to lose any sense of balance between the different aspects of our lives. The overlap and spillover from our professional lives into our private sphere is acute. It means we have to make a more conscious effort than ever before to mark out time and space for our leisure, friends, family, and non-work lives. Try keeping a log of how you are spending your time and ensure you are setting aside time to do things that have nothing to do with work but which re-energise you. Seek to set boundaries between personal and professional realms of your life. It can help to set a schedule to create a structure to your day and it can be valuable to physically mark off space at home where no work is allowed to enter! Boundaries can help you to ensure a balance between the personal and the professional domains of your life.
C is for Connect.
Many have criticised the term ‘social distancing’ which is somewhat of a misnomer. We absolutely must ensure we physically distance ourselves to others but we need social connection more than ever before. In times of stress and anxiety, people gain strength from contact with others. It is a time to reach out to family, friends, and colleagues. It is good to keep up social habits online – maintaining existing social networks and perhaps creating new ones. For example, maybe your book club meets online, a choir you are in sings together online, a pub quiz you attend is brought into the digital world or you start a Netflix movie night party with friends. The social connection aspect also comes with somewhat of an inherent paradox when it comes to home life. While we may share our homes with people who are precious to us and their closeness can be a valuable form of support, we may also need a little space of our own as well. Ensure you and your partner are able to talk openly about your needs for both space and closeness – one does not rule the other out.
D is for Developing.
Teaching online is new for many of us. We find ourselves thrown into a new teaching situation overnight and are suddenly cast back into feeling like novice teachers worried about how to teach effectively. The good news is we are most certainly not alone and our students tend to be very forgiving. Firstly, we need to let go of perfectionism. Nobody expects you suddenly to be master of every online tool and button. Do as much as you can manage, lean into the chance to learn some new skills, and don’t be so self-critical. Remember all the brilliant things about yourself as a teacher – they are still all there. Build on your strengths, do the best you can in your own way, take it a day at a time, and be as kind to yourself about your learning curve with teaching online as you would be to a struggling pupil. We are continually developing as teachers, which is one of the joys of the job. Try to relish the growth without placing yourself under unrealistic pressures and expectations. You are doing enough.
E is for Engage.
Many of us gain great positivity from our teaching. Engaging with learners, designing new teaching materials and seeing our learners grow can be some of the greatest rewards in our profession. Those moments of positivity are still there and we must not lose sight of them so we can continue to draw strength from them as we always have. Yet, our identities as educators are only one part of who we are. We also need to deliberately engage with things in our lives beyond work which also give us joy and pleasure. It may be doing something creative such as writing, arts or crafts or doing some kind of hobby like maybe cooking, visiting museums/art galleries (online!), doing yoga, or reading. Engaging your mind fully into something you enjoy outside of work can help lift your spirits and free your mind for a while creating some mental breathing space.
There is no denying that these times are difficult for everyone, especially for educators, but we still have some control over how we choose to live our daily lives. We hope these ABCDE steps can contribute in some way towards helping you to maintain a positive balance and focus while working from home. Stay safe and well.
Do you want to discover more great strategies for nurturing and promoting your wellbeing? Read Teacher Wellbeing, by Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen – a practical guide for language teachers!
Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT Methodology. She is co-author, with Tammy Gregersen, of Teacher Wellbeing, published by Oxford University Press. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, and she has written and edited prize-winning books in this area. She is currently vice-president of the International Association for the Psychology of Language Learning (IAPLL) and serves as a consultant on several international projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP).
Tammy Gregersen is currently teaching and researching at the American University of Sharjah where she also coordinates their Masters in TESOL program. She has co-authored/co-edited several books, with three more in press, on topics such as individual differences, nonverbal communication, positive psychology in the language classroom and language teacher education.
Tammy has presented at conferences and taught in graduate programs across the globe which deems an incredible privilege because it taps into her passions for travelling and exploring new cultures.