For Teachers: Staying Calm Amidst Chaos

For Teachers: Staying Calm Amidst Chaos
Darri Stephens March 25, 2020

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These days, I feel like the air is silently buzzing – full of angst, worry, and fear. These are trying times for all, ages 0-100+. And as adults, we are tasked with being role models, which can be tough when we ourselves are overwhelmed with so much unknown. In the spirit of #stayingsane, we wanted to share a couple of suggestions around how you, yourself, can try to stay calm while promoting calmness to those around you.

Remember, safety first

The first thing to remember is that safety is most people’s number one concern. Ask yourself, “What makes me feel safe?” For some people, it is information; for others, family. Take stock in what gives you a sense of security and comfort, and make a concerted effort to incorporate those strategies into your everyday life. Then, consider how you can help reassure those around you that they are safe, especially children. My mother used to say “safety in numbers,” and the support of our communities – whether loved ones or neighbors – is instrumental right now to get through these tough times.

Kids especially need to be told explicitly that they are safe, even with the unknowns. They need to hear that they are loved and that people are watching out for them – and these messages can be repeated daily to help bolster a sense of security. Carve out time each day to have candid conversations and address fears head-on (remember, they might be hearing disturbing news on their own or picking up on your stress).

Candid conversations don’t have to be filled with scary realities; rather, use the time to acknowledge their fears, and then validate or dispel them, all with the goal of reassuring kids that they are indeed safe. Emphasize the positives like what proactive steps you are taking to continue being safe. As a trusted adult, you can offer to be an outlet and pillar of support.

Here are some examples of ways you can start the conversation:

  • Let’s start by talking about what is on our minds. What are you worried about today? What do you feel good about today?
  • I had some highs and lows today. Let me share mine and then I’d love to hear yours.
  • I saw some feel-good news today! Neighbors were working out together from their own backyards. How can we still connect with those around us in a safe way?

Shift your mindset

With so much out of our control, it can be difficult to know where to start. Experts alike suggest starting with what is in your control. Think of it like a bullseye: At your core, what do you have influence over? You may want to start with yourself. If you’re having difficulty controlling your emotions, try focusing on your physical wellbeing; we know that mitigating your physical stress can help with mental wellbeing. Or maybe you can focus on the home. How might you use this time to spring clean? It may sound frivolous, but being proactive helps one maintain a sense of purpose during chaos.

Help your students to also focus on what is in their realm of control. Developmentally, help them focus on concrete, actionable steps. Start simply with the example of a daily schedule. Help them prioritize their steps – what should they tackle first, second, and third. You could even hold them accountable by asking students to report to you their progress each day. Then moving beyond the self, how might they support their family members and friends? How can they shift their normal modes of connecting with friends so that they still can communicate and share smiles on a daily basis (think video chats or handwritten notes to family members)?

Be compassionate

… to yourself! Nothing is normal right now, so throw your usual day-to-day expectations out the window. In overwhelming times, there is much to struggle with when it comes to changes and the unknowns. It becomes easy to think negatively about yourself or your decisions. In a time of crisis, you need to give yourself space to regroup and reset. Part of doing so is giving yourself permission to say “no.” Establish new routines, which can help with productivity. Determine what boundaries you need and be clear about them to set new expectations with others.

And recognize that your students have been thrown for a loop, too. This shift to distance learning is a big change for all stakeholders – you, parents, and the kids. For kids, school is like their job in terms of responsibility, so they feel at a loss as their sense of control and purpose has dramatically shifted. They are probably experiencing similar heightened levels for stress. Help them establish routines to tackle one task at a time; and give them permission to take a break as needed as they get familiar with new schedules. Then consider how you can do a daily “gut check” or “feelings check” to provide them space to express themselves and process how they’re feeling.

And breathe…

Part of dealing with emotions is learning how to first identify them, label them, and figure out how best to manage them. For instance, when you are feeling angry or mad, can you pinpoint the emotion even more? Might you be frustrated, indignant, irate, furious, irritated, fuming, annoyed, or exasperated? Even as adults, we can struggle with how we are feeling when our reactions and emotions are atypical. This is then the time to turn to a calming technique – even the most elementary can work! Review our Family Tip Sheet to find those that work best for you, and then share those strategies with your own children and students. Help your students set a schedule to better tackle one task at a time.

You can also help kids identify emotions by giving them a common language to use at school and at home. And then, depending on their developmental stage, you can introduce synonyms so that they can accurately pinpoint their feelings. In education, we often speak of the importance for kids to not only have self-awareness, but the skill sets around self-regulation. Introduce a variety of calming techniques so that kids can create their own toolkit of sorts for such self-management. Encourage kids to make their own Calming Cards with our Student Activity.

And remember to breathe.

Darri Stephens is a former member of Teach for America and a seasoned educator, with more than 10 years’ experience in Los Angeles and New York City public schools. She’s a published author, who has also worked for education-focused media companies including Nickelodeon, IMAX, EdSurge, and Discovery Education. With master’s degrees in education from both Harvard and Stanford, she’s passionate about creative curriculum development that pushes boundaries, especially considering the influx of today’s technologies. Her most recent positions as Senior Director of Content at Common Sense and Director of Education at Wonder Workshop underscore her love of instructional design, writing, and the ever-changing edtech world – so much so that she has now founded her own content consulting agency, Darrow Ink.

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