Sarah Miller had been a high school history teacher for nine years. She’d always liked the school administration and her colleagues.
But in mid-March 2020, the pandemic hit, and Sarah, like all teachers at her school, was sent home to teach classes remotely.
Little by little, the COVID-19 crisis began to take its toll. Sarah was feeling increasingly stressed.
Unexpected demands had become part of her everyday life. Having to learn new technology platforms to improve the quality of virtual teaching left her feeling overwhelmed and defeated.
Sarah felt as if every time she began to settle into the “new normal” of her job, the government passed new laws in response to the pandemic. District leaders imposed changes in school directives, and Sarah was back at square one.
A few weeks into the process, Sarah uttered something she never thought she’d hear herself say: “I hate my job.” She couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong. Sarah was unaware of the fact that she was mourning the loss of some people and things that had previously given her a sense of stability and well-being:
The personal connection with other teachers, in particular, her two closest friends who taught alongside her in the history department.
The experience of interacting face-to-face with kids. As a teacher, Sarah’s “edge” was inserting her fun and energetic personality into the classroom. For the previous two years, students had voted her their favorite teacher.
The security of using a proven teaching and classroom management plan she had created and fine-tuned over the course of her teaching career.
In addition to the stress that resulted from these losses, fear had crept into Sarah’s thinking. Worrying that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the ever-changing requirements of virtual teaching created an underlying feeling of panic. How would she stay connected to her colleagues and keep students engaged with history?
Like Sarah, we all know what it means to be stressed. The term “stress” can refer to a wide variety of phenomena:
We experience stress when pressures or demands make our lives difficult or interfere with our ability to maintain a feeling of well-being.
Sometimes people describe “feeling stressed” as an emotional state, one that involves anxiety and exhaustion. This is often referred to as “burnout”.
A situation that overwhelms a person’s perceived ability to meet the demands of that situation is experienced as stress.
One strategy for addressing stress in our lives is to communicate in a healthy manner. This begins with the way we approach circumstances and the messages we tell ourselves. For example:
Taking small positive actions on a daily basis is more effective than attempting to make radical changes overnight.
Blaming discomfort on outside events keeps us from facing the real issue – our attitudes. We have choices. We can either see ourselves as victims, or we can accept what is happening and take responsibility for our response.
Focusing our energies on what we can control and letting go of what we cannot control reduces the frustration and resentment that result from unrealistic expectations.
Condemning ourselves for our imperfections robs us of the opportunity to see and celebrate progress.
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Searching for “the” answer prevents me from identifying and exploring viable options.
Equally important as what we tell ourselves is how team members treat and talk to one another. We each have the power to reduce stress through building connectedness and community. This becomes possible when we:
Invite others to be part of what we are working on.
Initiate conversations about the goals we have for ourselves and what we’re doing to reach them.
Agree on a clear and commonly accepted team purpose.
Discover obstacles that can be removed in order to achieve personal and collective goals.
After recognizing that fear and discomfort had been contributing to her stress and frustration, Sarah realized she had the power to make choices that would improve her sense of well-being. Over time, she began taking specific steps toward adapting the way she communicated with herself and colleagues in light of the challenges of COVID-19.
Sarah’s stress and frustration with her job began to turn around when she asked: “Am I willing to change? What do I have the power to change? Which actions will have the greatest impact on achieving these changes?”
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Dave Tarpley, MEd
Consultant and Executive Coach