Thursday, 16 July 2020

Calming a contagion in the classroom

Today I was listening to the Unlocking Us podcast by BrenĂ© Brown about day-to-day anxiety and over/under-functioning. Something she said early on in this podcast really struck a chord for me from a teaching perspective, anxiety is one of the most contagious of all emotions.

Let that sink in for a moment, anxiety is one of the most contagious of all emotions.

How does this show up in a classroom setting? Here are a couple of possible situations that might feel familiar:

1.      You are being appraised and feeling anxious; you have planned for everything, ensured your students are aware of expectations and have done everything you can think of to prepare (more than you would for a normal lesson) but you are still anxious because you are being watched and you want it to be successful. And then the lesson falls way short of what you planned, you feel it was a disaster, the students didn’t respond as you expected and you are devastated.

2.      At lunchtime there was an altercation in the playground and one of your students was involved, they are anxious about how the rest of the class will react and you are mindful of this anxiety. They walk in the door and you can almost smell the anxiety so you become hyper-vigilant and that raises their anxiety and the rest of the class seem more anxious… it is a tense afternoon.

3.      One of your colleagues is under a bit of stress and anxious as end of term is coming. After lunchtime in the staffroom with them you feel anxious and don’t really know why but you take that into the classroom with you and have a bit of a miserable afternoon. You were feeling fine about getting everything done earlier on but now you are worried.

I am sure you can think of other situations that might be relevant too. If we go back to the idea of the Magic Brain, when we are anxious we are in the glitter room and that means we can’t think as effectively because our anxiety is in charge of our thinking. As teachers, part of our job is to create an environment where learning can occur and that means reducing anxiety where we can, doesn’t it? When I think about all of this, the quote from Haim G. Ginott comes to mind:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather…”

That’s a lot of pressure though eh? How can we be responsible for the feelings of others? The way I see it is that we can’t assume responsibility for other’s feelings but we might be able to influence the dynamic and calm the anxiety contagion if we are aware and that does start with us.

Firstly, we need to notice and name our own emotions and behaviours. In this podcast BrenĂ© talks about over-functioning and under-functioning. I know for me I go into over-functioning as a response to anxiety; I get busy, try to fix things, organise stuff and keep everything under control, I like to look like I’ve got it all together and don’t need help. Under-functioning is the opposite. Neither of these approaches is really helpful, especially if we want to avoid creating an anxious learning environment!

Once we recognise our behaviours we can notice when they are flaring and press pause. I love practicing the pause! Pause enough to notice what is happening inside us and then shift gear so we can respond intelligently to what is happening around us. This is the time for the superpower of calm to come to the fore. In the face of emotional anxiety if we can stop, breathe, think then do we have a great opportunity to stop the spread. Let’s take the situations above and add in a dose of calm:

1.      The appraisal: take some deep cleansing breaths before you speak or start the lesson. Prior to the appraisal it may be appropriate to share your feelings openly “I am feeling anxious about this appraisal and just need you to know that”, you may even ask for help with it. Last year I was going to the dentist for the first time in a long time (I have a fear of dentists) and so I talked to my class of 7 and 8 year olds about my fear in the morning and explained that I was feeling anxious. I asked them for their help; they were kind and gracious with me, they also gave me great advice (some of it was my own words coming back to me). The thing was it calmed my anxious mind during that day so I could be more present for them as their teacher. (By the way, the trip to the dentist was as painful or scary as I had imagined… anxiety often thrives in an uncertain future.)

2.      Anxious student: this is a situation where the power of breath is going to be really helpful. Taking a breath before you come into the classroom and staying present is going to help everyone, yes you need to be mindful of the emotional state of your learners, but it is about not joining in their storm. It might be time for a quiet coaching conversation where you can help them unpack their reality before engaging with the class. I now teach my students about the superpowers of breath and stillness daily, we are practising the skills of calmness, and I love it when they coach each other or myself in using our superpowers- this helps when we are faced with situations like this.

3.      Anxious colleague: I like to think that most of us in education are reasonably compassionate people, we care about others and want to help them. In this situation joining in on the stress doesn’t really help anyone e.g. “I wish that the government, school management, parents understood how hard it is, something should be done etc etc etc”. All this does is reinforce powerlessness and makes us feel worse. Instead we can lovingly investigate what’s happening for our colleague if they want to talk about it, we can listen with empathy and understanding, we can care but we don’t have to wear the emotion. And before we return to our classroom or office we need to take some deep cleansing breaths, perhaps orient ourselves to what we love about our work or focus on what our goals are for the afternoon and go there with some positive energy.

The fabulous thing about practicing our calm is that the more we do it the easier it becomes. I know several people who I admire hugely because of their calm, they are my role models and when I get flooded by emotion and feel like I am racing towards thoughtless reaction I picture them and it helps me pause. It is becoming easier. When we use our superpower of calm we can think more clearly, we can respond intelligently, we become more like ourselves I think. And this means that we can be the best version of ourselves in that moment as a teacher or leader.   

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Sunday, 21 June 2020

Self care isn't selfish

We are in the giving profession, and if you are giving all the time and don't give back to yourself you run the risk of bleeding out... and when you bleed out you have nothing left to give. 

These are the paraphrased words I heard from Celia Lashlie several years ago at a Teachers Matter conference, they struck a chord then and they still do. 

Self care is an act of kindness, not only for you but for the learners in your care too. Our wellbeing isn't just about us, it allows us to continue giving the best that we can in the current circumstances, whatever they happen to be at the time. I wrote my Masters of Education research on the topic of teacher wellbeing and the key finding is as follows: 

Happy, healthy teachers tend to have happier, healthier classrooms where learners tend to do better academically, socially and emotionally. 

We are coming to the end of what is the most unusual term I have had so far in my career. Covid-19 and all that came with it has meant that we have had to cope with stressors that many of us have never been exposed to before; some of us have had to adapt quickly to changing circumstances whilst at the same time providing calm support for others in our care. For many of us this term has had it's fair share of difficulties. As we come to the end of the term it's not surprising that many of us are a little wrung out. When all of this is considered, the question I ask myself is how can we aim to be happy and healthy as the end of the term approaches? I don't have all the answers, not by a long shot, but I thought I would share a few ideas (in no particular order) around self care that might help. 

First and foremost, remember that self care is not selfish! 
  • drink more water- have a water bottle in your classroom if you can. Hydration is so important, I know when I don't drink enough my thinking becomes fuzzy and I find it harder to cope with stress.
  • take some deep breaths- when we get stressed our breathing can become more shallow which tells our brain that we are under threat and then it increases production of adrenaline and cortisol which makes us more stressed... it's a viscous cycle. Consciously pausing to take long slow deep breaths helps tell the brain we are safe which cuts into that stress cycle. 
  • accept your feelings but try not to let them do the thinking for you- your feelings are yours and they are natural and normal. Our feelings give us information about what is happening in our world, how we choose to respond is where our power lies... pressing pause when you have a strong feeling to notice it and breathe will give you time for the intensity of the feeling to pass and then you can think more clearly. 
  • let go of stuff if you can- working out what is important to do right now and letting go of the other stuff for now can be helpful, if you are able to make peace with not doing everything! It occurred to me not so long ago that teaching really is one long endless to do list and that helped me make peace with not getting everything done. 
  • have a hug (if it's your thing)- when we have a hug or feel connection to someone it is said that we release oxytocin which is a hormone that reduces stress. 
  • take time out to be grateful- each day list 10 things that you are grateful for, you can do this with a friend, with your students, in a diary or a journal. Practicising gratitude helps us tune in to the good we have in our lives... and the more we tune in to gratitude, the more we notice that we can be grateful for. 
  • be playful- it is easy for us to take everything seriously but when we do it can become a heavy burden to bear, playfulness helps to lighten the load. 
  • contribute positively to someone or something else- when we help someone else we get a bit of a good vibe, doing good feels good. It doesn't have to be something big either, the smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference. Last week a colleague of mine came out to do half of my morning tea duty so I could enjoy a special morning tea too... it was such a kind surprise, a small thing that made a big difference. 
  • look after your sleep- if you can try to get to bed a little earlier... turning off screens before bed and taking time to get ready for sleep can help you get a better night's rest.  
  • avoid skipping meals- we can't do what we do without energy and that comes from what we fuel ourselves with. I totally get the sugar or caffeine hit when the rubber hits the road, but try to have some fruit and nuts (and other healthy choices) during the day as well. You don't have to be perfect, just remember that teaching is a high energy job and you deserve to fuel yourself regularly as well as you can. Preparing meals in advance can help you eat regularly and avoid sugar overloading. 
  • appreciate your learners- tell them how much you appreciate them, celebrate their successes (however small), this is an investment in the relationships that are supportive for you and your students wellbeing. 
  • share good news with families- if you have time flicking a short message to families with some good news can be such a boost for them, you and the individual learners... everyone gets to feel good! 
  • a little of what you love is a good thing- if you love chocolate then go for it, but try to savour it, really taste it and enjoy it. If you have a hobby you love is there a way you can indulge in your hobby, savouring and enjoying it for a moment or two?  
  • have some alone time- sometimes you just need a few minutes in your own company, sometimes you need space to concentrate; think about how you can schedule a date with yourself. 
Perhaps your staff can come together to support each other as the term comes to a close: 
  • have a shared lunch once a week 
  • share a resource with others that might be helpful 
  • tell the funny stories from what happens in your classroom, it might brighten someone's day 
  • if you see something great in someone's classroom or with one of their students tell them, and tell others about the good you are seeing too
  • ask for advice, most people are happy to help if they can 
  • say thank you to others for what they have done or do for you
  • remember that most people are doing the best they can with what they have right now... offer graciousness to others if you can 
Please note: If you are feeling totally overwhelmed and unwell the best thing you can do to care for yourself is to seek help, there are a range of services to support you. Please don't think you have to do this alone. 

This is just a collection of ideas from one teacher to her peers. I know there are so many other things we can do to care for ourselves. Please feel free to share your ideas, we are all in this together. 

Take care x 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Am I ready? A poem for returning to school


Someone asked me today if I was ready for school, the simple answer's no. 
Sure the tables are tidy, pens and books sorted out, a timetable done, even so...
There are so many things I simply don't know... 

What has happened for my little ones in the weeks gone by? 
Will they be outgoing and chatty or fearful and shy? 
There are many I've heard from but some I have not... 
Do they know that I care, or do they think I forgot... 
What questions do they carry? What worries do they hold? 
Will their parents be warm and approachable or distant and cold? 

And how will school look like, after this time that has passed? 
Will we continue the same old, or answer questions we have asked... 
About digital connection, home partnerships, and more, 
Like minimising inequity and starting to settle the score? 

The thing is no matter how much I prepare, how brilliant are my plans,
Tomorrow I will meet my learners with heart and mind in hand, 
And move with them, prepared to dance and discover on shifting sand. 

With hope, as always :)