Brains can only take so much. The exact line that marks the boundary between “enough to manage” and “too much” is defined by individual experiences and personalities, but I think it’s safe to say that the last two years have been universally Too. Much. Especially for educators.
One of the things we know about brains that have been pushed too far is that they can’t learn. They just can’t. They need an opportunity to calm, to feel safe, to find their way out of the lizard-brain response that is fight-flight-flock-freeze-appease. The absolute worst way to do that? Pile more on. Ask for more effort, more learning, more higher-level thinking requiring empathy and reflection and synthesis and analysis. That will get you exactly the opposite of what you’re looking for.
STRESS UPON STRESS
So as I look at schools that are trying—with what I believe to be the best of intentions—to respond to student brains that have had just too much, I see teacher brains that have had just as much too much. They are being asked for more effort, more learning, more higher-level thinking requiring empathy and reflection and synthesis and analysis, essentially making the pre-pandemic too much—which wasn’t sustainable but was at least familiar—and adding a whole new level of too much on top of it.
The result? Angry, frustrated teachers who are deciding minute to minute whether or not they can stay on the job. Teachers walking out after second period, dropping off their keys and lanyards three months into school, leaving behind hard-earned licenses and dreamed-of careers because they just can’t do what’s being asked of them.
What can we do? I like to lean on the teachings of Kim John Payne and what I refer to as his best formula ever: High social complexity + low form predictability = stress reactive behaviors.
High social complexity (lack of clarity around the social expectations, cultural norms, and how to navigate the expected social realities of a situation) + low form predictability (confusion about what is going to happen moment to moment, day to day, week to week) = stress reactive behaviors (fight-flight-flock-freeze-appease or signs that the amygdala, the lizard brain, has taken control and the prefrontal cortex—the part that learns and plans and creates—isn’t fully engaged).
In my experience, this formula holds true for most everyone—students, teachers, and leaders alike—particularly right now when so much of this is out of our control. We don’t get to decide whether or not school will be closed because of an uptick in cases or if a group of adults is going to picket or disrupt school because of mask or vaccination requirements or if there are going to be enough—or any—substitutes when family emergencies arise, so we may or may not end up covering a class on 10 minutes’ notice.
Students who don’t know what the social rules are may choose to engage in the latest TikTok challenge because it provides some clarity around social expectations, sorely lacking after two years away from their peers. They’re trying to find their place in the social hierarchy of a grade or school that they weren’t allowed to grow into.
What can we do? We can seek to decrease, wherever possible, the social complexity by slowing down, by working in the smallest groups possible, by building real community through meaningful work, by building expectations with students—keeping them simple and concrete—and then using those expectations to provide much-needed boundaries.
We can seek to provide as much predictability as possible for ourselves and our students. We can go over Plan A and Plan B, Plan “in class” and Plan “remote,” and take the guesswork out of “what will happen if.” Create routines and live into them—personally, professionally, and pedagogically—so we can minimize decision points in the day.
Administrators must seek to do the same: build appropriate, clear, simple, concrete expectations with teachers around expectations and routines for students and for one another and then present a unified front with the professionals in their classrooms.
Mostly, though, we can extend grace to ourselves, our peers, and our students. We can be patient with our students, ourselves, and one another. This could mean holding unconditional positive regard; questioning our internal assumptions; allowing extra time for processing and responses (fact-to-face or digitally); asking follow-up questions; intentionally speaking more slowly, more gently, and more carefully; or taking a pause at transition points in your day.
Because I wanted to be reminded of my commitment to working within our current reality and be transparent with my colleagues and students, I added these words of Alex Shevrin Venet to my email signature: “Please note: We’re still in a global pandemic. Things are not normal. Your health and well-being are more important than anything. I’m going to do my best to teach, advise, and collaborate to the best of my ability. I understand that you are all doing your best given that there’s a pandemic and nothing is normal. Almost everything is flexible. Just ask.”
We didn’t get here in a few months, and it’s going to take more time than that to get beyond it. We all must commit to actions and values that demonstrate a culture of support and above all flexibility. We’ve suffered a collective trauma—we’re still suffering it—and expecting business as usual or even more than that isn’t going to get us anything but anger, frustration, and hostility from those we seek to serve.