It is no secret that teachers today are overwhelmed, especially with statewide school closures due to COVID-19. In fact, 60% of educators currently report that work is always or often stressful and 46% report high enough daily stress in their job that it compromises overall well-being. This feeling is mirrored in many other fields of work where employees are overwhelmed; 50% of workers report that if the amount of new information they receive continues to increase at current rates, they will reach a “breaking point.” This continues to draw attention to the need to prioritize our employees’ wellbeing. 

As an educational leader and coach, I hear stories about school staff experiencing compassion fatigue, their increased need to seek out mental health support, and in some cases the emotional toll being so large that they have to leave the profession.

We can push back against a culture of overwhelm that contributes to conditions that produce inequities, burnout, and even the extreme financial burdens of employee turnover. Major systemic overhauls must happen to address some of these issues. Meanwhile, on an individual level, we must operate through the lens of what can be done in order to lower and manage stress. The following strategies can guide us: 

Practice Locus of Control.
Locus of Control is focusing on what we can impact and control directly, and it can be helpful to start here. Try this practice. Draw a stick figure with two circles surrounding it (one is bigger than the other). The closest sphere to the figure is the “Sphere of Control,” next is “Sphere of Influence,” and the outer area is “Everything Else.” List things in your life that fit into each ring. Circle three things that you will prioritize focusing on in the next month: two from the sphere of control and one from the sphere of influence. When something comes up that is in the “everything else” ring, try to bring your attention back to the inner two rings.

Cultivate Compassion.
Negativity bias in our brains oftentimes keeps us from noticing all that is going well. Practice “savoring” moments of success and positivity, as Dr. Rick Hanson recommends. When you do something well, try closing your eyes and ruminating in the feelings that this produces for at least one minute. This practice can actually rewire your brain.

Develop a mantra that gives you permission to have grace and compassion for yourself. Focus this practice on you and not others. 

  • I am giving myself grace in this.
  • What I did well was ____________.
  • I learned__________, and I am moving forward.
  • This too shall pass. 

Consistently Build Resilience.
It is important to regularly practice mindfulness, self-care and resilience work. The task of combatting overwhelming feelings will not be as impactful if it lacks consistency and is solely in response to extreme stress or negative emotions.

Two ways to practice and sustain resilience are meditation and grounding. Download a meditation app such as Insight Timer and set the timer for two minutes a day for one week. Sit, breathe and focus on the breath and body. Note how this experience impacts you, and consider continuing at longer intervals. For a grounding practice, in a moment that really tests your resilience, stand up if you’re able (or modify in a seated position) and rock gently back and forth and side to side feeling every spot on your feet (or seat). Make little circles and imagine finding a center-point from your belly button. Then, hold still. Relax your shoulders and anything else that is holding tension. Feel that you are grounded, balanced, and have found some peace and equanimity. Take note.

Other quick ways you can make mindfulness, resilience, and self-care a part of your work culture:

1. Ask employees what they need; then tailor the practices that you share to their input.
2. Create intentional time for this work (i.e. staff/team meetings, including virtual meetings). 
3. Take advantage of the unique opportunity that we have right now to support staff who might be overwhelmed and prioritize wellness work. 
4. Practice and model mindfulness, self-care and resilience by setting boundaries and leading your team by example (i.e. such as ditching the late-night emails).
While difficulties coping with stress have been heightened by COVID-19, it is not unique to these times.We are the thermometers, the pulse setters. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to make a change. Right now especially, we have an opportunity to reimagine our workplaces to better serve all of our people.  

Madeline Mason serves as a Social-Emotional Learning Coach in Washington Township School District in Indianapolis. She has been an educator, leader, and coach in schools across Indianapolis since 2011. Madeline entered teaching through Teach for America Indianapolis and is a TFA Indy Investing in Innovation (IN3F) Fellow working on a project to prioritize teacher wellness and resilience.