Over the last several weeks, educators accomplished the mammoth task of setting up remote learning for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. As time passes, school on Zoom will become the new normal. It is important in this in-between moment to bring our attention to something we probably have not thought enough about lately. We are rightly concerned now with viral contagion, but we should also be concerned about how contagious, as teachers, our unhealthy habits of self-care can be for our students.
Mission-driven educators do not tend to prioritize physical or social-emotional health. We choose this work because we see an emergency—structural inequality, the opportunity gap, insufficient schools for all children—and we sign up expecting to make significant personal sacrifices. For many of us, this sacrifice is a badge of honor, and taking time for self-care seems selfish. Some of us are so stuck in the hamster wheel of the work that we can’t figure out how to prioritize our needs.
We ignore self-care at our students’, and our own, expense when times are normal. We absolutely cannot afford to do that in the current moment. What we need to understand is that deprioritizing self-care is contagious. This is because emotions are contagious. We have what scientists call mirror neurons that react to the emotions of those around us. These neurons make us feel and even behave in parallel with others in our space. And the emotions of the person with the most power in the room are significantly more contagious than those of others.
These findings show what most of us already know: that schools create chain reactions of emotions, from leaders to teachers to students. Leaders create an emotional space that impacts teachers, who then create similar spaces for their students. So if adults experiencing chronic stress, then so will their students. If a teacher does not prioritize effective self-care to manage their stress, then their students will be less likely to do so. This phenomenon is just as true in virtual classrooms as it is in person. Consider the impact of our stress and how we cope on our student’s ability to make it through the pandemic, financial crisis, and social isolation.
We must conclude that we need to interrupt our unhealthy patterns and model effective self-care if we’re going to serve our students well—especially right now. If we do not, our stress will magnify their stress and our disregard for self-care will impact their ability to care for themselves.
Emotional Intelligence (EI) theory provides a road map for how we can shift mindsets and behaviors about self-care. Here are four steps to build new awareness and strategies for yourself and your students.
- Access your power source. As an educator, you have likely lost touch with some values, habits, people, and hobbies that recharge your batteries. Take some time to remember what these energy sources are and commit to bringing the most important ones back into your life. You have a unique opportunity, with the interruption of our old structures and habits of work, to experiment. And you will need them more in this unprecedented moment of challenge. Do some reflection and makes some commitments.
- Identify how you hold yourself back from practicing self-care and determine how you will manage your internal obstacles. Our own emotions (guilt, fear, self-judgement) and self-limiting stories (about selfishness, what other people are doing, what will happen if we don’t respond to email) hold us back. We cannot control our emotions, but we can manage our internal narratives and our behaviors in response to them. Identify the pattern of emotions, internal narratives and resulting behaviors that keep you from investing in your self-care. Once you have built new awareness, come up with some internal strategies to help you choose new stories and behaviors. This essay should give you a mantra to start with: My commitment to or disregard for self-care will infect my students!
- Consider where your students are and where you want them to be. You cannot make good decisions about social-emotional support unless you can answer these questions. Find out where your student are emotionally and what they need from you by creating space during your time with them to ask how they are doing. Listen at an emotional level to what they are experiencing that makes them happy and feel grounded and connected, and what they are experiencing that makes them sad, afraid, angry, bored, and lonely.
- Engage emotionally. What would it look like for you to connect with your students at a human, emotional level to model self-care and help them build new strategies? Get creative! Keep in mind that your greatest teaching tool is you. Make your productive emotional contagion explicit by sharing your own challenges and self-care strategies with students. Create space for students to share challenges and self-care strategies with each other. Build structures for these strategies to live in your Zoom calls and at home for your students. Model setting and following through with self-care goals and support students to do the same.
Our students will inevitably miss out on important academic growth during this time of remote learning, and we need to do what we can to minimize that. But this academic challenge pales in comparison to the emotional hardship many of our students will experience in the months to come. If we don’t effectively model self-care, we will not meet our students’ most urgent needs through this crisis. If we intentionally practice the self-care we need, we will be much more likely to support our students with theirs. Whatever we do, it will be contagious.