Linda Woolf, STP President
I have a rescue dog, Ozzie, who came into my life not that long ago. Unfortunately, it turned out he was heartworm positive. We caught it early, so treatment has a very high chance of success. Nonetheless, for the past 14 weeks, Ozzie has been confined to “bed rest.” That translates as very short walks, no steps, no jumping or running, and lots of confinement to a crate. I bought him lots of toys and showered him with affection. He was content but seemed to carry a sadness. Well, this week, his treatment protocol and confinement came to an end. We walked outside—no leash. It took him a few confused moments but then he took off running and jumping around the yard. He spent his time sniffing, exploring, and chasing the birds. His experience seems an apt metaphor for the past two years. With COVID once again dominating many of our lives, how many of us not only feel confined but less content—sadness, stress, and a sense of unpredictability. We look towards the day when we can walk about through our lives and into our classrooms unencumbered.
We have all had to change the way we teach in response to COVID. Most of us made the mad dash to a virtual classroom in 2020 and may still be teaching primarily synchronously online or in an asynchronous format. Today, some of us may be teaching face-to-face in socially distanced settings wearing facemasks, while others may be teaching in situations with few protections. We certainly know that these unpredictable times are challenging for our students. Much has been written for teachers to help us provide support for our students. For example, APA has put together modules, Building Student Resilience, which teachers can use at 4-8 grades and high school levels. Certainly, these materials can be used at the college level as well. Many resources have been developed related to teaching online and under these new conditions. Indeed, Past-President Susan Nolan formed a task force aimed at Pivot Teaching last year and you can read Chair Jenel Cavazos’ update about their work in Susan’s last column. There is also a new STP eBook, which focuses on Teaching Psychology Online.
But what about meeting the needs of teachers themselves? Any one of us who have spent any time on social media has read our colleagues’ requests for support and resources to ensure that we are all providing the best educational opportunities for our students. We care about our students and their learning. However, we have also witnessed colleagues and friends exhibit stress and pain, as they struggle with an array of situations from massive burnout to concerns about their health and safety to the loss of colleagues, students, and loved ones. What can we do to take care of ourselves?
I’m not a clinician, so being an academic, the first thing I did was go to PsycInfo and put in the terms “teacher stress or teacher burnout” and “COVID.” I got very few hits but was gratified to see that half of the results were dissertations. In a few years, we will have more research on this topic! Regardless, here are my thoughts based on extrapolations from materials aimed at students but also positive psychology.
Reflection, Resilience, and Reframing: Look back over the past year and examine those moments of challenge. Do not focus solely on where you faltered or what you should have done better—these are often my first instincts! Self-reflection is a positive strategy but not if it is drowned out by the drumbeat of self-criticism. Frame your thinking to examine your growth as a teacher, your new coping and reliance strategies, and your myriad of successes. Do not focus largely on the losses due to COVID, which are real, but rather, on all that has been gained. Yes, there are things I really miss about my “old teaching life” but most of it is still there. Moreover, the pandemic has really stretched my skills as an educator and I think I am a much better teacher than I was two years ago. Do your own reflection and be kind to yourself!
Health: Negative and chronic stress has an impact on all of us physically. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to reach for that bag of Cheetos when feeling stressed! I know that I am preaching to the informed, however, all of us may need a reminder to at times, just breathe. Take time to listen to your body, breathe, perhaps meditate, be mindful, eat a bit healthier, sleep, and exercise. Plan time to step away from the stress by whatever way works for you whether reading, taking a walk, a hobby, pickleball, or watching British mysteries. Make a time commitment to yourself, to your health, and to your well-being.
Gratitude: Certainly, positive psychology teaches us the value of gratitude. Each day look for those elements in life for which you are grateful. Guy Boysen wrote a wonderful E-xcellence in Teaching post this week entitled, “Teachers’ Intense Dislike for Students.” Great discussion of a difficult topic, which we often just converse behind closed doors. Interestingly, one of the ways I have found to cope with those students is to look for things that I do like about them even if obscure and why I am grateful that they are in my classroom. Usually if my attitude changes, they respond—even if just a little. Of course, if one has a threatening or dangerous student, then other measures may need to be taken. Regardless, look for elements in your life for which you are grateful and nurture those elements.
Meaningfulness: Well-being has been linked to finding meaning in life. Many of you may find that connection through family, spiritual or cultural beliefs, or social activism. I’m sure that many of us also find meaning through our teaching and other professional activities. And, yes, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in STP! I know, some of you may be thinking, “I’m feeling burnt out and she thinks I should add something to my schedule!??” To which I would respond, “I get that.” Take the time to evaluate what is important to you, what brings you the most meaning, and balance your efforts. I’m reminded of the following quote by Betty White, “I’m the luckiest person in the world. My life is divided in absolute half: half animals, half show business. They’re the two things I love the most and I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal work!” I’m sure that Ms. White had lots of demands for her time but she focused on the two things she loved most, spreading joy throughout her 99 years. Find meaning and balance.
Use STP Resources: You do not need to do everything yourself! Are you taking over a class at the last minute? Did the activity you always used in the past not translate well into the online environment? Are there new topics that you really want to add to your courses based on world events or a new understanding of the discipline? We grow, we learn, but we do not need to always reinvent the wheel. Our time is valuable, and we are part of an STP community with a wealth of resources and knowledge. For example, browse the STP website for eBooks on all sorts of topics ranging from lab projects for classes to diversity materials. Check out Project Syllabus, Resources by Topics or Course, the various teaching blogs, and the list goes on! Of course, the STP programming is second to none and we hope that the Annual Conference on Teaching will be in person this year. Of course, you will find STP programming as part of a range of national as well international conferences—all listed on our webpage. STP is also on social media forums such as Facebook. The Facebook page, as well as the STP listservs, PsychTeacher and Div2GSTA (graduate student), are excellent avenues for support, help, and networking. And, of course, do not forget Teaching of Psychology (ToP), our amazing journal filled with evidence-based best practices, activities, articles, and other materials. If you are not already a member of STP, supporting the work of psychology teachers at all levels, then JOIN—if for no other reason than to get ToP!
Finally, I cannot end this first column of the year without thanking Susan Nolan and Amy Fineburg. Amy is ending her term as Past-President and Susan is rotating into that role. Both have been instrumental in leading STP through the past two challenging years. As noted previously, Susan is leaving a legacy through the work of her various task forces. I would also add that both Susan and Amy have a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and internationalization (DEII) and that commitment is reflected in their work within STP and the discipline over the past two years. I hope to continue that work and I know whenever I have a question about what I should do, I’ll ask myself, “What would Susan or Amy do?” I thank them for their leadership.
In closing, I would comment that there have been times in my life when I viewed the proverbial glass as half empty; other times as half full. During COVID, I am learning that the glass is refillable. There are strategies that I can engage in to make me a better teacher and more accessible to my students. There are also strategies that I can use to refill my glass to avoid burnout and maintain the joy in what I do. My pup Ozzie needed to wait till the end of his illness to run, explore, jump, and feel the joy. We do not need to wait till the end of COVID to refuel, reignite our passion for teaching, and experience the joy! STP is here to help and here’s to a good new year!
P.S. Make sure you keep your dogs on heartworm prevention!