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Back in the Classroom: Strategies for Teachers

With the COVID-19 curve flattening in many places and the school year coming to a close, many governments and school boards have developed plans for an optional and voluntary return to in-person teaching for students and their families, affecting people in different ways:

  • Students will have the chance to reconnect with friends and classmates in person, as well as have some exposure to the classroom again prior to the return to classes in September. Students can adjust to the ‘new normal’ in a classroom context, making it less anxiety-provoking for the future.
  • For teachers, this is an opportunity to slowly return to their classrooms as well, and identify any potential challenges to teaching during this new normal.
  • Parents will have some of the challenge of constant childcare lifted, and potentially return to work in some capacity, as well as provide them the opportunity to engage in some much-needed self-care.

However, despite these potential benefits, it is also a very anxiety-provoking decision for everyone involved. Although it is a positive sign that classrooms are beginning to open up, it can still be difficult to cope with the uncertainty of changing our current routine.

Many teachers are having their own struggles with the decision to return to the classroom and concerns including:

  • Potentially contracting the virus yourself and bringing it home to your family
  • Being a carrier of the virus and passing it on to students or coworkers
  • Being unable meet your own standards of doing your job given all the new guidelines in place for teaching

Here are some common worries you might be experiencing and suggestions on how to respond to them:

Worry #1: “What if I contract the virus and spread it to others?”

We know that physical distancing is one of the best methods to protect yourself from contracting COVID-19. Yet in the classroom, it is difficult to maintain the appropriate distance, particularly with younger students who might not fully grasp the need to stay six feet apart from their classmates or their favourite teacher.

Things to Remember:

  • We cannot completely eliminate risk in most situations, regardless of whether or not it is COVID-19 related. Life is uncertain.
  • When we are faced with uncertainty, we have two options: 1) work to increase our certainty about a situation or 2) learn to tolerate the uncertainty. Many anxious people choose the former (e.g., reading multiple articles about returning to school in other parts of the world or problem-solving hypothetical situations in advance).
  • Although a small amount of preparation can be helpful, it does not eliminate uncertainty, and that’s okay. In most aspects of life, we don’t have complete certainty; we aren’t completely certain when we cross the street that a car won’t drive up out of nowhere and hit us, or when we leave the house that it won’t be robbed.
  • However, when we exercise proper safety precautions, like looking both ways before crossing the street or locking the door before leaving the house, we are reasonably sure that everything will be ok. That is, we are not completely certain, but we know that the probability is low.
  • Therefore, a healthy relationship to risk should involve developing reasonable safety precautions so that we feel that the risk is low and negative events are unlikely (not impossible, but unlikely), instead of trying to eliminate all risk. Being tolerant of some uncertainty in life, rather than trying to eliminate uncertainty, is not only a helpful goal when returning to work at this time in our history, but a good goal to strive for in life.

It is a good idea to learn how to practice tolerating uncertainty and introducing it purposely into your every day life. To do this, check out:

Worry #2: “What if I’m already a carrier of the virus and I pass it along to students or coworkers?”

Although we now know much more than a few months ago about COVID-19, there remains a lot that the experts don’t know, and some recommendations have shifted as additional information came to light. The lack of information can be difficult and anxiety-provoking for many people, especially if you are someone who tends to carry a high degree of responsibility and who always wants to do the right thing. The idea of spreading the virus and causing harm to others can be an unbearable thought.

Things to Remember:

  • Responsibility is not absolute; it is a shared phenomenon.
  • You alone are not responsible for protecting your students and coworkers. Everyone shares in the responsibility of public safety.
  • Ask yourself: Who is responsible besides you for ensuring the safety of the students in your classroom? The answer is that many groups/individuals play a role. Public health and elected officials are in charge of reopening schools, school boards are responsible for setting policy, and the administration oversees the provision of support for teachers and families deciding to return to school.
  • Take your responsibility as a teacher into context of the broader situation and acknowledge that others share in this responsibility.

As was mentioned earlier, there is always some risk involved in anything in life. All you can do is follow the public health guidelines for yourself, and this can help you to decrease, but not eliminate, your risk of being a carrier of the virus.

Worry #3: “What if I’m unable to perform to my usual standards?”

Teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society. When people are asked who has positively influenced their lives, a particular teacher(s) is often part of the answer. Teachers bring a high degree of professionalism to their jobs, and with that often comes a set of self-imposed expectations regarding their performance and ability to help kids learn.

Unfortunately, the advent of COVID-19 has created a huge barrier to helping children learn. Although technology (for those who have been able to access it) and parental assistance is helpful, it is not a replacement for classroom learning.

If you are someone who holds extremely high standards for yourself, you probably already know that telling yourself, or having administrators tell you, ‘just do the best you can’ will NOT be helpful. For teachers who have perfectionistic expectations of their performance, no matter how good you do, it may always feel like you could do better. Trying to teach and having students learn during COVID-19 is far from the ideal, so your performance expectations will be challenged even more than usual.

Things to Remember:

  • Do what you can, given the circumstances you are in. Continuing to hold yourself to the same standards when the situation has drastically changed is not helpful.
  • Find self-compassion by taking the context into account (i.e., COVID-19) and the impact it is having on students as well as yourself; it may help you to navigate the reality of teaching during a pandemic.
  • Try shifting your perspective. Imagine what someone else in the same situation might do. We are often kinder and much more compassionate towards others, and hold more realistic expectations for their performance, when compared to ourselves. As COVID-19 is impacting most everyone, it is not difficult to imagine a respected colleague who is likewise struggling with the fact that they are not able to perform to their pre-COVID standards. What would you tell that respected colleague regarding what they should expect of themselves during this time? Should this respected colleague hold the same set of expectations for their performance or would it be more reasonable to adjust expectations to the situation? It is more than likely that you would tell this respected colleague to adjust their standards, and that this is an acceptable decision under the circumstances.
  • Many people hold a double standard where they expect more for themselves compared to others. This is the time to be kind to yourself and try to adopt the standards you hold for others and make them your own.

Worry #4: “I keep replaying past situations and ‘rerunning the film’ in my mind.”

Hindsight is 20:20. Most people are familiar with this statement. People replay situations for a variety of reasons, including the belief that doing so will improve their actions or responses the next time a similar situation arises.

The problem with reviewing or rerunning the film is that we judge our actions and decisions when we already know the outcome. Knowing the outcome changes how we evaluate the actions we took or the decisions we made. Because of hindsight, the decisions that should have been made at various points seem obvious, and anything that deviates from what now appears clear in hindsight can lead to people being self-critical (e.g., “How could I have missed XYZ?”).

However, it is easy to forget that at the time that we need to make decisions, the outcome is, by definition, unknown. As a result, people tend to make decisions for good reasons at the time. After all, we can only make decisions that seem best given the information that we have at the time. In hindsight, however, sometimes decisions turn out to have been the best option, but sometimes, knowing what we know now, a decision was not ideal. In those times, it is a good idea to see those situations as learning opportunities.

An additional problem with replaying the film can occur if you are someone who already holds negative beliefs about your abilities (e.g., I’m not competent, I’m the weakest teacher in the school). These beliefs can influence what type of information you focus on when you are replaying a situation in your mind. When we hold strong beliefs, we tend to process information in such a way that it confirms our beliefs. This statement might not sound logical, but we are emotional beings and not always logical, particularly when strong beliefs guide how we view information.

If you are replaying the film of your teaching day and you are someone who believes you are a terrible teacher, you will likely focus on the aspects of the day that did not go well, while disregarding aspects of the day that did go well. For example, you might notice that one student smiled and said thank you, but then tell yourself that this student is always polite no matter what so it doesn’t mean anything. However, you also might notice another student being unusually defiant, and decide that this must be your fault.

This biased processing of information, that focuses on the negative and discounts the positive, can lead you to believe that your negative thoughts about yourself were correct, as it feels like you discovered ‘evidence’ that you were a terrible teacher, which will in turn lead to even stronger negative beliefs about your teaching abilities.

Things to Remember:

If you catch yourself rerunning replaying the day’s film in your head:

  • Try to redirect your attention to what you are doing in the present moment.
  • Challenge yourself to look for all the things that went well and use it as an opportunity to congratulate yourself on a job well done under difficult circumstances.
  • Acknowledge that we emotional beings and that we don’t always make logical decisions
  • See mistakes as learning opportunities, instead of being too self-critical.
  • Have faith in yourself that as these weeks go by, you will refine what you do, and acknowledge that the experience is a work in progress.

 

Thanks to Scientific Advisory Committee members Maureen Whittal and Melisa Robichaud for creating this resource.