“I have a general recommendation that I make to people – turn adversity into opportunity.”
– Dr. Aaron T. Beck1
Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, says the current pandemic can offer a unique opportunity for us to reassess our priorities, realign our values, and mine for meaning. During virtual professional learning hosted by Ever Active Schools (a provincial initiative in Alberta initiative supporting healthy school communities), and in casual conversation with educators in our lives, we have heard from teachers who have found inspiring ways to prioritize well-being during this challenging time. These educators have shared well-being success stories and new opportunities that they would like to continue in a transition back to schools. Themes included intentionality, connection, slowing down, and greater flexibility and control over their days.
In considering opportunities to carry forward, one teacher shared, “It would be nice to have time in our school day to just connect with students and start slower.” Others discussed how the pandemic created space to savour their morning coffee, purposefully connect with students and colleagues, spend more time with family, and get outside. These perspectives have been echoed in conversations with educators since the pandemic reshaped our daily lives.
As an education community, how will we reprioritize? What lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis and how will we act upon them with intention, compassion, and courage?
Through the uncertainty of the past several months, there are a few things that remain certain. It’s even more clear that social connection, savouring positive moments, and resilience are key to optimal teaching and learning, and to our capacity to be well through life’s inevitable highs and lows. Staff and student well-being can be mutually reinforcing when well-being is intentionally prioritized. Drawing on research and educators’ experiences2 during the pandemic, we explore opportunities to reconsider well-being in education.
“Our natural tendency is toward the negative, so it takes a concerted effort to wear a different set of glasses.”
– Dr. Judith Beck3
Most studies on “teacher well-being” have focused on the impacts of teacher stress and burnout. We propose that a focus on well-being should be centered on wellness and not illness.
One aspect of our human psychology that may help to explain the pervasive emphasis on stress and burnout in the teaching profession is that we are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive.4 This is a normal reaction to events in our daily lives; we may even owe part of our survival as a species to this negativity bias. As teachers, this is why one defiant student can derail us after an otherwise stellar lesson, or a brief negative interaction with a colleague or parent can send us into a downward spiral (despite several other positive interactions that same day).
The depiction of teaching as a stressful profession, however, is priming new teachers to normalize and expect exhaustion. As early as the first day of their BEd programs, many teacher candidates are warned of high attrition and exhaustion in the profession. New teachers are asking for a more inspiring and balanced view. At the 2019 National Forum on Wellness in Post-Secondary, one teacher candidate shared, “There’s a common narrative of mutually endured suffering going into our practicums, and I was stressed about the stress… both of my practicums were incredible and I didn’t need to be that stressed. Changing up the narrative would be helpful.”
We hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic can serve as an invitation to shift the conversation from being stressed at school to being well at school. While there are several contributing factors to the current narrative, the good news is we are also hard-wired to connect and overcome challenges. We can leverage these innate strengths to redirect our attention.
Below, we share educators’ experiences during the pandemic within three specific categories: cultivating connection, savouring positive moments, and building resilience (CPR).5 These lessons are relevant whether we’re at home, school, or somewhere in between.
1. Strengthening meaningful connections
“Connecting with kids is the key.” – Elementary teacher on experiencing joy after 20+ years in the profession
The transition from bustling hallways and classrooms to virtual spaces has highlighted in real-time that social connection is foundational to well-being and to learning. We crave it. Teachers and students alike say that what they miss most is each other.
Strong relationships can lead to a longer lifespan and improved creativity, meaning, resilience, and learning outcomes. Positive workplace interactions have the potential to strengthen our immune system, broaden our thinking, enhance self-image, and increase adaptability, cooperation, and job satisfaction.6 Powerful benefits for schools!
Especially during times of difficulty, our social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions.
While it’s not the same as face-to-face, teachers found creative ways to maintain those needed connections even during a global pandemic: sidewalk messages and neighbourhood obstacle courses, driveway charades, celebration car parades, drop-in Google lunches, Instagram live, email check-ins with jokes, and department calls with silly themes and fun games. We have been resourceful in connecting even when we can’t be physically close.
Especially during times of difficulty, these social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions. To cultivate these deeper connections, we can ask meaningful questions:
- What are two words to describe how you’re feeling right now?
- What’s been your proudest moment this week? Why was it important to you?
- What are you excited about right now?
- What’s been your biggest blooper this week? Silver lining?
- What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
- What is energizing or motivating you right now?
(Some of the above were adapted from organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant. Check out his WorkLife podcast for more ideas to build meaningful connections both in-person and remotely.)
2. Savouring positive moments
Research on effective teacher well-being initiatives show that increasing experiences of positive emotion is equally or more important to promote well-being than building skills to reduce stress and burnout.7 Capitalizing on small positive moments ignites a “broaden and build” effect – positive emotions broaden our perspectives, actions, and relationships, and build resources like social support and resilience.8 An experienced Grade 1/2 teacher reflected in an email on a small positive moment during the pandemic that improved her well-being and job satisfaction:
“Students can see how hard you’re trying, and will offer their grace to you. This was demonstrated when students offered to meet with me prior to Google Meets to allow me to practice sharing my screen, and other skills I needed for my lessons. They were willing to be my guinea pigs so that I could be successful. Knowing that they wanted me to be successful made me feel amazing. I love my job!”
Balancing our work and personal life is especially vital in the current context. During an online conversation, teachers shared how setting time boundaries and managing expectations helped them to stay positive. Others carved out time for meditation, walks outside with family, Zoom fitness classes with friends, podcasts, or reading for pleasure. Some teachers found joy in starting a gratitude practice and taking time to reflect on what went well in their changed teaching role.
Teachers also shared their successes with colleagues. Emotions are contagious; we can “catch” positive emotions as easily as negative ones.9 Savouring positive experiences and celebrating others when they do the same can boost resilience and cultivate awareness of those meaningful moments in the future. Actively responding to others’ good news offers reciprocal benefits for both parties; it can help decrease loneliness and strengthen self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and our memory of the good event.10
Some teachers found the following daily questions,11 applicable in any context, particularly helpful for cultivating positive moments during the pandemic:
- What am I grateful for today?
- Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?
- What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
- How am I getting outside today?
- How am I moving my body today?
- What beauty am I either creating, cultivating or inviting in today?
3. Building resilience skills to manage stress
Resilience allows us to manage inevitable challenges and setbacks, and develop skills to move through those experiences and grow as a result. It allows us to experience hope in hardship. Teachers shared during the virtual chat how the pandemic has provided opportunities to build resilience, including managing expectations of productivity and creating space to be vulnerable and name emotions (which, in turn, encourages their colleagues to do the same): “It’s okay not to be okay.”
How can we continue these generative conversations…and interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress?
A powerful skill in developing resilience is the ability to reframe and challenge our rigid thoughts or expectations. It takes practice, but we can learn how to turn unproductive worries, all-or-nothing thinking, and guilt-inducing lists of “shoulds” into more balanced and empowering thoughts. One educator shared how she was able to reframe disappointment in missing a pre-planned trip by connecting to the meaning, or her why, of going on the trip in the first place. Her why was connection, so she found a new opportunity to connect with those same people. Consider these questions to reframe in the moment:
- What is a more productive way to look at this?
- What is one thing within my control, and how can I act on it?
- How can I use my strengths,12 or connect to my why?
Similarly, self-compassion is a strategy to build our resilience and ability to manage stress. Teachers identify self-compassion as a powerful practice to combat self-criticism while navigating uncertainty. Dr. Kristin Neff explains self-compassion as treating ourselves with kindness. To apply self-compassion, try asking these questions inspired by Neff’s framework:13
- Self-kindness: What would I say to a friend in this situation?
- Common humanity: How can I connect with others going through something similar?
- Mindfulness: How can I honour my emotions and practice presence?
Continuing the conversation
Let’s not forget the lessons we’re learning through this difficult situation. How can we continue these generative conversations, implement a reprioritized value for well-being habits, and as a result, interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress? These seemingly simple habits are impactful regardless of the setting; the pandemic simply shone a bright light on their necessity.
To envision an education system that prioritizes well-being at an individual and organizational level, how would we allocate time? For example, how could we restructure the school day to encourage intentional opportunities to connect and savour positive moments, without the usual rush to the next thing? Habits teachers reported during the pandemic are simple, inexpensive ways to build well-being and sustainability in our profession.
Imagine a narrative of teaching that is energizing and empowering to both manage the complexities of education today, and to spark an upward spiral of well-being for teachers and students. Eventually, talking about well-being will become as common as talking about stress.
Illustration: Diana Pham
First published in Education Canada, September 2020
2 For a summary of the In the Round learning chats hosted by Ever Active Schools: https://everactive.org/professional-learning/#online
4 P. Rozin and E. B. Royzman, “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 5, No. 4 (2001): 296-320; R. F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, et al., “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, No. 4 (2001): 323-370.
5 Referred to as the CPR of happiness by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: https://blog.edx.org/scientific-self-care-feel-happy-grounded-grateful
6 J. E. Dutton and E. D. Heaphy, “The Power of High-quality Connections,” Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline 3 (2003): 263-278; J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, and J. B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A meta-analytic review,” PLOS Medicine 7, No. 7 (2010).
7 WellAhead, Research Brief: Promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff (2018). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
8 B. L. Fredrickson, (2001). “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” American Psychologist 56, No. 3 (2001): 218-226.
9 S. G. Barsade, C. G. Coutifaris, and J. Pillemer, “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life,” Research in Organizational Behavior 38 (2018): 137-151; S. G. Barsade, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, No. 4 (2002): 644-675.
10 S. L. Gable et al., “What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, No. 2 (2004): 228-245.
11 Brooke Anderson, “Six Daily Questions to Ask Yourself in Quarantine,” Greater Good Magazine (March 24, 2020). https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_daily_questions_to_ask_yourself_in_quarantine
12 Visit www.viacharacter.org to take a free character strengths survey and learn about your signature strengths. Using strengths creates a common language, builds resilience skills, and benefits student and staff well-being.