For the first time in her decade of teaching, Coral Zayas is eating lunch every day. It may sound small, but for her, it’s a major victory. “I don’t normally eat three meals a day, because I’m usually working and don’t even think about it,” Zayas said in September. In addition to her new lunch routine, Zayas, who teaches STEM and social studies at a public school in Leander, Texas, has set a regular time when she turns off her computer at night. “I’m working really hard to put what is in my brain of what balance looks like into reality,” she said.
“Balanced” is not a word that many educators would use to describe how they feel in 2020. Even before COVID-19, recent studies found that 93% of elementary school teachers and 94% of middle school teachers experience high stress. Add to that a pandemic, upheaval in job duties and ongoing social unrest, and you’ve got plenty to worry mental health professionals. “We were in crisis a year ago, and now the house is on fire,” said Michelle Kinder, a licensed professional counselor and co-author of “WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive.”
With that backdrop, how has Zayas managed to prioritize her well being more than any other time in her career? In large part, she attributes it to the support and connection she’s found with other educators. She is part of a group of Texas teachers that formed as a short-term response to school closings last spring and who are now leaning on each other to stay resilient as the pandemic persists.
Filling the gas tank
In March, Zayas volunteered to facilitate a teacher support group organized by Teach Plus Texas, an organization that trains teachers for policy leadership and advocacy. The support group met twice weekly in the spring. When summer arrived, some members wanted to keep it going. They decided to read “Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators“ by Elena Aguilar together.
The book follows a June to May calendar and includes an accompanying workbook. Each month Zayas and up to seven other teachers meet via Zoom to discuss key takeaways from the last chapter, share what’s going on in their classrooms, and reflect on what they need from themselves or others to be well. That last part is an important part of mental health, according to Kinder, who has worked with educators in individual counseling and at large-scale trainings she led as executive director of the Momentous Institute.
Kinder often encourages clients to do a “gas tank audit.” It involves identifying five things that fill you up and considering how often those things show up in your life. Taking time to fill the gas tank can be hard for teachers, she said. “Generally as a rule they’re so wired to care for others, to pour themselves into their craft and their profession in a way that can very easily result in depletion. Especially if the system they’re in isn’t healthy and looking out for them.”
That’s a familiar story for Ruqayyah Adisa, a member of the Teach Plus group with Zayas. Adisa is a business manager and former librarian at a public charter school in Houston. “I’m always the one listening and giving the advice,” she said during the group’s September meeting. “But then when I’m not having a good day or I need a shoulder to cry on or something like that, I just feel like not all the time do I have someone there for me.”
Getting and giving mutual support is what draws the members together. Veronica Rivera, a bilingual primary school teacher in San Antonio, said the group’s gatherings and the readings have grounded her and reduced her anxiety. In September she told the group she was grieving the death of her dog but couldn’t skip their call: “I look forward to this. That’s why I was like, I’m going. I’m showing up to this meeting, tear-stained face and all.”
In the weeks between meetings, the educators stay connected via Slack. They post motivational quotes and share frustrations or bright spots from the day, which they refer to as “whines and shines.” They act as accountability buddies for self-care practices by swapping links to yoga videos or celebrating when someone meditates several days in a row.
“That’s made a huge difference. Just knowing that I feel like my community … is much, much stronger. It’s not just professional relationships. It’s like we’re building friendships that are going to be sticking together,” said Zayas.
Self-care has its limits, though. On a recent padlet board created by teacher shea martin, anonymous teachers described the crushing stress they’re experiencing this year, and many expressed frustration at administrators’ promotion of self-care without real changes to make that possible.
Stop advising us to practice self-care. Instead, reduce our workloads.
– an anonymous teacher
— shea martin (@sheathescholar) October 3, 2020
Teacher workloads have long been “out of touch with reality,” said Rivera. Before the coronavirus outbreak, she and others in the group were advocating for policy changes to improve that. Now the pandemic has thrown a wrench in things. With little hope for greater state or federal investments, the teachers are forging their own path forward. In that way, their group is creating a grassroots form of what Kinder called “community care,” which offers individuals an emotional safety net and the sense of power in reciprocating care.
The group may not be able to fix large-scale problems, but with so much out of teachers’ control, Rivera said building her own resilience is one area where she can exercise agency: “Our monthly meetings make me feel and know that I’m not alone in all of this. Each session I leave with new ideas to focus on caring for myself, my family and my students, too. I feel inspired and motivated to continue on when honestly, sometimes I don’t know if it’s worth it to me, especially now.”