We find ourselves working in some interesting places these days. Today, my office is the home of my great-grandparents in a small Minnesota town. It’s a simple house, and full of reminders of what life and education would have looked like nearly a century ago: a one room schoolhouse, with one teacher but students of varying ages, in the midst of the Great Depression. I can’t help but think of how it parallels some of the challenges educators face today. Not in how or what we teach, but in how outside forces must have impacted mental health and sense of well-being for students and staff. Now, of course, it is a pandemic. And there are certain skills teachers need during COVID-19 to help support productivity and learning.

Remembering where we have come from and the challenges we’ve overcome before can offer an inspiring perspective to help us persevere through current trials. To maintain our stamina and mental well-being, it’s critical to approach this school year with realism and caution, but not at the detriment of optimism. Negativity breeds itself. So does positivity.

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I have no doubt that schools and teachers will be successful in educating students. A related skill that teachers possess and will need in increasing measures this school year is the ability to accept (in ourselves and in co-workers) that many things will not go as planned. Flexibility applies to how we do our jobs, but also how we approach others.

We are professionals with a very demanding task ahead. The pandemic has muddied the water between personal and professional, and it’s unrealistic to assume that the personal stress that is ubiquitous to us all will not have an impact on the work environment. On top of the added responsibility of educating in 2020, our coping skills are already being stretched.

In short, as teachers and administrators in 2020, we must pay close attention to our behavioral health. Behavioral health is not only about having or not having an identified condition. COVID-19 distress impacts all of us, to varying degrees. As an educator, however, the prospect of doing everything in a different manner means dealing with added challenges. After all, the goal is to not only educate as best as possible, but to maintain personal well-being in the process by focusing on skills teachers need during COVID-19. This can be done, even during a pandemic.

The following are a few simple and practical tips, including skills teachers need during COVID-19, to keep in mind as we embark on the return to school this year. These strategies can help mitigate stress and anxiety that may be present:

1. Know available support resources

Start the year asking this question: “Where can I get support when I need it?” Notice I said “when” and not “if!” Keep it broad in preparing for the unexpected. What friends can be relied on for emotional support while navigating the school year? What co-workers or managers are able to help when a challenge arises? These everyday people are going to be our “in the moment” support. The best time to think this through is before it’s needed.

Also understand what professional resources are available, either through an Employee Assistance Program, or through private health insurance. Professional help is more accessible than it has ever been, with the rapid expansion of telehealth treatment options. Many successful people are finding themselves reaching out for additional support, in order to stay successful and happy in this challenging time.

2. Keep perspective

This may not seem like one of the skills teachers need during COVID-19, but it truly is. Problems are going to arise, and those problems will have a tendency to seem insurmountable or more catastrophic than is actually true. The ability to keep perspective prevents a realistic challenge from becoming a significant source of distress.

Grounding is one way to keep perspective. Grounding is a very simple concept that involves the ability to stop the cycle of worry and anxiety by focusing mental energy on basic physical sensations such as touch, sound, or vision. It’s an excellent way to take a mental break, relax the mind, and then re-approach an issue with clearer vision. Few things deserve the amount of mental energy we devote, especially at work in times of significant stress.

3. Know when to stop

5 skills teachers need during COVID-19

In high-stress work environments, it is easy to keep “pushing” as if that is going to make for greater success. The reality is that those who take breaks to disengage periodically are often more productive and less prone to burnout. More is not always more when it comes to work in a high-stress environment.

This also means taking a break at the end of the workday — laying down the mantle of professionalism when the day is over, finding time to disengage from work and reengage in our personal life.

4. Recognize changes

Many behavioral health concerns show signs early, even before there is a realization of a fully-fledged problem. The old adage “if you see something, say something” does actually apply here. This does not mean we should inquire about health issues of colleagues. It does mean checking in with people who are showing uncharacteristic traits. “How are things going for you?” is a simple question, but a supportive one. It opens a dialogue to share experiences and tips that may help someone in need as they manage this very unique school year.

5. Keep open lines of communication

The more we feel connected to one another in the workplace, the better we will be able to manage stress at work. Communication is essential to sharing information (filling the void that so often we fill with fear) and to feeling part of a team. An island is not a productive place to be, mentally. Talk to coworkers, leaders, and others to support each other, share information, and not only share challenges but celebrate successes.

While the 2020-21 school year may feel like an insurmountable challenge (and understandably so), stay encouraged, remembering the trials that educators throughout history have faced, the bright futures they set in motion and the ones that you’re able to continue to build.

About the Author:

Dr. Tyler Arvig is associate medical director at R3 Continuum (R3c), a global leader in protecting and cultivating workplace wellbeing in a complex world. He has extensive experience in behavioral health issues in the workplace —including consultation with employers and insurers on complex claims, effective return-to-work strategies, program development and improvement, and training and supervision of industry professionals. He’s a sought-after speaker, writer and contributor in the field of workplace behavioral health.

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