I remember the feeling of tension in the school building exactly two years ago this week. I remember the fear in the air…the hushed whispers in the hallways, the slightly panicked glances between teachers, and the nonstop train of anxious thoughts. “District so-and-so already called off…what are we waiting for?” “Are we going to lose our jobs?” “How are we going to teach?” “What's going to happen to our students, especially the ones with special needs?”
I remember waiting. Waiting for someone to make the call, to tell us what to do, to tell us how much we needed to worry. And then, on Friday, March 13th 2020, the world shut down. We left our whiteboards edged with shamrock borders, our charts neatly planned out for the following Monday, our leprechaun artwork hanging in the halls…and we went home.
For me, this would ultimately turn out to be the abrupt ending to my career as a family counselor in a therapeutic day school (a very difficult personal choice), but for the majority of my teacher, paraprofessional, speech pathologist, behavior analyst, and social worker friends and clients, this was the beginning of the most stressful, chaotic, frustrating, and scary two years they have ever experienced in their respective positions. And I have been hearing all about it.
My friends. For the past two years, you have:
Pivoted with every new ISBE regulation, government mandate, and district policy that has been thrown at you
Listened as parents pinned their frustrations on you, as if you doing the best you can isn’t enough
Stayed late, taken work home, worked all weekend, and given up your breaks to accommodate the endless back and forth of remote learning, in-person instruction, and every variation in between
Placed your own needs on the back burner in order to care for your students and your teammates
Done your job with one hand tied behind your back, because there aren’t enough resources in the world to have prepared you adequately for the complete sh*tshow that has been 2020-2022
Powered through with unparalleled grit and determination, only to be paid the same and held to higher, more grueling standards than ever before
You have sacrificed more, worked harder, and given of yourself more greatly than just about any group of professionals I know of during this pandemic (save for nurses, doctors, and other front line workers, but that is a tale for another day).
And now - let’s be honest - you are not ok.
This pandemic has cost you far more than unpaid time and a bit of stress and inconvenience. We set out as a nation to flatten a curve, but we’ve also flattened energy levels, self-care, support systems, social relationships, trust in the greater educational system, and, for many, any hope that things will ever be truly “normal” again.
What does this mean for teachers and related professionals?
Honestly, it means that we in the mental health community are seeing an unprecedented amount of burnout and trauma in our clients who work in public or private school settings. We’re seeing panic attacks, depression, people going totally numb in IEP meetings and not remembering what they even said, and now, after two years of this, we’re starting to see apathy spreading like wildfire. You simply have nothing left to give.
From one helping professional to another, I am so sorry that the pandemic has stolen this much from you. It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. It isn’t right.
It also isn't over.
Get ready for kids crying in bathrooms because they don't want to take their mask off now that it's allowed, because "everyone will see how ugly I am". Go ahead and plan on your students pretty much all being academically behind, while you face pressure from the state to get them back on track under impossible circumstances. Get used to always having to keep an additional remote learning plan in your back pocket. And brace yourself to continue being understaffed and under-resourced because many of your burned-out colleagues have been overworked to the point of no return.
Yep, we are going to be dealing with the social, emotional, academic and behavioral effects of the pandemic for quite some time. But that doesn't mean that you, as a person, should have to continue feeling burned out, overwhelmed, and stressed.
Educators are facing a long road to recovery as a body of people committed to teaching and serving the children of our nation. And, in the words of a close teacher friend of mine, you’ll have to “unpack your own backpack first, before you can help the kids unpack theirs”.
I’m hearing that many of you simply have no idea how to begin this process of healing and recovery. I mean, how does one actually “unpack” her backpack? At this point it’s pretty stuffed full of anger, resentment, tears, echoes of screaming parents, half-written substitute plans (let’s face it, it’s not actually worth it to take a day off when it takes you four hours to write your lesson plans), has four used masks hanging off of it, and looks like it’s been dragged through hell and back.
Pause here and take a deep breath. I mean that. One really deep, huge, bigggg breath. Now let it out, twice as slow.
It’s going to be okay.
And there is help.
You might think coping skills, movement breaks and things like Zones of Regulation are just for your students. Well, there’s a grown-up version of learning to work through your emotions, regulate, and heal from the huge amount of trauma and stress you’ve endured. It starts with connecting with a therapist who is specially trained in your particular brand of stress and trauma.
You need - and DESERVE - to feel supported and fully heard as you begin to unravel your thoughts and feelings about what you have endured, and how it all has affected you.
When I left my school office two years ago for the last time, I didn’t know that two years later I’d be the owner of a group counseling practice specializing in women’s anxiety and trauma, but here we are. And I’m grateful, because now my therapists and I are in a position to offer specialized, high level care to women whose experiences we 100% understand. Women like you.
You deserve to:
Take sick days without feeling guilty
Have enough "head space" to be mentally and emotionally present during meetings
Say "No" when people are asking too much of you
Feed yourself regularly. (Like, more than a protein bar or donuts from the teacher's lounge)
Have a personal life that doesn't have to be squeezed in between lesson planning and grading papers, or making and remaking visuals and schedules
Vent about your frustrations to someone who "gets it" but doesn't judge, and won't tell anyone how you really feel
Process the traumatic experiences of these past two years, so you can sleep at night and stop overthinking
Enjoy your job again
If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you can relate to any number of things above. Don’t stop there. Reach out. Within a few short clicks, you can book a free 20 minute consultation with someone who can help you take your first steps toward recovering from burnout, depression, anxiety, and fear.
There is life and happiness beyond this pandemic, and we are here to help you find it again.
You have more than earned it.
Sarah Czopek, MS, LCPC is an anxiety and trauma specialist who spent nearly a decade serving in a therapeutic day school setting before opening her own private practice. She now helps driven women heal from past hurts and conquer their fear of not being good enough. Sarah is currently serving women in the state of Illinois. For more information or to schedule a free 20 min consultation with Sarah or one of the other incredible clinicians on her staff, visit https://graceandgratitudecounseling.clientsecure.me/