There is no doubt that these are challenging times in education whether we are a teacher, administrator, or other staff member. In fact, these may be some of the most difficult times we have faced in our careers. We found our way through what appears to have been the worst of the pandemic, only to face lingering questions about the best way forward for students too young to be eligible for vaccination and young people who have yet to be or are choosing not to be vaccinated. At the same time, we face questions and challenges about the role and content of discussions about race and equity in our schools and classrooms. Of course, the challenge we face to help students whose learning lagged throughout the past year is far from met.
Disappointingly, the perspectives and concerns of others are too often accompanied by negative assumptions and accusations about our character and motivation rather than engagement in a search for consensus about the best course of action.
This level of conflict and pressure can leave us feeling uncertain, confused, and even in self-doubt. The nature of issues seems to shift week to week and month to month. Further, the underlying drivers of conflict are not always clear and knowable. And there are no easy or simple choices for the decisions we must make if we are to maintain our integrity and fulfill our educational mission. Fortunately, there are several actions we can take to counter feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and self-doubt. Let’s explore five ways we can counter these feelings and find a sense of balance.
First, we can shift our self-talk. It is easy to engage in self-criticism, telling ourselves that we should have said or done something different than we did. We may even question whether we are capable of addressing what lies ahead. Researchers who have studied the nature of self-talk advise that we are better at coaching others than we are at coaching ourselves. They recommend that we shift our perspective and imagine that we are coaching someone else. In fact, they advise that in our self-talk we call ourselves by our names and use the pronoun “you” rather than “me.” The insights and advice offered can take on a different tone and allow us to be more objective and supportive in how we treat ourselves.
Second, we can resist the burden of others’ “should haves” and “shouldn’t haves.” If we allow ourselves to be guided by the expectations of others, we risk ignoring our own experience, judgement, and expertise. In the end, we will have to live with our actions and decisions. We cannot afford to be nudged into bad decisions in pursuit of pleasing others. We also do not have to accept their shaming.
Third, we can step back and take a break. Sometimes just gaining some distance can allow us to see options and develop ideas that can lead to solutions. A break can also give us an opportunity to renew our energy and find some space and distance to clear our minds. It may be tempting to constantly remain engaged and “power through,” but doing so can sacrifice our best work and threaten our emotional and physical health.
Fourth, we can engage our personal and professional networks. We build support networks for times like these. We need to use them. However, we also need to be thoughtful about who in our network to engage and how to engage them. Sometimes we need to talk with people who understand us and can help us to sift and sort our thinking and decide what to do. At these times we may need to connect with a friend. In other circumstances we need to talk with someone who understands the work we do and the implications of options and alternatives and consequences for choices we must make. These are times when we need to connect with a colleague. At still other times, we just need someone to listen and ask clarifying and meaningful questions so that we can become more aware of our thinking and clearer about what we value and actions we need to take. Here, we need to engage a coach.
Fifth, we can give ourselves permission not to know everything. In the middle of complex situations such as we face, there will always be information and motivations to which we will not have access. Assuming we know more than we do can lead to poor decisions. And constantly searching for more information can lead to “decision paralysis.” Often, realizing that there may be information to which we do not have access and understanding that not everything we are seeing and hearing will make sense can help us to remain patient and flexible as situations unfold.
Admittedly, these are difficult times. They can exact a toll on our emotions and leave us feeling uncertain, confused, and doubting ourselves. Fortunately, we have available a variety of actions that can help us to find our way through. However, we need to make the commitment to engage in them to enjoy their benefits.