Connecting to Our Emotions and Each Other in the Time of COVID-19
It’s OK not to be OK. We know you’re exhausted right now. Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Teachers are getting these kinds of messages from well-intentioned leadership teams, but who has time for self-care when there’s so much to do? Teachers are being asked to restructure their curricula, redesign their classrooms, rethink their assessments, and reconfigure their lesson plans to simultaneously teach students who are physically in school and others who are attending online. They’re asked to respond to parents who either think the assignments are too stressful or aren’t rigorous enough. And after all that, they attend meetings where they learn about more changes they’ll have to make.
To the leader, reminding teachers to care for themselves might feel like acknowledging all that hard work, but to many teachers, it feels like an afterthought at best or disingenuous at worst. They might wonder whether the very leaders putting so much upon them really care about their wellbeing. Or they might not want to be told that to take care of themselves because that’s just another task that’s being put on them during a pandemic.
Some leaders hold listening sessions to hear faculty concerns, but they don’t necessarily ask teachers to share how they’re feeling or connect authentically within the community. We might feel uncomfortable when asked to share stories about when we felt angry, sad, or scared. Surely it isn’t helpful to wallow in pain. But our emotions are powerful indicators that our values are at stake. We feel angry when something important was taken away from us and sad when it’s gone. We feel disgusted when something important is not happening and joyful when it is. We feel excited when we expect something important to happen and surprised when something important happens that we didn’t expect. We feel afraid when something important isn’t safe and relieved when it is. Tug on any emotion, and you’ll find something that matters to you. The stronger the emotion, the more that “something” matters.
What if leaders provided teachers with opportunities to tell their stories and to hear their colleagues’ stories? A chance to bear witness to one another’s suffering and to be affirmed in their own? To reconnect with one another and with the values they share?
Connecting Emotions to Values
According to Relational Frame Theory (RFT), an evidence-based account of language and cognition, we transform what things and experiences mean to us by relating them to other things and experiences. For example, in 2019, if someone had suggested I wear a face mask to the grocery store, I probably wouldn’t have for fear of being uncomfortable and looking weird. But now, I always wear a mask when I shop because I’ve learned that masks are one of the best ways to protect each other. Masks themselves didn’t change, but their meaning did. And because their meaning changed, I relate to them differently. I willingly put them on.
Just as we can change the meaning of masks by relating them to safety and health, we can change the meaning of our own emotions by relating them to our values.
When I work with schools, I often lead teachers through an exercise called “The Emotions and Values Audit,” adapted from a protocol in my book Two-for-One Teaching. Rooted in RFT, this exercise helps teachers notice, name, honor, and learn from their emotions. Most importantly, it provides opportunities for them to tell stories of times when they felt anger, fear, sadness, frustration, and any other emotion—and to hear one another’s stories—not so much for catharsis but connection.
First, I ask teachers to think back over the past few weeks or months and list times when they felt different emotions (angry, sad, scared, frustrated, and so on). Next, I ask them to choose one of the situations or moments they just wrote down and tell the story in a small group (which now happens in breakout rooms on Zoom). They each have five minutes, and if someone has time remaining, that person can choose to talk about other moments they identified, or the group reflects in silence. Although some listeners understandably want to ask questions, the teller might not be ready to answer them or feel safe doing so. Often, listeners want to express empathy and concern, but they can do nonverbally through their facial expressions and nods, or just by being physically and psychologically present for their colleague.
When they come back from their groups, I sometimes ask a debrief question like, “How was that?” or “What did you notice in your group? What do you notice in yourself right now? Is there anything that feels different now than it did before we broke into groups to tell our stories?” I ask questions like these more to elicit reflection than an out-loud response. Often there’s a solemn silence, but that’s not a bad thing. It shows that people are taking one another’s suffering seriously and are willing to sit with it.
Next, I ask teachers to notice what was at stake for them in each of the moments when they felt different emotions. For example, if a teacher felt sad when he had to begin classes online, what was underneath that sadness? Sometimes it isn’t obvious. Maybe that sadness means he cares about connecting with students or fostering a sense of belonging in groups, or the creativity that occurs in person. Sometimes they don’t know—not until after I invite the group to share some of what they care about, and they see in a colleague’s words the values they weren’t yet able to name. As different teachers begin to share their values, I ask the group again, “What do you notice? What’s coming up for you now? What values do you seem to share?”
As members of a community, teachers need opportunities not simply to meet but to authentically connect. When they share their stories, they more fully experience their emotions, discover the values underneath, and connect with what they care about as individuals and as a group. Buoyed by a sense of common purpose, they can choose how they want to enact their values as a community.
Connecting Values to Actions
Choosing actions consistent with our values feels different from following someone else’s suggestions or mandates. The action itself might be the same: A teacher might use tape to create boxes on the classroom floor to keep students 6 feet apart, make hand sanitizer stations, create a new project that works in a HyFlex environment, or attend meetings to discuss the latest plan. But if the teacher’s actions aren’t in the service of their values, then the actions might just seem like more tasks to add to an already overwhelming to-do list.
According to Mastering the Clinical Conversation: Language as Intervention by psychologists Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer Villatte, and Steven Hayes, when we do something (like make boxes on a classroom floor) to cause an outcome (like reducing disease transmission), we don’t feel satisfied unless and until we’ve achieved that outcome—but when we do something not because it’s part of living the kind of life we want to live, then the action is inherently satisfying.
Right now, while teachers are taping out boxes on the floor and redesigning their curriculum and attending 525,600 meetings, they might feel exhausted or scared or numb. They might wonder, What’s the point? My school might close anyway. I might be out of a job, and I should save my strength for my own family. But if they see their actions as serving their values, they might think something like, I don’t know what will happen next year or this semester, or later this week, but taping out boxes on the floor is part of being a caring and loving teacher, and that’s the kind of teacher I want to be.
Clarifying our values means we’re not just doing the “right” actions or using the “best” practices; we’re choosing to be our best selves. When we hear each other express the same concerns we have and share the desire to bring the same qualities to their actions, we feel a deeper sense of community. When teachers and students connect their shared work to their common values, school becomes a source of meaning and vitality in their lives. Meaning and vitality might seem like luxuries right now. Yet there’s never been a more important time for teachers to explore what matters to them, lift each other up, strengthen relationships with one another, teach students how to do the same, and be in this together.