Bringing a Fruit Roll-Up to a Knife Fight

I was not expecting to talk about fruit roll-ups and knife fights, but who knew how impactful and informative that would be? I had the pleasure of attending a Symposium on Teacher Wellness hosted by the Ontario Teachers Federation a little while ago and am still reflecting back on the learning that took place. I offer here my reflections and learning from two sessions that have informed my learning since.

But At What Cost?

Dr. Pamela Rogers and Nicole Grant, both CTF/FCE researchers, gave a presentation on The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE) pandemic research report “But At What Cost?” The report is based on over 13000 responses to the Teacher Mental Health Check-in Survey that was distributed in October of 2020 as well as the subsequent interviews across a representative sampling conducted by Rogers and Grant.

The findings indicate that a majority of Canadian teachers feel their stress level is higher and that they are not coping well, in fact, approximately 40% said they were barely coping. It is significant to note, based on the earlier pan-Canadian survey from June 2020 showing that 44% of teachers were concerned with their own mental health at that time, that the rate has jumped to 70% as of October 2020.

Major themes coming out of this study affecting teacher mental health can be categorized into three major areas, Workload, Pivot and Professional Orbits.

Workload

Teachers carried and still carry enormous additional loads:

  • psychological load due to added layers of expectations which take up more headspace and
  • emotional load to manage not only lack of control but also student anxiety. This emotional load led some to compassion fatigue (like me).

Pivot

We all can relate to what was essentially the worst game of twister ever. These pivots caused imbalance (that translates to more emotional and psychological load folks). The pivots caused a great many feelings, namely:

  • feelings of frustration and even grief because of the changes in our teaching practice,
  • feelings of not doing enough because of curriculum expectations and the difficulty of meeting them in a remote learning scenario
  • scrambling, anxiety and guilt caused by emergency pedagogy
  • anxiety, stress and exhaustion caused by changing teaching modalities, and
  • feelings of loneliness or loss of connection because of the shifts in connections with colleagues or kinds of connection with colleagues, students and parents

Professional orbits

Professional orbits address the overall perception of teachers – both publicly and personally, our professional autonomy, our duties and mandates, and our personal and community support. The general angst against teachers was keenly felt, particularly in relation to feeling unheard and unimportant which was articulated through the treatment prior to the pandemic during strike action and contract talks, and continued when teachers were not given priority for vaccines, were cast as lazy because they had concerns about the return to brick and mortar buildings, or not being given any voice regarding policies and directives which affect education. These negative perceptions, the lack of autonomy and a pile on of extra expectations and responsibilities have taken their toll fueling a mass exodus from the profession.

Big Recommendations

The take-aways are quite simple:

  • Listen to teachers (much of what’s happened has been dictated by non-educators with little understanding of what happens in a classroom day to day and advice/feedback from teachers has largely been ignored in many cases)
  • Change the excessive workload/ give more work time

Keynote:

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Hope Forward

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe was the keynote at the OTF (Ontario Teachers Federation) Affiliate Symposium. She is a psychology and education instructor specializing in resiliency, navigating stress and change, leadership, and wellness in the workplace. She is also the author of Calm Within the Storm and her talk was truly impactful.

She began by exploring resilience – Why do people give up? Why do people get up? Some of the ideas were hardiness, grit, resourcefulness, and toughness. But is that truly what resilience is?

Hanley-Dafoe then outlined her Five Pillars of Everyday Resilience:

  • Belonging – our home team, psychological safety net and foundation of trust
  • Perspective – involves aligning head and heart, operating from our values, and making what matters most matter most
  • Acceptance – deciphering what is in our control and our ability to persist, pivot and punt
  • Hope – being hope-filled and living in hope with others. This protects our morale.
  • Humour – humour allows for release and reprieve. It’s a biological tool to help us reach flow instead of stewing

You can learn more about the Five Pillars by downloading Hanley-Dafoe’s free guide called Everyday Resiliency.

It is difficult to talk about resilience without talking about stress. The Yerkes Model gives us a visual of the stress performance curve.

Yerkes-Dodson Law modelled as a u-shaped curve

Dr. Hanely-Dafoe really hit home here for me. She commented that compassion fatigue is the cost of caring and burnout happens when you have no more cares to give. I found this an important distinction. Further, she said that burnout is the curse of the strong. You have to care in the first place to burnout. Those statements really affected me. I think many, including myself, feel they have failed when they take time off due to compassion fatigue and exhaustion and we carry a lot of guilt because of it. Her way of looking at burnout as the curse of the strong, and compassion fatigue as the cost of caring helped to alleviate the guilt I have felt.

I include here a link to a fantastic article about reframing our concept of strength from resiliency expert Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe, “Reframing Strength to Include Vulnerability, Openness, and Emotion.” She says “Being strong with no recovery leads to burnout. And burnout is the curse of the strong.” This is definitely a concept that resonated strongly with me and what we all are experiencing in teaching right now.

Some areas that help to ease the burden of high-paced, challenging and uncertain times in our work are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Look at how to keep your workload within reasonable human limits. Assess what is in our control and make changes as necessary. If you are in an authority position, acknowledge good work and compensate it accordingly. Build a strong community and ensure fairness through equity, inclusion, diversity and support. Reflect on how your personal values align with work.

Stress will still happen but we can learn to “stress wisely.” Recognize how stress manifests for us, for example, frantic energy is an expression of anxiety. Practice calming techniques. Hanley-Dafoe suggests birthday cake breathing. Breathing can help us regulate while the image of the birthday cake can help calm the chatter. Furthermore, breathing cues our nervous system that we are safe.

Other ideas are to learn what gives us feelings of happiness. Happiness is produced by chemical reactions in our brain. Dopamine is the reward chemical. You can purposefully activate dopamine by finishing a task, planning, or organizing. Endorphins are pain killers. Movement, laughter, and activities help release endorphins. Serotonin is a mood balancer. Solitude, the outdoors and music come to the rescue here. And finally, oxytocin, the love hormone, is stimulated when we pet our four-legged friends, when we feel seen/heard/validated, and through connection. Knowing the activities that help produce the happiness cocktail can really curb stress.

Hanley-Dafoe’s final words of advice were to remind us that we can do hard things and believing this can get us through them.

I was so moved and impressed with Dr. Hanley-Dafoe that I began following her and have enjoyed many great articles she has authored. One of my favourite articles begins like this: Has all the stress of the last couple of years made you feel like you’ve “brought a fruit roll up to a knife fight?” What an image! In this Instagram post she talks about the article, “How Resiliency and Wellness are Being Weaponized.” A bold statement to say the least. It proves a very interesting read/listen focusing on systemic issues, reasonable expectations and what real professional care looks like. I feel much of what she says can be translated to students as well. It’s a great reminder about looking at barriers and truly supporting care.

And to close, Dr. Hanley Dafoe has recently composed this article just for teachers:

Take care of yourselves everyone, we are in the home stretch and you CAN do hard things.

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