I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee with my hours of Zoom meetings and online school and family video chats. My eyes complain that I need more screen breaks, but the work still needs to be done. I have been working and teaching in online spaces for years. If I have screen fatigue even though I have extensive experience in this digital realm, how much more do those whose lives prior to COVID-19 resounded with “put that screen away and go outside?”
All the coffee coincides with thinking, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I should be sleeping. So, as I brew another cup, I will attempt to make sense of things I’m pondering.
Clarity matters, but change is constant.
When chaos is the order of the day, decisions about assignments or deadlines or grading become flexible. Most of my students, however, thrive on routine, planners, and fixed schedules. I know I can continue to improve how well I communicate expectations from assignments, and I need to regularly reiterate that the syllabi for my classes are philosophically sound, but practically fluid. My goals, objectives, and rationales rarely change during the course of a semester, but very often current events or unexpected information require adjustments to individual assignments and deadlines. This current pandemic exacerbated the need for multiple adjustments, but the combination of need for routine collides with the reality of change and has led to confusion and a plethora a panicked emails, even though the changes have largely been in the students’ interest.
I answer the emails understanding how overwhelmed people are, and I remind them that the most recent information is correct, but subject to changing again. When COVID-19 meant a shift to remote instruction, there was no way of knowing whether it was for weeks or months. The initial changes assumed we would be back in the classroom before the end of the semester. When the decision was made to stay away from campus, I made another change. I ultimately made my way home to be with family, but that left me in a different time zone than my university. And then a number of students went to be with their families, which meant synchronous classes could not be realistically cover the hours of the face-to-face courses. Now that the end of the university semester is near, I don’t think there will be new changes, but I won’t guarantee it.
Pandemic means keeping your calendar in pencil, not ink. I get it, though. My own planner is riddled with whiteout for canceled meetings, classes, and appointments. I’ve also learned over the years to think on my feet, respond to the actual problem quickly, and compartmentalize tasks. Going forward, I intend to teach those skills to all my pre-service teachers and graduate students. Planning is important, but plans can’t be written in stone when people are involved. If we as teachers have learned one thing in the last months, it’s that we can’t predict the future.
Thinking on my feet comes from my life as a disc jockey and radio journalist in the 1980s. Radio is a medium of incessant change. A story relevant at 8 a.m. is dead by noon, and recorded over by 5 p.m. At least, it used to be recorded over. Now, I suppose it is archived to the Cloud. Still, when information flows fast and furious, the ability to keep moving is a necessary skill. In school, teachers should be able to pivot away from a lesson that isn’t working and improvise a better approach on the fly. That skill comes with learning the students, not the script. It requires knowing the content rather than the curriculum. Even without a pandemic, teachers’ days are filled with the unexpected: assemblies, fire drills, half a class missing for a sporting event or field trip in another class, and a million other little things. Thinking on our feet as teachers is important.
Responding to a problem quickly goes along with thinking on my feet. It’s too easy to look at the overwhelming tower of things that must be done and give up. Anxiety is a real biochemical response to the unexpected, and those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses exacerbated by sudden change have had to be exceptionally vigilant about maintaining our medications, using the tools available to us for meditating or self-calming, and working to recognize what is reality and what is in our minds. It’s hard. Additionally, people who do not have diagnosed anxiety disorders feel especially anxious when they can’t predict or anticipate what the next change might be. Part of dealing with change means focusing on the moment and the next moment. My students who are sending panicked emails are emailing first and then thinking through the problem once I’ve talked them off the ledge.
Granted, this is an unprecedented pandemic (except for virologists and epidemiologists), and a number of my students are suddenly working in an unfamiliar space with their children needing them for their own school work. Some have limited access to technology (a topic for another time) and others have partners whose employment is in jeopardy or who are essential workers with long hours. Still, when I asked my students how many of them were planning their work without the external force of going to school only one said that she was. Most of my students admitted to a haphazard approach to the tasks that were largely unchanged. Work was still due, their lesson plans still had to be done, hours for practicum had to be completed, and their academic lives continued to move ahead. Responding to the actual problem requires being organized and diligent enough to recognize what can be altered or reworked as soon as the changes are known.
Compartmentalization saves me from panic, although it can make me look like I am without compassion. I think it may be the most important think I should teach in the future, especially to the women in my classes. We women are masters of multi-tasking, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. To be able to order dinner while finalizing grades and making sure the kids are bathed before bed may get a lot done, but it is exhausting. If we try to think about ALL the things at once, we’ll likely burn out or paralyze ourselves and accomplish nothing. I like to use Stephen Covey’s philosophies from First Things First as a baseline for deciding what needs my attention. The quadrant of urgent/not-urgent/important/non-important allows me to prioritize what must be done and what can wait. I think prioritizing and compartmentalizing tasks can prevent teachers from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources, tasks, demands, assignments, and responsibilities just from their school-based lives, apart from their family and private lives. I’m thinking I may add some of Covey’s work to Ruiz’s Four Agreements to my first two weeks of classes.
There is much to learn from this pandemic, and I can do a better job preparing my students for dealing with the unexpected. While a global pandemic is unlikely to take anyone by surprise again any time in the near future, change is inevitable. Having some tools in place to navigate change may alleviate some of the stress that the unexpected can bring.