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Building Resilience

With isolation, social distancing and work upheaval caused by COVID-19, Ontario teachers seek ways to care for their mental well-being.

By Stuart Foxman
Photo: Studio 141 Inc, iStock

Photo of a hand placing a wooden block with an illustration of a lion head and the word 'COURAGE.' on it. There is a stack of blocks with different illustrations on the front and different words on them: 'reflection', 'compassion', 'purpose', 'connection', 'balance' and 'support'.

Take a deep breath.

That's what Harry Nowell, OCT, does whenever he's hiking, running or biking along the tree-lined trail by his home. He does it all the time, alone, and hasn't stopped during the COVID-19 crisis. If anything, his routine is especially helpful now. Being active helps his physical fitness, but for Nowell there's more.

"It rests my mind, and is an escape," says Nowell, who mainly teaches K–4 with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. "I feel mental stresses melt away within the solitude of the forest. My body is forced to just consciously breathe." It's important for everyone to tend to their mental health, a need that's magnified in the time of a pandemic, isolation and social distancing.

Uncertainty is difficult for anyone. Moreover, teachers, like others in helping professions, need to be there for those they support. Students will return to a different world. So think of taking a breath in another way.

Practise Self-Care

When you fly, you're told something like this: "If the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting children." We must take care of ourselves first. Only then can we be of service to others.

For their own sake — and their students — teachers should practise self-care. Living through the coronavirus outbreak takes a psychological toll. Whatever you do to support your mental health during this emergency is like affixing an oxygen mask. It keeps you breathing steadily and leaves you in a better position to give.

A teacher's normal job pressures, combined with day-to-day personal demands, can always weigh on them. What we're experiencing now is at another level. "We're in a different environment," says Patrick Carney, senior psychologist and mental health lead with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and co-chair of the Ontario Coalition for Children and Youth Mental Health.

While the universal turmoil caused by COVID-19 is unique, the fundamentals of mental health self-care remain the same. "We can't deliver if we're lost in our own stress," says Carney.

Everyone is dealing with multiple stressors. The world is upside down. We worry about health (ours and the people around us). We're figuring out new (or no) routines. Or we're confronting new family dynamics, along with a case of cabin fever. We also wonder what "normal" life and school will look like.

Have a Purpose

"Resilience is [being skilled] at solving problems, understanding your own feelings, coping with challenges, and [finding] new opportunities."

As best they can, teachers are working to support their students. That desire is "unwavering," says Joseph Atanas, OCT, an elementary school principal with the Grand Erie District School Board.

Still, being absent from the classroom due to the outbreak is a challenge for teachers and students alike. "Teachers are grappling with an obstacle that's straining their sense of purpose, and desire to help those who need them most," says Atanas.

It's a lot to handle. Taking care of your mental health begins with some basics of physical health: get enough sleep, eat healthy foods and be active. These steps help our immune system allowing us to cope with the effects of stress.

That's just a start. It's easy to feel adrift and anxious nowadays, says Carney. "But you can feel empowered if you're making a plan to manage your situation."

For our mental health, it helps to work toward a goal. Find one — big or small — daily. It can be more challenging now, so that means adapting. Teachers have a built-in advantage: they help their students to be resilient all the time.

"Resilience is [being skilled] at solving problems, understanding your own feelings, coping with challenges, and [finding] new opportunities," Carney says.

Now it's time to practise those same strategies. Carney likes the advice Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield gave about dealing with isolation, as he did in space: understand the actual risk, look at your constraints, focus on your mission (for the day or hour), and take action. These are important stress management tips. Know what you're experiencing, acknowledge and deal with it, and then move on to something productive and fulfilling. We teach children that lesson in kindergarten, Carney reminds us, and it never gets old.

Check in with Yourself

Some mental health self-care revolves around what we do, and some around how we think. Assess how you're doing by seeing where you land on the PERMA model, says Carney. Each letter in PERMA stands for an element of psychological well-being.

Stay Connected

Teachers are used to coping in many ways. James Steele, OCT, reached out often to friends and family electronically. He spent a lot of time reading, working on his own book (about Canadiana), taking long walks and playing Scrabble online in English and Spanish.

"One thing that's helpful is surrounding myself with things I really enjoy," says Steele.

That includes professional learning. Steele, who teaches secondary school French, Spanish and German for the Toronto District School Board, says that keeps him connected to his calling. It will also give him a boost when he returns to the classroom. Learning can happen informally, like keeping up with the literature on education through well-regarded online sources, and through formal channels.

Steele grabbed the opportunity during COVID-19 to pursue an Additional Qualification course (AQ) — International Languages — German, Part I. "It's part of my commitment to ongoing learning, and will only help my teaching," says Steele.

Nowell also took the time off to start another AQ — Reading, Part I. He wanted that for his mental well-being. "The AQ is something to keep my brain busy as a teacher," he says.

Take Time to Reflect

Others have looked inward for tranquility. Chantal Côté, OCT, has been practising guided meditation twice a day. Learning how to soothe herself will also assist her in keeping students calm when they return.

She takes some solace too from realizing that this is a collective experience. "We're all in the same situation," says Côté, who teaches Grade 2 for the Conseil scolaire catholique de district des Grandes Rivières.

That mindset can help, yet change is still taxing, says Atanas. He identifies a few keys to help himself and his team "stay positive and resilient in uncertain times." Acknowledge that your grief is real. Know that you don't have all the answers. Be grateful. And practise what he calls "an abundance of empathy."

Provide Support and Compassion

Being empathetic means truly listening and responding to what people (students, family, friends, peers) need in a caring manner. It helps them to move forward, and helps you too. Empathy connects you with others. That can benefit your mental health now, and when you're back in the classroom.

"In our profession, we're fortunate to be surrounded by people who are empathetic," says Steele. "Despite the challenges we may face in our daily lives, we generally have this inherent nature of being caring. We all need to support each other."

Many teachers are parents of school-age children too, so the disruption affected them in multiple ways. Caroline Cantin, OCT, teaches Grades 1 and 2 for Conseil scolaire Viamonde in East Gwillimbury, Ont., and has two children ages 6 and 10. As instruction went online, she found it hard to give her full attention to everyone counting on her. Cantin felt guilt as a mother and a teacher.

She had to let go a little, recognizing that these aren't normal times. What helped was doing something daily with her children to have fun: cycle near Lake Simcoe, have a tea party with dolls and teddy bears, or play homemade mini-golf in the backyard. "I want to make every day a good one for my kids, and create special memories with them," says Cantin.

Without nourishing yourself in body and mind, the return to new demands at school "could be overwhelming," says psychologist Susan Rodger. So the self-care during time off is critical.

Rodger, an associate professor in the graduate program in counselling psychology at the faculty of education, Western University, says we aren't wired for lives of solitude. The connections and routines that sustain us have all "gone out the window," she says.

It's OK to dwell on the upheaval — to a point. She says when you're talking to others, give yourself 10 minutes to complain, and then move on. Being negative is a contagion too, says Rodger.

One strategy is to reframe. When bad things happen, she says, we tend to look at how they adversely affect us. Instead, think of how you as a teacher stand up for students, and have a role in keeping them safe.

Keeping perspective, as Côté has, is effective. "It's very helpful to remember we're not alone," says Rodger.

Keep Perspective

A global outbreak of COVID-19 is beyond anyone's control. So, in fact, are most things in life. "We can control how we react," says Rodger. "We can slow down and notice how we do. And have the courage to say, 'This is hard for me right now,' and then get support in whatever form there is."

Everyone will have their own mental health strategies. "Try new ones until you find something that works," says Rodger. That's essential during a crisis or any time.

For Nowell, he can breathe easier knowing that he has stayed active and engaged with the opportunity to alternately focus and clear his mind.

"When students do come back [to school], the number-one thing for me is promoting a healthy, safe, stable classroom, and promoting empathy. To do that, my own self-care is important — physically and mentally."