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Stress Management During COVID-19 with Dr. John Kelly

Teaching is a demanding job; and teachers already deal with a high level of stress on a daily basis during a normal school year. Now, as a result of protective measures that have been put in place around the globe due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus), teachers have suddenly needed to move to a completely new way of working and had to adjust mentally, physically and emotionally. So how do we adjust? In this episode of IB Voices, school psychologist Dr. John Kelly from the Commack School District in New York gives us some crucial advice.

Listen to the full interview on the IB Voices podcast

Zach: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are suddenly working in a completely new way and there’s a lot of adjustments that they need to make mentally, physically and emotionally. This is a big question for a relatively small podcast:

What advice would you give to teachers in our current climate to help manage their overall mental and/or emotional stress?

John: It is a big question, but it’s an important one for us to talk about. First and foremost is we must recognize that we’re living and working during unprecedented times. There really is no playbook on educating students during a pandemic. And we know that physical distancing presents many challenges in terms of reaching our students by engaging them in learning. And then you have, of course, the social and emotional impact of the pandemic where students and teachers alike are experiencing significant disruptions and personal challenges in their life. I mean, you have teachers who are trying to balance home life and work life. They’re learning new technology or methods of teaching.

Then you have students, who are socially isolated from their peers. They’re being called upon to be more independent. So, unfortunately, many students and teachers find themselves in situations that are difficult and not always conducive to learning. And, of course, we have some families or students and teachers, who are living in a toxic or harmful environment, and school is a refuge for them. And that unfortunately has been lost, and all of this will impact how we’re feeling.

Some of the things that I talk to my colleagues about are keeping things in perspective, recognizing the limitations, but also to be excited for what I call new opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. Through challenges, we can certainly grow. I think also what I talk to my colleagues about is keeping a check on how you are feeling. Share with family, share with friends, share with colleagues, just how you’re feeling.

We have a weekly meeting with the school psychologist and social workers at my building, and it used to be our weekly meetings to talk about students and talk about issues that we’re dealing with. And quite honestly, over this last month and a half, it’s transformed into an online meeting where we check in about our feelings and how we are coping. So, I think that’s important while we’re physically distant. We need to maintain that connection. And then I think it’s important to build in downtime. Give yourself permission to rest when you’re not feeling your best. Because I think first and foremost we need to recognize we are human, and we all have our limitations.

“Give yourself permission to rest when you’re not feeling your best. Because I think first and foremost we need to recognize we are human, and we all have our limitations.”

For teachers, who I believe are superheroes and superheroines and just all-around all-stars, what would you say to a teacher who might feel guilty about taking some of that personal time?

John: Well, that’s a great question because when we talk about taking downtime, or taking some time for ourselves, there’s almost a feeling that we’re being selfish. That we’re somehow engaging in something where we should be giving to others. And yet, we know we cannot be effective professionals unless we really do take that downtime to rejuvenate and engage in something that’s going to help us to continue to do the good work that we’re doing.

I wonder if you could also comment on some advice that you can give teachers regarding how to safeguard their physical well-being?

John: Yeah, absolutely. The concept of self-care is critical to promoting both emotional and physical wellness. Self-care is not this emergency plan that we put in to rescue ourselves when we’re in the midst of a crisis situation. Self-care is really something that we need to incorporate into our daily lives. A good friend of mine, and colleague, Lisa Kelly Vance talks about creating our own individualized energy plan or an IEP for ourselves. Included on this are activities that help to rejuvenate and revitalize both our physical and our emotional well-being. I can’t tell you what should be on your plan. I think it has to be personalized and individualized in many ways.

For me connecting with others is critical. Eating and sleeping properly, exercising, engaging in some type of mindfulness or meditation exercises, doing things that I enjoy, like playing or listening to music or painting, drawing and writing. These are all activities that can be on a personalized energy plan.

But also, on the professional side, we need to engage in professional self-care during these times of high stress, such as connecting with our colleagues or engaging in online professional development. There are some amazing opportunities that are out there. So, take that time to connect to your professional side. By supporting or mentoring others, I have found that to be a fulfilling type of activity in my job.

And then finally, an important part of self-care is going back and connecting with our “Why.” Why are we doing this? What got us into this profession? By asking those questions, sometimes we discover a little bit of that idealism that we all started out with and sometimes lose. In order to rejuvenate ourselves again, both physically and emotionally, connecting with the “why” is a critical piece. You know, as they say on flights, you have to put on your oxygen mask first before you can help others. So, I think that that’s the important piece of that self-care.

“Self-care is not this emergency plan that we put in to rescue ourselves when we’re in the midst of a crisis situation. Self-care is really something that we need to incorporate into our daily lives.”

I wanted to ask, in this high stress environment, is all stress bad?

John: Well, that’s actually a great question because I think quite honestly: no. The simple answer is not all stress is bad. Stress in and of itself is a very normal and natural emotion. Our stress helps prepare us to react in certain situations. To me, what’s most important is how do we react to the stress? How do we manage stress so that it doesn’t become overwhelming?

A certain level of stress is actually critical. It’s critical for students, too, as a source of motivation. Some level of stress may keep us focused.  And it’s important for us as professionals to feel some level of stress to keep us moving towards whatever our career goals might be, for example.

However, clearly when stress begins to build to a point where it overwhelms us, that’s when it becomes problematic. And so really the key is to have a level of stress that is manageable, but engage in some of those self-care actions, and engage in something that’s going to help keep it from a tipping point.

Zach: That’s really interesting. So, if you are new to managing stress, success isn’t found eliminating it, it’s found by managing it?

John: Correct. Absolutely.

Before we go, I wanted to ask you if there’s anything you’d like to say to our IB community?

John: I admire the work that, that we’re all doing for our students. As you said, our educators are the heroes and heroines of the classroom and I think we need to take pride in that work. We have all been called upon to do some pretty extraordinary things, not just across our nation, but across the globe. And so I just want to applaud the work that we’re all doing and take pride in that. That’s something we don’t always get accolades for, but we’re showing our true colors during this current crisis.

Zach: Well said. Thank you, Dr. Kelly, and thank you for everything you’re doing for your school and your students.

Stress can be useful, huhI didn’t know that, did you? So to sum it up: mismanagement of stress can affect you emotionally and physically and that engaging in self-care is the best way to keep your stress at a healthy level. And don’t just partake in the activities that bring you joy, but also try to reflect on your why – remember what brings you a sense of purpose and forward momentum. Thank you, Dr. Kelly for your time and all of the work you do for your IB students and families.  And for more advice on how to take care of yourself, your students and your family during these difficult times, subscribe to IB Voices for more of our special well-being episodes.

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This interview was conducted by Zachary Fernebok, Product Marketing Manager for the Diploma Programme and Career-related Programme at the International Baccalaureate, and one of the hosts of IB Voices. Listen to more stories from students, schools, educators and more on the IB Voices podcast.

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