Mental Health Tips for Math Teachers: 3 Ways to Support Yourself During the Transition to Distance Learning
To my math teacher friends and colleagues,
Happy (almost) spring break and congratulations on making it through your first few weeks of distance learning! I know it's been a challenging transition for many as we deal with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic both personally and professionally, and that most of us are still adjusting to teaching remotely.
During this transition, the big questions that I hear coming up for math teachers are:
"What do I teach?"
"How do I teach?"
"How do I stay sane and healthy in this moment?"
In this post, I wanted to share 3 tips to help you address these questions and offer a bit of mental health support as you continue to navigate distance learning. I've also created a free Mental Health Resource Kit that includes reflection questions and a self-care guide to help you incorporate these tips into your teaching practices.
If you find any of these tips helpful, I'd love for you to share in the comments below what one thing you are interested in exploring or trying in your own practice. And if you know of others who might benefit from these tips, please pass this on to them!
Tip #1: Give yourself permission to do things differently
The math teaching landscape has changed vastly over the last month. Just a few weeks ago, you were teaching in your classrooms where there were familiar structures and routines in place to support your teaching practices. You had lesson plans and worksheets and activities and assessments planned out. Your classroom was setup intentionally to support student learning. You had a vision of what you were teaching, where you need to get to by the end of the school year, and how you were going to get there.
Fast-forward to now (has it really only been a few weeks?!) and we are teaching in a an unfamiliar landscape filled with all kinds of constraints and unknowns. Teachers are juggling many new factors including changes in schedules and "class" lengths, alternative methods of delivering instruction, and the implications of not being physically in the same space as their students, just to name a few.
So, what do you teach and how do you teach it?
The natural reflexive strategy that I've seen many math teachers make is to take their existing classroom practices and to smoosh them into an online format. They are converting their in-person lessons to pre-recorded videos or syncronous online lessons, sending students their usual handouts and assignments as printable PDFs, having students use breakout rooms to engage in group activities, and even giving students real-time tests to complete and submit online.
If this smooshing method is working for you, awesome. However, if you have been attempting to squish your classroom teaching methods into an online space and it's feeling not quite right, that's completely understandable, too. For those of you who are feeling like squishing and smooshing isn't working for you, I want to offer you another way to think about how you design online learning experiences for your students.
When I help teachers to make instructional decisions, I often go back to this rule: Form follows function. What you do or create depends on what you want to achieve. Your actions depend on your goals. In teaching terms, this means what we teach and how we teach depends on what we want students to learn and experience. Following this mindset allows us to think about teaching in a very different way. For any decision you are trying to make about your teaching, if you go back and ask yourself what goal you are trying to achieve, it will help you to determine the best action to meet your teaching goals and your students' needs.
Using this reframing, one of my math teachers figured out how to structure her twice a week 90-minute synchronous sessions to meet her goals of serving low, medium, and high achieving students and getting her finger on the pulse of how each kid is doing. Another teacher figured out how to balance teaching skills with having fun math learning experiences by stacking two instructional units that she would typically teach sequentially during the school year. Pre-pandemic, another math teacher re-structured the second half of her Algebra I curriculum (polynomials & quadratics) for a class of students with significant learning differences by considering her students challenges and needs, her content learning goals, and the constraints of her classroom. If this way of thinking appeals to you, it can be a practice that you take with you when you return to the classroom.
Whether you are wanting to make big changes to the way you are teaching remotely or just looking for small adjustments to make your teaching to feel more connected, here are three questions to consider that may help you to figure out how and what to teach as you move forward with your distance learning plans:
These questions can help you to answer big picture questions (e.g., how do I want to assess my students?) as well as day-to-day questions (e.g., how do I want to structure my 30 minute synchronous lesson with students today?) and week-to-week (e.g., how do I divide up this unit into multiple days/sessions?)
With at least another month of remote teaching in our future, now is a great time to give yourself the opportunity to be thoughtful and creative about your teaching, and to think differently about how you engage with distance learning.
Tip #2: Give yourself the gift of time
So, seriously, this transition to distance learning happened so quickly! One day schools were open, and then all of a sudden, they were closed and teachers were expected to be up and running and serving students within a matter of days! I'm sure you did A LOT in very short amount of time, and I hope that you can take a moment to appreciate yourself for all that you have done to get to where you are right now!
In this fast shuffle, what I am seeing among math teachers who care about being good teachers and providing the best learning experiences they can for their students (I'm guessing since you're reading this that you likely fall into this category) is an understandable spike in stress and uncertainty over how they are teaching remotely, and a continued scramble to figure out how to be the best online math teacher they can be. Many of you are feeling pressure, whether it's coming from outside or within yourselves, to figure this distance learning thing out STAT!
To address this pressure, I'd like to get logical for a moment and refer back to some basic learning theory that we all know as teachers and that Helen Hayes put so succinctly:
"The expert at anything was once a beginner."
The path from novice to expert is filled with learning experiences that help us to gain insights, skills, and mastery along the way. Just as we would never expect our math students to become experts in any new concept or skill right away, it would be unfair to expect ourselves to become masters of distance learning in such a short amount of time. So, following this model, the following has to be true: you don't have to have it all figured out right now.
An important way to support yourself in this moment is to give yourself the gift of time. Instead of trying to bypass the inevitable novice to expert path, I encourage you to focus on the next step on your path to developing your distance learning practice. Just work on that one step that is right in front of you. Of course you can think about what will follow in ways that will help you plan, but it may not be necessary to think too deeply about things that are a few steps down the road. Here are some questions you may want to consider:
For those of us who are planners, I know there's a common fear that we don't have it all figured out, bad things will happen. Here are two things I try to remember when this doubt or uncertainty pops up. First, even if you don't have a perfect plan, you very likely have the skills and insight to react in the moment and make things work. Trust that you'll know what to do. Second, the magic of taking things one step at a time is that you could end up creating or discovering something amazing that you wouldn't have thought of if you tried to figure it out in your head all at once. When nothing is known, anything is possible!
Be patient. Be creative. Be open. You've got this. And if you're still feeling uncertain, Tip #3 will help you even more...
Tip #3: Develop a distance learning self-care practice
With everything going on in the world and in our personal and professional lives, now is the time to double down on self-care. In my work with math teachers over the past few weeks, three practices have stood out as being especially important right now. Whether you have an existing mindfulness or self-care practice or are interested in trying some things out, here are three things you can do to support yourself in your transition to distance learning:
DEVELOP A DAILY GROUNDING ROUTINE
When we are stressed, anxious, or scared, it's natural to look for things around us to make us feel calm and safe. We take actions to try to ensure our security, tell ourselves stories to convince ourselves that we are or will be okay, and use outside distractions to block our emotions from our conscious experiences. Sometimes these strategies works, but sometimes we still feel unsettled.
In lieu of looking to external forces to give us a sense of safety and security, we can develop personal grounding practices that help us feel centered and grounded from within ourselves. Grounding practices bring our attention from the outside world into our internal physical and energetic experiences. They connect us to our breath and our bodies, and allow us to release the thoughts, emotions, and physical tension that we are holding. With intention and attention, we can connect in with images and sensations that help us to connect our bodies to the earth, to allow us to feel held and supported by the earth, and to help us find our internal sense of stability.
There are many ways you can find grounding through personal practice, including meditation, qigong, and yoga practices. Some of my favorites right now are root chakra meditations and warrior poses. I encourage you to experiment and find a practice that feels right to you. If you are interested in learning about the centering practices I do with teachers, please let me know in the comments below! Maybe we could do some Math Teacher Meditation!
CREATE AND MAINTAIN BOUNDARIES
Boundaries are so healthy for us, yet they can be really difficult to create and maintain. As you continue to practice social distancing and provide distance learning from your home, clear boundaries will help you to create the space and spaciousness you need as a teacher to serve your students, to protect you from outside stress and negative energies, and to maintain separation between your teacher life and your home life.
I recommend considering three types of boundaries: physical boundaries, mental boundaries, and emotional boundaries. Physical boundaries include maintaining a dedicated space for distance learning in your home and being mindful about how you move in and out of your home and work spaces. Mental boundaries include being intentional about when your mind is in work-mode versus life-mode and creating practices that support this transition. And emotional boundaries include distancing yourself from triggers that agitate or upset you either, whether through personal choices or energetic work. I like to include boundary work in my guided meditations with teachers to help them establish an energetic separation between themselves and the people and thoughts that challenge them.
CONNECT WITH WHAT MATTERS
Everything we've talked about in this post has been about ways that you can be good to yourself and support yourself during times of transition. My final recommendation for you is to take time to connect in with your heart and the positive emotional experiences you have each day. Acknowledge your successes. Meditate on gratitude. Reflect on moments of joy and laughter. As you focus on what is going well, try not to over-intellectualize it and instead see if you can experience the feeling sensations of gratitude, compassion, and joy in your body.
As you consider developing a distance learning self-care practice, know that it doesn't have to be bi and you don't have to do everything at once. Similar to developing your online teaching practices one step at a time, a daily self-care practice can start small and grow over time (or stay small). Consider choosing one thing (three at most!) that you'd like to try, and give it a go for a week. When you are just beginning, 3 to 5 minutes of practice is a great start. I'd suggest choosing a time of day that works well for you (e.g., first thing in the morning, right before or after you teach, before you go to sleep), consciously setting an intention to practice, marking this time in your calendar, and committing your intention to a colleague or loved one. If you'd like to share your self-care practice intention in the comments below, I'd be honored to be a witness. :)
Sending you metta
I hope that you've found an idea or two that you can take with you, reflect upon, and perhaps try. Please feel free to leave a comment below -- I'd love to know what your big takeaways are and/or what intentions you'd like to set for yourself. And, in case you still need it, here's one more chance to download my free Mental Health Resource Kit containing Reflection Questions and a Self-Care Guide to support your practice off-line.