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It wasn’t my best moment. I wasn’t especially proud, as the one in my family who has always been the rock in times of crisis, that I was sitting on the edge of my bed crying, and I couldn’t really even articulate why. I just felt like an exhausted mess. It took me a day or so to sort out some of it, and on the good chance that I’m not alone in this, here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. Leaving my students on Monday was HARD. I love my job. My job gives shape to my life, as well as a good amount of purpose. We already left the classroom for an indefinite amount of time once this year, and it was for the common good then, too; but doing so again was brutal. My seniors, especially, will lose so many of the events and traditions they’ve looked forward to for years, and my heart is breaking for them. Additionally, my hardest days as a teacher have been the ones where part of my job was to emotionally hold students up through a crisis: 9/11, Columbine (Parkland, et al), the fallout from the 2016 election. People in every line of work struggled to process these events; doing so while shepherding hundreds of teenagers through them is always a special kind of emotionally exhausting. I kept finding excuses not to go home. I looked around my classroom a few extra times. It felt so weird to lock the door.
  2. I know some of my students are safer and happier at school. If you told me I would need to spend a few weeks shut up in my house with my family when I was a teenager, I’d have been terrified. My house was neither a safe nor healthy place. I see my students who stay at school as late as possible for no particular reason than to avoid going home. I can tell which ones need affirmation from an adult to counteract what they hear at home. I worry especially about my LGBTQ+ students, who sometimes feel safest and most authentic when they are in their school communities. I’m worried about my kids.
  3. I am among the (mainly) GenXers fighting with my parent(s) right now, and it sucks. I thought it was just me, but it turns out many in my circles have had some kind of tension with older relatives over this. One friend’s mom refused to close the family bar. Another has parents arguing over whose job is more dangerous, while their kids want BOTH of them to stay home with their compromised immune systems. My own dad dug in about calling it the “Chinese Flu,” and as a result we haven’t spoken in over a week. (I have my brother checking on him, but I just can’t fight the Fox News force right now.) In a national crisis whose impact and intensity reached teachers sooner than many, fighting with our families is extra-stressful.
  4. The scenes of panic-shopping seriously unnerve me. I’m a massive fan of zombie movies; I’ve long maintained that they are a way for us to face our fears about society unraveling from the safety of an implausible concept. And while the zombies themselves provide most of the good scares, a truly great zombie movie shows you to be just as wary of other people, particularly as they completely freak out about what’s happening. After a friend saw a woman get hit by a car in a Costco parking lot last week, and those waiting to get into Costco didn’t want to lose their place in line to help her, this all started to feel familiar.
  5. We went into high gear on a dime. I watched teachers go from a relatively normal school day to planning for weeks of remote learning within 24 hours. I watched my Union jump to the front of the fight to advocate for what we know our students, their families, and Chicago’s communities need, because as usual, many in power seemed reluctant to act. I spent all of last weekend working on plans, while also preparing my own household, checking on family and friends, canceling a family vacation we waited years to be able to take…. It was a lot, especially for how fast it all happened. 

By late afternoon on Tuesday, I was a crying mess. I had hit my momentary limit for worry, stress, frustration, and uncertainty. And again, I feel it’s necessary to mention that I’m generally the proverbial rock. I’m the 3am friend, the cool head in a crisis. Teachers play this role often across the spheres of our lives, because any random day might require it of us. We can multitask, pivot, manage, plan, respond, and provide half a dozen kinds of support for a room full of young people, all within the same few minutes sometimes. So one would think that a crisis like this is literally what we’ve trained for, and that wouldn’t be wrong. But we need to allow ourselves to process it as people, not just as the professionals who help kids get through it. 

So that’s what I did: I stopped trying to explain or countermand why I was so upset. I had a (very) good cry, and for the past day or two, I’ve tried to pay attention to what helps to quell the stress and anxiety of all this — both the teacher-specific kind and the kinds we’re all experiencing. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Help how you can. See if anybody needs your teacher skills to help with their kids’ enrichment activities or distance learning. Check neighborhood groups to see if you have and can spare something somebody desperately needs. If you’re financially able, donate to a group doing the work in our communities. Support your friends in the creative fields by buying something they make, either for yourself or to give as a gift. Buy gift cards from the shops and services you use often; many are closed down or will be soon. I bought a gift card from my tattoo artist, a stuffed animal for my son, and am looking to pre-pay for my next salon appointment, whenever that gets to happen. I know times are tight, but we’re in a fairly good position to support those who are struggling, since we are still getting paid and our jobs are secure. Supporting others has made a HUGE difference in my mindset.
  2. Know your limits. Like I said, I can’t deal with my dad’s ultra-conservative reactionary politics right now. I can’t. I love my dad very much, despite our obvious differences, and this isn’t the time to start a fight that could last for years. I care about him, so I check on him through my kid brother as an intermediary, and that’s what I can handle right now. I’m also not good in tense crowds, so my husband and I have planned our shopping needs accordingly. Teachers are really bad at saying we can’t do something. We’re used to playing so many roles in a day, being and providing whatever our students need. But we can’t be there for our students or our families if we exhaust ourselves.
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of the ‘little things.’ My dogs have been amazing; they’re so excited we’re all home all the time. (Don’t have a dog, but considering it? Rescue organizations are in desperate need of foster homes right now!) A safely-distanced walk around the block feels surprisingly empowering. Building with LEGOS has been pure bliss. Pick your favorite streaming guilty pleasure: I’m re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my teenage son and enjoying scary movies on Shudder, which is offering a free month of service right now (promo code: SHUTIN). Eat ice cream. Declare one hour a day as your alone time, if sharing space with family or roommates is getting on your nerves. Little indulgences and adjustments can make a huge difference, and we might be slower than many to take them, since our jobs don’t allow much focus on our own needs.
  4. ‘See’ people when and how you can. Someone said it earlier: social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. Start a text thread with a few close friends. FaceTime a relative who isn’t on your nerves. Plan a virtual brunch date or cocktail hour. Check out NetflixParty and plan a movie night; you can all check out something new, or watch an old favorite to allow for more attention on the chat feature as a way to catch up. 
  5. Claim all the victories. I have been hugely bolstered by watching my Union and a few elected officials take decisive action on behalf of our students, their families, and Chicago’s communities. Nonprofit groups like My Block, My Hood, My City jumped right in to fill gaps and create models for others who want to help. Neighborhood pages went from fear-mongering and conspiracy theories to trading extra boxes of diapers for homemade hand sanitizer. Stores are instating set-aside shopping times for the elderly and immunocompromised. Good things are happening, and it’s making a difference. 

I don’t have all the answers, and we don’t know what will change between today and tomorrow. As teachers, though, we can use our ability to adapt, multitask, and reflect to help ourselves and our loved ones. We’re getting through this together.

Nora Flanagan is a CTU delegate and English teacher at Northside College Prep.