One of the ELT related podcasts I listen to more or less regularly is TEFLology – A Podcast about Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics.
I’m going to digress briefly right at the start because I’ve been meaning to say for a while now that I enjoy and very much recommend this podcast. It’s informative and interesting – I find my mind rarely wanders – and the presenters seem to get on really well, as if they’ve been working together for ages. Which I think they have. So if you aren’t already following them, you should definitely try an episode.
Recently I listened to a February episode from this year in which the topic discussed in the TEFL News section was teacher wellbeing. The presenters talked about an article called Language teachers’ coping strategies during the Covid-19 conversion to online teaching: Correlations with stress, wellbeing and negative emotions. Before going into more detail about the article, they did (what would be) a little pre-reading activity (if this article were shorter and you were doing it in class with students) and discussed two questions.
I found myself wishing I could join in and answer the questions, and then it occurred to me I could do it here on the blog. So here we go.
Question 1: Do you feel that your mental health has changed over this past year since we’ve had to move to remote emergency teaching? Do you feel that you’ve noticed any differences in your mental health, your mindset, things like that?
(I should note here that even if the idea was to talk mainly about teaching, the discussion ended up being quite a bit broader, so I’m not straying too far from the topic.)
Yes, my mental health has been affected by the past year but not so much by the pandemic nor by the move to online teaching. Readers of this blog know I don’t teach full time anymore and the teaching I do is all online anyway, in the sense that it was online for years before covid.
The event that has had the biggest impact on me since the pandemic started was the earthquake in Zagreb. And then 9 months later another earthquake pretty close to Zagreb. Prior to these, earthquakes were something you covered in science class and so in theory must be happening somewhere, only this wasn’t where I lived. Then the first one almost knocked me out of bed on a Sunday morning in the middle of the lockdown and there have been very few moments that I haven’t thought about it since.
Actually, last year it took me a lot less time to get back to my regular daily routine, for instance, not going to bed fully clothed or charging my phone obsessively so I was ready in case it happened again. It only took a couple of weeks, possibly because we knew so little about covid at the time and I was more worried about that. And it was easier to convince myself that if it hadn’t happened in the ∗coughs, clears throat∗ decades since I was born, it wasn’t likely to happen again soon.
In December things were different because it did happen again and it had only taken nine months. Like, what the…?! Also, I’d had covid in the meantime and thought I was relatively safe from catching it again in the next six months, so the earthquake could take priority. Getting back to normal has been much more challenging this time around. You can’t tell just by looking at me or talking to me – I hardly ever talk about it because people tell you you’re overreacting. They are willing to be patient with you for the first couple of weeks but then it’s, “You’d better pull yourself together; how old are you – 5?”. And by now everything is fine on the outside: I sleep okay, I can go into the city center with all the old buildings and ride on elevators. But when I cook I can’t wait to be done so I can turn off the gas, I rarely shower if I’m home alone and I think about when the next one is coming all the time. I do think about other things, of course. I couldn’t function otherwise. But every day, many times a day, the thought of the building collapsing around me pops into my head.
I’m guessing it *will* eventually go away but in the meantime it’s been exhausting. I keep thinking how I would give anything to be able to know with certainty that I can relax for a couple of days – just a couple of days during which someone could guarantee that there will be no earthquakes and I could go back to the way life was before, when it was just a topic in science class*.
Question 2: How have you been coping with professional challenges (but could be personal too)? What have you done to cope or pay attention or keep an eye on your wellbeing?
Perhaps I haven’t done as much as I could. For instance, about a month after the December quake, while I was still having trouble sleeping, I decided I would take herbal sleeping pills. I bought them and then, just as I was about to take the first one, I thought, “What if there’s another earthquake and you’re too drowsy to wake up?” So I never opened the packet and it’s still gathering dust in the living room.
I did consciously give myself time to start doing things again. For instance, I slept fully dressed for about a month and I didn’t beat myself up over it; I knew that there would come a day when I would stop doing it and so I did. I experienced phantom earthquakes for a long time and so I kept a glass of water on the desk to be able to tell if the shaking was real.
I realized I felt most anxious and sort of trapped in buildings (as opposed to outdoors) and so one reason I’ve been walking to work so often in the past year is because I’m able to go back to that pre-earthquake state of mind when I’m at ground level. At the same time, I listen to a podcast or an audiobook, so these are the times when I’m practically guaranteed to forget about the quake.
It’s also helped that we have moved back into our old office. I was in another office for a couple of months, including when the December quake struck. In the old office I find I’ve been thinking about it a lot less, although I suppose this is also partly due to time doing its thing. However, I was asleep in my bedroom when the first quake struck and there isn’t much I can do about that – moving to another flat so as to avoid reliving the experience is not an option.
I suppose the reason I think I may not have done as much as I could is because I didn’t seek anyone that I could talk to in a professional capacity. Mostly this was because the prevailing view seems to be that anything other than shaking it off and getting on with your life would be beyond childish and, well, peer pressure works on me.
After these opening questions, the podcast episode went on to discuss the article, which as you noticed from the title is about dealing with covid & online teaching and not earthquakes, so this seems like a good place to wrap up this post.
I did want to briefly note one more thing: the article described coping strategies that teachers adopted to deal with the stress they were experiencing due to the transition to remote teaching, and it’s my impression that these coping strategies could be adopted in many stressful situations, including the one I’ve been describing. The article lists 14 coping strategies and they’re divided into two categories: approach and avoidant.
I was pleased to see that the strategies I unintentionally seem to be using are of the approach category: acceptance and to an extent active coping. The emotional support and instrumental support strategies also seem to be useful – maybe it’s simply by writing this post that I’m using the emotional support strategy. Using the instrumental support one would be, for instance, asking you to tell me in the comments if you have any advice. 🙂 Thanks for reading!
*I actually did go on holiday after writing up most of this post and noticed that I felt much better, i.e. dwelled a lot less on earthquakes, probably because I was in an entirely different setting which I don’t associate with moving buildings.