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Reactivity and Fatigue - Getting Out of the Loop

When schools closed in March, anyone associated with education began reacting to rapidly changing conditions with an agility that was inspiring. Looking back at the quick pivoting, it is not surprising that teachers could change their plans so quickly; making constant shifts in practice is a regular part of the job. With that, however, comes a high level of decision fatigue as we make innumerable calls every day that impact students. On its own, decision fatigue is difficult to manage, as is constant reactivity. Coupled with a pandemic, mental health becomes a consideration that cannot be ignored. What can we do to pull ourselves out of a constant loop of feeling overwhelmed?

Categorize Urgency

At one of my former schools, I worked with a principal who would say, “Your urgency is not my urgency.” It might have sounded harsh at first, but she had a point. People will come to us all day with whatever fires they are attempting to extinguish, and we sometimes lack the skill or the will to figure out what our priorities might be in relation to everyone else’s. That is when an organizational system becomes an important strategy for managing stress.The first step is to consider four categories: important/urgent, not important/urgent, important/not urgent, not important/not urgent. If we divide our daily tasks into these four areas, we can begin to get a sense of how to manage the work ahead of us. Personally, I have found that most of my emails feel urgent, but that they usually fall into a less urgent sphere. In my constant pursuit to serve others and be kind, I have traditionally responded to emails quickly, but that can be a significant source of unnecessary stress. If I look at my workload with a more analytical eye, far greater urgencies emerge, particularly those around serving teachers more directly.

Pre-Load Decisions

While a cynical person might argue that an ounce of prevention equals a pound of manure, making decisions ahead of time (and sticking with them) can ease fatigue. The other day, my friend’s Zoom class cut out in the middle of a huge thunderstorm. While other teachers in similar situations share angst at just this kind of disruption, my friend had preemptively made a plan with students about what to do in the event her web access crashed. Students followed her pre-loaded directions to give her 15 minutes to re-enter the classroom space, and a student designated as a backup host continued the discussion during that time. Other teachers have created backup meeting links in other online video meeting platforms, or have offered offline options for students if the web is not cooperating. The more we can troubleshoot in advance, the less likely we are to become stressed when things do not go as planned. It might help to make a list of possible barriers to virtual instruction, and then brainstorm some solutions before they occur. That way, we do not have to make decisions at the last minute about how to move forward.

Push Against Reactivity

Since schools went virtual in mid-March, I have been running the gamut of human emotion from one day to the next. Some days, I feel like things are manageable, but others, I just want to scream at how little I can control both personally and professionally. Right now, accepting what we cannot influence is an important skill to develop, but that is easier said than done. One possible method to managing our feelings about the overload of information that comes at us (such as school district initiatives that roll out relentlessly) is to defer our reactions to anything we hear for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. This strategy might sound passive, but it actually gives our brains time to process what are often unpleasant surprises and place them into a mental frame that is not coming from a place of panic. Then, we can consciously decide to address challenges when we are ready, rather than reacting in the moment. There might not be a way to make demands go away, but we can choose to determine when and how we accept what we cannot control.

Keeping our energy up is becoming more challenging, especially as we approach cooler weather and continuing conditions of instability. The only thing we can ultimately influence is our own behavior and our personal response to whatever may come, and approaching our outlook with some forethought can help. We will probably still have those tiring days that feel like an endless string of decisions, but ideally, they can gradually become fewer and farther between.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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