The Potential for Overwhelm as We Get What We've Been Wishing For
I like warm hugs.
There, I said it. I've never considered myself much of a hugger, but since the pandemic, I have developed a new appreciation for another human enveloping me in a tight squeeze. Arms compressing my shoulders, lovingly signifying all the moments since the last time I had seen that person, is nearly all I can think about now. And maybe this realization could only have come about by the Universe saying, "Hey, you wanna look at screens instead of paying attention to the people in front of you? Well, here you go. Look at those screens all the time, then. You'll see - you'll miss your people." And the Universe was right. I do.
That being said, I'm a little afraid of going back to "normal."
When Wisconsin first opened back up, my daughters needed to go to the doctor for their yearly check-ups and immunizations. I was standing at the receptionist's desk checking them in and a woman with twin boys, roughly eight-years-old, walked into the office. They began speaking loudly to the receptionist like 8-year-old boys do. They were not behaving poorly. They were doing nothing you wouldn't expect from children. But for me, even being a mother of four, even being a former elementary teacher - it was beyond overwhelming. I had something like an anxiety attack mixed with overwhelm and sensory overload. The room started spinning. I wanted to put my hands rudely over my ears and ask them to stop talking. I needed out of there fast.
When I was finally able to leave the situation (and I use that term loosely, I mean, it really wasn't a situation) I reflected on what the heck just happened. I was shocked. I'm not known to have sensory sensitivities. But, something definitely happened that day that made me almost afraid to go back into society for a while. I had become accustomed to being in front of my screen. Being with actual people in public who weren't as quiet and reserved as my own kids tend to be, threw me for a loop.
I think about this when it comes to teachers and students returning to the classroom after being in virtual learning and how overwhelming it must be. I was speaking to a teacher about how quiet her high school students were and that they were struggling to interact with each other. This might be a result of being in a room at home, alone, working for nearly a year with little interaction, and now put into a classroom with other students. It may be something equivalent to sensory overload EVEN IF they are not known to have sensory sensitivities. And if this is the case with students who are not known to have them, imagine how it is with the ones who do.
So, what can we do about this?
First, just knowing that it could be an issue is the first step. Keep this possibility in mind whenever you see other educators or students just seem a little off. It might even get worse the further you get in the week as it becomes increasingly overwhelming. And it may feel to the person who is overwhelmed that this shouldn't be happening because they should be glad to be back with people, which can be confusing. It's usually confusing when how we feel and how we think we should feel are opposing.
Second, speak to students about it. Bringing it to their attention may help lessen their confusion if it happens. Ask how you can help them if it becomes overwhelming.
Third, give students and fellow educators the grace you'd want if you were having those same feelings. Read your students and colleagues and know when to force interaction and when to allow it to happen organically when people are ready.
We have been making adjustments all along and we are not ready to return to normal on so many levels. I miss my people as much as everyone else. I miss their nearness and hearing their actual laugh without the undertone of electronics humming. I miss their warm hugs. But we are going to need to slowly acclimate to whatever our future is. And honestly, the slower we take it and the more self-aware we are, the more we pay attention to others' social-emotional needs, the more likely we are to come out of this mentally healthier than we would have otherwise.
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Mandy Froehlich passionately encourages educators to create innovative change in their classrooms. A former Director of Innovation and Technology, technology integrator, and teacher, she has experience at many levels of the organizational structure. Her interest lies in reinvigorating and re-engaging teachers back into their profession, as well as what’s needed to support teachers in their pursuit of innovative and divergent thinking and teaching. She consults internationally with school districts and post-secondary institutions in the effective use of technology to support great teaching, mental health support for educators, and how to create organizational change, as well as supporting future leaders in her adjunct position as a graduate lecturer in Technology and Leadership. Her first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, discusses mental health awareness for teachers. Her second book, Divergent EDU, is based on an organizational structure she developed to support teachers in innovative and divergent thinking. Her third book, based on educator engagement and mental health, is titled Reignite the Flames which has a recently released companion guide/workbook titled The Educator’s Matchbook.