24th March 2020
All changed, changed utterly.
A terrible beauty is born.
Only a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Pancake Tuesday and marked the beginning of the Lenten season. Many schools would have engaged in fun activities with pupils and enjoyed some delicious treats. We can picture the scene, thirty pairs of glinting eyes looking longingly at the fresh baking, and teachers instructing the children to “wash their hands” before handling the food. Not one teacher could have imagined that soon “wash your hands” would be a phrase trending on social media, as our top health officials appeal to us to practice good hygiene and keep our hands clean. And so, from the classrooms bedecked in shamrocks and leprechauns, filled with the tones of Irish traditional music and the pitter-patter of céilí dancing feet, we now have silence and emptiness. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic can be felt across the globe, devastating communities and changing our daily lives to an extreme we never thought imaginable in our modern world.
With the change and uncertainty comes stress and anxiety. There is a fear of the unknown as we contemplate the future and a return to some semblance of normality which, at present, seems unlikely any time soon. The mélange of negative emotions – sadness, loneliness, fear, worry, unease – is normal and understandable in this crisis. We are acutely aware of the need to maintain a physical distance and ensuring good physical health through simple everyday actions but looking after our mental health is equally as important and should not be overlooked.
As we find ourselves suddenly with more time on our hands, the quietness can be unnerving, and we search for ways to fill that vacuum. Teachers are renowned for their caring, compassionate nature and volunteerism, and looking after ourselves may not be high up on our agenda. However, it should be. Our mental health is critical and through a healthy mind comes a healthy body. This is not only a benefit to us, but to those around us who need our support at this challenging time.
Teachers, take care.
T is for Time management – how many times did we tell ourselves that we would do something “if we had the time”. Now, for many, there will be a lot of free time that might otherwise have been spent commuting to and from work, taking children to sports training or music lessons, attending social groups etc. Where possible, use your time on something that you enjoy or perhaps on a new activity that you would like to try (a new language, flower arranging, painting, crocheting etc.). There are endless possibilities and it will be important to maintain a positive outlook and promote well-being.
A for Affirmations – a good idea is to keep a journal of positive thoughts. There is so much negativity prevailing in the current climate and if we feel weighed down and despondent, this can have serious consequences on our mental health. Choosing uplifting quotes, songs or even taking note of a special moment with family can boost our mood. Articulating an inner thought (either verbally or in writing) reinforces it and makes it more effective. This will be a valuable resource to refer to and look back on when this time passes.
K for Keep the Distance – remember the advice to maintain a distance of two metres when coming in contact with others. This notion will be alien to many teachers who work in overcrowded classrooms, but it is important in minimising the spread of infection. The amount of cases of Covid-19 due to community transmission is rising steadily. Advice from the medical professionals emphasises the effectiveness of keeping 2 metres from others and keeping our hands clean. In the knowledge that we are doing our bit, our conscience is clear.
E for Eating healthily – we all know that research points to the benefits of a healthy diet. At times of extreme stress, it is easy to snack and turn to convenience foods or rich, sweet treats. Likewise, if we are out of a normal routine and have no set break time and lunchtime, we may find that we are snacking more than normal, and this can in turn result in feelings of lethargy. By eating plenty of fresh wholesome food we will feel better in both body and mind. When at home, we have time to try new recipes and prepare dishes from scratch meaning that they will be healthier.
C for Communicate – call a friend, have a tête-à-tête. In the absence of daily staffroom chats over coffee, it is so important during a period of self-isolation that we maintain our network of friends. Inevitably the current status of Covid-19 and latest updates be a hot topic, but make sure that your conversations are not consumed by this.
A for Agenda – in a time of disruption, try your best to keep a routine. Set an agenda and make an effort to keep your daily life as close to normality as possible. It can be easy for teachers who find themselves out of the classroom and working from home or working reduced hours to slip into bad habits such as staying up late, but this will have a domino effect and can lead to less productive mornings. So, keep the same school-day schedule insofar as possible bedtimes, get up and enjoy a healthy breakfast, get down to work be that daily chores, home schooling, work and factor in time for a proper lunch, regular breaks, a phone call, leisure activity.
Read only information and advice from reputable, reliable sources. Social media most certainly has its merits, but often the dissemination of inaccurate information leads to untold damage and exacerbates the stress levels of those who are already fearful. Chief Medical Officers will brief the public, provide updates and figures, explain the next steps and paint a true picture of how the country is faring. Avoid unfounded reports and articles and do not share links with others that you cannot confirm to be true.
Exercise – getting out and about is important. We may be encouraged to maintain a distance with others, but we can still enjoy some time outdoors if we adhere to guidelines and governmental advice. There are many known links between exercise and mental health, and in particular the added benefit of exercise in green, open spaces or near water. The nature of our environments can impact on our feelings of well-being and happiness.
Be proactive in minding your mental wellbeing to ensure that you are well equipped to navigate the choppy waters that we face in the weeks and months ahead.
Aoife Mullen is an official in INTO’s Education section.