It’s Okay if You’re Still Exhausted (Ep. 281)

As we move into yet another school year affected by the pandemic–that’s three now, if you’re counting–so many teachers are completely exhausted. And how could you be feeling any other way? In today’s episode, Tim shares his thoughts on why that feeling never goes away, how we can attempt to navigate this school year, and how we can help each other right now. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Before we get started today, I want to remind you about The Art of SEL podcast hosted by Jonathan Juravich from The Art of Education University Podcast Network. The Art of SEL is an eight-episode mini-series that is all about social and emotional learning in the art room. In the episodes, Jonathan talks to educators and experts about how we can help our students, and frankly help ourselves, understand thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors, and why that understanding is crucial right now. You can check out The Art of SEL on the AOEU website or wherever you get your podcasts.

Now, as we start this episode today, the reason I wanted to remind you of Jonathan’s podcast is because I think it’s important that we take stock of our feelings. I think as we start to go back to school, as we start to plan for this school year, I think a lot of people are in a bad place right now. We’re exhausted. We’re completely exhausted, and the idea that I want to get across today is that it’s okay to be exhausted. We are on our third school year that has been affected by the pandemic, and it’s really hard to go back to school when COVID case counts are rising like they are. And it’s really hard for me, personally, to send my own kid back to school who has not been vaccinated yet, and whose school is saying, “Masks are optional.” It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. And it’s really hard to function as best we can in a situation like that. How do we plan for all the contingencies for what we might need to deal with, professionally and personally? I’m making backup plans for my backup plans at this point.

And as you think about the school year, it’s really tough to navigate that. What does it look like if you’re going to be gone long term? What does it look like if you’re going to be gone two weeks? What if you’re gone because a close exposure happens and you can come back with a negative test? What does your classroom look like in the interim? It’s tough to figure all of those things out. And every time we do, it takes a little bit of your mental energy. It takes some of your physical energy, and that stuff builds and builds and builds and it leaves us feeling exhausted.

And we had a little bit of a respite. Summer was great. I felt, for me, the last couple of weeks of June and a lot of July, it felt really good. We didn’t do as much as a normal summer, but more than we did last summer. But somehow, even though it was limited in what we could do, it still felt like too much. We’re just not used to doing all of these things. And so, I’ve been trying to work less. I’ve been trying to do less. I’m trying to let some things go, but I’m still exhausted. And now that we’re starting to go back to school, it’s even worse. It’s like starting school last year, remembering back to what we did last year, but much, much worse in so many ways.

And so, I spent some time thinking about that. Why does it feel so much worse? Now, I think it’s because the pandemic is still going and in just so, so many ways, the pandemic is exhausting. There are all of the obvious ways, but there are the little ways too. Just the low level anxiety that never quite subsides, and to say nothing of the too frequent high level anxiety. I’m a patient person. I give people the benefit of the doubt. I give them grace. But always having to worry can cause even the most patient person to run out of patience sometimes. Our personal store of empathy and kind of thoughts about other people, that can get depleted. And when that gets depleted, it’s really tough to refill because I don’t think we’ve had the time to properly recover from everything that we’ve been through.

Now, like I said, summer maybe looked a little bit more normal, but I think people were so excited to get back to doing things, to get back to what felt like a normal life or close to a normal life. And because we were so excited to do that, we didn’t slow down. We couldn’t take the time that we needed to reflect and to process everything that happened. We didn’t take the time to heal. And even if we have that time, or even if we have the desire to do those things, how could we? We knew that the pandemic was still kind of hanging over our heads and we knew that, in the back of our minds, we weren’t ready for a normal school year in the fall. And so, we’re at that point now and we’re having to go back to school. We’re having to try and balance all of these things. And we’re having to take care of ourselves and our families and our jobs, and there’s so little support for any of it.

Think about from the outside world. How much is your admin supporting you right now? How much is the community supporting you right now? You can find places that are supporting you and those are wonderful things. Those are wonderful people. But we don’t have the support we need to do our jobs fully. If you do, that is spectacular, but that is not the reality for so many people. And without that support, we’re heading back to school and we’re just supposed to do it all again, I guess. We’re just supposed to do all of these same things again that we had to go through last year, and just that knowledge creates this mental burden, I guess. And that burden that we have on us is just immense.

I have all of these feelings of resentment, or maybe bitterness is a better word, that we could be done with this pandemic. We could have rebounded. We could have even been back better than before. But somehow, we find ourselves in a spot where we’re just running it all back again. And somehow, even though we’ve been through it and we should’ve learned our lessons, everything is somehow worse. All of those feelings just boil up and I’ve tried to place them, tried to name them, and it’s not fear really. It’s not dread. We’ve done this before and we can do it again. And I’m not scared necessarily. Maybe some unease, like I said, sending my kid back to school without masks and without being vaccinated. That’s hard to do.

And I think as we’re there in the classrooms ourselves, I think just the uncertainty of not knowing what this will look like for us or for our families or for our students or for anyone. And I think all of that adds up to a feeling… The feeling I have more than anything else is fatigue. I’m tired of doing this. I’m tired of all of this. It is exhausting.

Now, I saw a writer say that this pandemic has been 18 months of slow motion trauma. And if we accept that argument, which I do, we know that it’s nearly impossible to come back from that quickly. And there were some people that were able to use that 18 months to rest and to reflect, to enjoy themselves, to better themselves, and good for them. I’m very, very happy for them. But for people with children and people who were teaching and so many others, that was not an opportunity that we could even contemplate. We had to bear the burden of helping ourselves and helping others survive through this, and we’re going to have to do it again.

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m dreading this because the school year is not something that you should dread. We have opportunities. We’ve learned lessons. We can do wonderful things with our students. And I know that we will because, as art teachers, we always are able to do wonderful things but it’s going to be difficult. And I think just having, like I said, the mental burden of knowing we have to go through this situation one more time, it causes us to wake up tired every morning. And I think along with all of the difficulties that we’re facing with case counts rising, with all of the uncertainty, we’re still having to teach in an incredibly difficult situation. And I think maybe that’s why our job or our school year that we’re facing seems more difficult than it did before, and that’s why we are still exhausted.

Now what? I appreciate you letting me turn this into a therapy session and just tell you everything that I’m feeling, but I think it’s important to share how we’re feeling. I think it’s important to share our stressors and our thoughts and our feelings, because we’re going to need to support each other. We need to know that we’re not going through this alone. And the more we can talk about it, the more we can help each other, the easier it’s going to be to get everyone through this. And so, like I said, now what? I wish I knew. There are lessons that everyone has taken from the past year, from the past year and a half, that can be helpful. I encourage everybody to share those on social media, whoever you’re collaborating with, wherever you’re talking to other art teachers, help each other get through.

And I think there are some things that we can do for ourselves as well. A couple of things that have helped me. Number one, thinking about the question, like, “What does rest, actual rest, look like for you? And how can you get that?” It’s always tough. We always think a short break can do this for me, and it can. Breaks can do wonders. But what does actual rest look like for you? I think it’s worthwhile to think about, to think about what you need and, if possible, actually take some time to rest. Now, that’s going to help you mentally. It’s going to help you physically and, in the long term, it’s going to help your teaching.

Another thing that really helped is just thinking about how things are done at home. Responsibilities may need to shift with your family. You may need to think about different ways to do things, easier ways to do things, and realize that not everything needs to be perfect. Not everything can be perfect. Your job right now is to take care of yourself and to take care of your family, and that might involve shifting around somehow some things are done or accepting that some things are going to be done differently. But I think it’s worth taking inventory of how things are done at home and seeing if anything can change to make it a little easier on you, a little less exhausting on you.

And I think, professionally, can you step away from some things at school? There might be a club that you love, but it isn’t worth it right now. It might be a steering committee that you really wanted to be on but, in the long run, is it really that big of a deal to you? I think, again, just taking stock of everything that you’re doing at school. Let’s be honest, we’re all doing too much school. And if you can find a thing or two to step away from, that can be helpful as well, and those are just little places to start. Like I said, we’re not going to solve this right away, but just taking little steps can be incredibly helpful.

And then, also, I wanted to share some advice from Sarah Krajewski. I know everyone knows Sarah. She was on the podcast last week. She hosts Instagram Live. And on this podcast, she and I have talked multiple times about mental health. And I asked her if she had any advice that she wanted to share for people, and she said three things. Number one, you do you. Try not to compare yourself to others. Every art teacher and every person has their own highs and lows that they’re managing, and it’s important to remember the things that we can’t see. After all, this isn’t a game where you’re trying to win, and I think that’s very apt when you’re spending time on social media.

Remember that everything on social media is not as perfect as it looks. And again, if you can take some ideas, if you can share some ideas, then social media can be incredibly helpful. But one of the worst things you can do is get on social media and spend all of your time comparing yourself to others, because that is not going to help you in any way, shape or form. Just pay attention to yourself. You do you.

Number two from Sarah is to sit still. And these are, again, just small things that I think can be helpful. She said, “Maybe it’s just laying flat on the floor for two minutes when you get home or staring into the middle distance for a minute during lunch. Whatever it may be, give yourself a moment to rest and zone out so you can give your full energy to your students.” Again, those small things, taking small breaks in the middle of the day and being able to conserve energy where you can is going to be incredibly helpful as you’re trying to get through your day.

And then, number three from Sarah was to wear your kindness glasses. She said, “Aim to do everything by looking through the lens of kindness. Everyone is struggling and trying their best. Being kind can be the best way to support yourself and others.”

Now, as I talked about earlier, your stories of kindness, your stories of empathy can run dry. We’ve needed those a lot in the past year and a half, and it can be exhausting, but it can be helpful to you and it can be helpful to everyone. If you just look at everything through the lens of kindness.

Now, are my ideas and are Sarah’s ideas going to solve all of your problems? No. No. They’re not, not even close. But doing those small things can help. It’s going to take a lot for us to do this all again, to run it all back, in what might even be a worse situation. But we can do it. And, as I said, I encourage everyone to share ideas for what’s helping you. Share ideas for what’s getting through. And if we can make connections, if we can help each other, it’s going to be a lot smoother ride for all of us as we try and navigate this school year.

And so, I would say, just to wrap things up, like I said, it’s okay if you’re still exhausted. We all are. But if we do things right, we can help each other make our way through this year.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you all for listening and we will be back next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.