“I don’t think I could've figured this out on my own. Not feeling like myself lately.”
“Most nights, I am working until 10:00 at night. I am drowning.”
“I wish I could be in my classroom. I am not cut out for this type of teaching.”
“I feel so exhausted all the time and I get nothing done.”
“I miss seeing you every morning and having our impromptu planning sessions.”
“I am so distracted. I can’t get work done...so overwhelmed.”
“I am home alone all day. I miss my colleagues and the kids.”
“Sorry for being emotional. This year has been hard on me.”
Time and again, I heard teachers of all ranks at my school express these feelings of anxiety since the start of the 2020-21 academic year. In my capacity as an instructional coach, I sought to lend a listening ear, hoping that by allowing my colleagues to vent, they may unburden themselves. Eventually, however, my concerns for the well-being of our teachers began to match my concerns for our students. As a district and school, we kept highlighting the social emotional needs of our students, but very little was being said about these same needs in our teachers. Justifiably, teachers were being asked to show empathy and grace to students. However, they too were struggling: isolated from colleagues, revamping their pedagogy daily, processing the dangers of the pandemic, and wrangling childcare and work-life balance. As the saying goes, one cannot fill from an empty cup. How long could teachers proceed this way, running on fumes without an end in sight?
Ironically, at this time, teachers were becoming far more adept at navigating the nuances of distance teaching. They were successfully utilizing digital tools of all sorts, managing their work flow, and hitting their stride professionally. Yet, on an interpersonal level, expressions of isolation and sadness became a pattern in our coaching conversations. After all, most teachers are extroverts, and interacting with about 100 students and dozens of colleagues was their daily norm.
Teaching is a form of interpersonal art, fueled by the heart. It was clear to me that teachers needed time to decompress and socialize to feel human again so that they could, in turn, be responsive and caring towards their students. They needed to have their experiences validated by people who would most understand their struggles—their colleagues. I proposed my idea to facilitate a casual weekly lunchtime social hour for faculty and staff. I created an invitation which my principal graciously promoted in her weekly emails, inviting all faculty and staff to attend. That is when the Monday Mixer was born.
The Monday Mixer started small, initially with a few colleagues joining to show their support for me. And over time, the gathering has grown as teachers and faculty members started to join. They visit with each other, have a few laughs over lunch, showcase our pets, and play a round of thematic Kahoot trivia games, such as football trivia during the time of the Super Bowl, female scientists during Women’s History Month, and golf trivia just after the Masters Tournament, for example. Shop talk is kept to a minimum, not by design, but by a tacit understanding in the group.
Eventually most teachers attend every week, while others drop in between meetings and other obligations. Despite the ever-present stressors, uncertainties, and screen fatigue, teachers and staff in attendance are remarkably positive and lighthearted. Attendees leave the Monday Mixer expressing feelings of being refreshed by the interconnectedness and a bit more prepared to manage their professional obligations and the wellbeing of their students. I received numerous texts and emails of thanks to have the regular opportunity to see their colleagues.
In turn, I expanded the timing of the Monday Mixer to accommodate more attendees between their department meetings. I’ve had a colleague approach me with an idea to do a “fun PD” with the Monday Mixer crew on how to use Zoom filters. On one occasion, I was a few minutes late to start the Monday Mixer, and I received numerous texts… “Hi. Are we Mixing today?... I am looking forward to seeing everyone. I hope we are gathering today.” I could see that I was helping to fulfill a need, and that made me happy.
Currently, we are preparing to return to campus, and for some teachers, anxiety is running high. I am not sure how the Monday Mixer will evolve: Will we still meet virtually? Can we possibly meet on campus, socially distanced? However, I am certain that teachers will continue to need the social and emotional support of their peers as they navigate the uncertainties of the months ahead. Teachers will need to fortify their reserves of patience, empathy, and grace for students and colleagues by being extended the same courtesies. I am happy to contribute to their wellness.