“I have no words to describe what it is like to be a teacher right now.”
That is what I tweeted at the end of a day earlier this month, sitting on the couch while COVID-19 cases surged everywhere. As a writer and a teacher, I had no words to describe what was happening.
After sitting down to write this essay, I found a few words.
Teachers are in hypervigilance mode. We have been for the past two years. Teaching already had problems with attrition before the pandemic. And now? Those problems are all magnified, and we’ve added hypervigilance, times 10.
Teachers’ nervous systems have been in overdrive, firing constantly, during this pandemic. At first, way back in 2020, we were consumed with getting kids what they needed for remote learning. And then we had to figure out how to lead remote learning meaningfully. How do you use a new modality to deliver instruction? Why didn’t that student show up on screen today? Am I even being effective?
Then we went back to school in person. There were a lot of new protocols to follow. Many were unmanageable—including limited or no planning time, daily cleaning, physical distancing in small classrooms, open windows on cold winter days, no touching each other or surfaces. We got used to wearing masks for seven hours at a time. (Tell me, again, why it’s so hard to wear them at the grocery store?)
Our students were happy to be back in school. We went about trying to care for them, to provide joy, learning, and belonging in a fractured society, during an ongoing health crisis. This fall, life loosened a bit, and we carried on, teaching as best we could with restrictions in an environment that was constantly changing. We thought the worst was behind us.
As teachers, we heard a lot about self-care, in suggestions to practice mindfulness, yoga, or gratitude. It was our responsibility as teachers to “self-care” our way through this pandemic. But better outcomes happen when we change systems. For example, teachers can’t take “care” of ourselves unless we are given daily prep time or enough sick time to care for a family member that has to quarantine.
With the spread of omicron, the first week of the new year felt like a year. The virus is ripping through communities. Staff and students are getting sick. Almost everyone I know is a close contact. The hypervigilance we feel for the safety of the students in our care and our colleagues is at an all-time high. But now, there are fewer protocols in place and no plan for if or when to go remote. We are in a lion’s den with no clear directions about how to get to safety.
Our bodies and brains are in a constant state of hypervigilance at every level:
How can I keep my students calm, happy, safe, and protected? From guns. From abuse. From hunger. From a virus. This feels impossible, but we try and try each day to help them feel OK in a world that feels far from OK.
How can I best support my students who are stuck at home because of illness or quarantine? What is the best modality for each family? Remote? Printed packets? And all this while trying to also teach in person, while filling in for sick colleagues, while wondering if I am going to get sick next. How will the school run if I do call in? The worry never stops.
Hypervigilance bleeds into our home lives as parents and caretakers. Are the kids OK? Are they depressed? Do we do sleepovers? Good for mental health, bad for a possible spread. Do we see our elders? Good for mental health, bad for a possible spread. Do we test? Do we pose a threat? The hamster wheel goes round and round.
Before COVID-19, I sometimes struggled with simple decisions at the end of the teaching day, like what to make for dinner, what shampoo to pick. This is called decision fatigue. But now? The decisionmaker part of my brain is currently tapped out.
Some nights, we can’t turn our brains off because from the minute we got up to the minute we hit the bed, our nervous system was on high alert.
Teachers have dealt with every scenario at school—physically, emotionally, intellectually. That’s why our loved ones sometimes see an empty stare at the end of the day. We teachers have used up all our energy for decisions, protection, care, safety, emotions at school. There is often nothing left at the end of the day. No tolerance for big toddler tantrums, long conversations, negotiations with tweens and teenagers, making plans and logistics. We are often unable to respond to the needs of our own families with active, compassionate listening, decisionmaking, or planning.
The hypervigilance continues well into the night with emails and texts. Close contacts. New cases. Changing plans. Substitute plans and shortages. New protocols. We nervously check our phones for news of cut pensions, wildly increasing COVID-19 cases, crowded hospitals. We try to sleep. But some nights, we can’t turn our brains off because from the minute we got up to the minute we hit the bed, our nervous system was on high alert.
Nature helps. Meditation helps. Rest helps. It still feels like holding up a tsunami with our hands and a snorkel mask. We can only do it for so long.
And this is what I am experiencing in a highly vaccinated state in New England with strict mask requirements in schools. I cannot imagine how much worse this sense of dread, doom, and fear is in states where largely unvaccinated students and staff members are not wearing masks.
I worry about my colleagues. How many incredible people will we continue to lose to attrition; to mental illness; to diseases related to stress, inflammation, lack of sleep; to a delayed surgery, delayed treatments? Or to COVID?
I worry about missing moments with my daughters, time I won’t ever get back. I worry about the times I might be there physically while my mind is still working.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Stress, Hypervigilance, And Decision Fatigue: Teaching During Omicron