Coping with Covid: Unique Impact on Teachers and School Staff

Coping with COVID Counseling in Schools

Coping with Covid: Unique Impact on Teachers and School Staff

Coping with Covid: Unique Impact on Teachers and School Staff

Katherine Potts 

Hello, everyone. This is Kat Potts, and welcome to our first episode of AwakIn. I have the pleasure of being joined by Mr. Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, Executive Director and licensed clinical social worker for counseling in schools. How are you?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

I’m great. Good to see you.

Katherine Potts 

Today’s topic is coping with COVID and the unique impact on teachers and school staff. For me, I have a one-year-old, so I’m not dealing with back-to-school in a pandemic. However, I’m still exposed to teachers that are friends, family, as well as the other side of it with parents who, you know, are in the in for them, they’re happy the kids are going back to school because they don’t have to try to homeschool anymore figure that out. But it seems people aren’t thinking too much about how this has affected the teachers. What are the teachers walking into now, where they’re having to deal with, not just with educating, but also managing their mental health and that of the students and the students’ families? What are your thoughts on that?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It is something that maybe isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And I think we rightly concern ourselves with children and their well-being. They’re much more vulnerable than we are as adults. It’s important that appropriate attention is paid to their well-being, their mental health and how the pandemic impacts the trajectory of their education. 

It does take a little bit more thinking to say, Well, wait a minute, what’s happening for the teachers? It’s an interesting set of issues coming to us as an organization with lots of requests from schools to help us think this through with them and provide some additional support to teachers. One of the first issues that come up, which is similar to an experience that the children have, is this idea of this experience of being disconnected. You know, the connectedness and the camaraderie of teachers within any one school helps, in some way, set the culture of the school and having gone through the pandemic, and then coming back, not every teacher is back. You don’t have full staffs. Some people can be sick, the role you’re going to play in the school might change, depending on who’s there on any given day. And it has lost some of the cohesion for teachers that I think they rely on, and I think about it in my work, or any of us can think about it at work. Who are the people that you look forward to seeing, or how do you rely on your colleagues for a certain sense of kind of support? It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just like, Oh, hey, it’s great to see you.

Katherine Potts 

You’re used to having that. And then you didn’t have it all of a sudden with the pandemic, and there has to be a lot of pressure because now you’re thrown back into this situation, and there’s no handbook on how to do it.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Right, you’re coming into this disjointed scenario that starts to come back together. But then you have issues that are going to come forward from the students, which are going to be also fairly unfamiliar because you’re going to be seeing students come into a social situation, where for about a year and a half, they were disconnected from their peers, which meant they were disconnected from their socialization process. And the teacher’s socialization process is one that they were used to. 

For the children’s development, it’s all a different thing. So if you are a third-grade teacher, you’re getting a student in the third-grade classroom that the last time they were in the building, they might have been just leaving a kindergarten class or just finishing the first grade. The sorts of structures and things you do with a first-grade class are quite different from what you might have expected to do with a third-grade class. So there are the learning loss issues that are in there. But I think the things that teachers are struggling with are that socialization piece and some of the emotional challenges that come along with the way COVID has affected those families and those children and how it’s affected their understanding of how to socialize. Sharing, basic negotiating, little things that might be conflicts that you figured out when you were six years old. And now you’re eight years old, and it’s just a different story. Something’s not there. So this is falling onto teachers. And they’re looking around like, hey, this isn’t what I

 signed up for.

Katherine Potts  

And it’s also, like you said, the emotional side. You have this pressure of, I need to get the student to the next level academically, but how will that student be able to get there when they’re going through emotional turmoil? Some of those kids may not even want to be back in school. And now you have this teacher back to five days a week having to mitigate that, but again, still, academically push them forward.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

That’s right. That’s a complex set of issues, and that would be plenty. Now, you’re going to overlay their own health concerns around COVID. And the safety protocols that the schools have implemented rely on every individual following a relatively strict set of protocols. If you’ve ever spent time in a school building, you know that getting 200 or so people to all do the same thing at the same time, in the same way, is not that realistic. So there’s wanting to work through that and be supportive to follow the protocols themselves, but their children may or may not be able to all the time. Putting masks on, distancing, taking tests, giving out home tests, getting notifications, and who’s quarantining and who’s not. These change what the teacher in their little world of the classroom has to be aware of and manage. And that’s another set of issues that are not the ones that you are working with, let’s say in 2019.

Katherine Potts 

Right, it’s a whole different ballgame. Back to those expectations now: What has a teacher’s experience been? Not everybody had experience trying to teach a curriculum online. So they got thrown into that, and now they’re back in school, and they may be dealing with their own trauma, right? So now they have to show up, but they can’t show any of that to their students. Right? They can’t show what they’re going through because they are there to do a job. What do we do with that? How do we support the teachers in that way? Because that’s a lot. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone. And to have this position of, oh, well, this is a teacher’s job. This is a nuanced situation.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It captures one of the main points that Counseling in Schools wants to make and that I want to make in education. Thinking about where we go forward with education from this experience, which is that social skill development and emotional well-being are part of every school every day, whether you make it intentional or conscious. And what you just described for teachers means that everybody has to have their emotional well-being considered, everybody has to have their social socialization skills considered. 

For a teacher, you need to be the one in the room who’s able to be taken care of. You’re less vulnerable on paper than the child; you’re going to be hesitant to show that vulnerability. But that’s something about learning how to do that. As a clinical social worker and our team of over 100 clinical social workers and creative arts therapists in schools, part of our training is you learn how to use that vulnerability as a strength. And you don’t necessarily have to be able to work through it. You need additional support systems in place to then be able to form relationships based on empathy and be able to be vulnerable enough to show that you understand, and then have some tools in your bag to move somebody through the emotional challenges of the crises, just like you need that for yourself. 

As an organization, Counseling in Schools, we’re doing that with teachers. We’re setting up these experiences for teachers because they need that kind of support. And that’s something that just has been absent prior to the pandemic. “No, teachers teach.” Then everybody says, well, isn’t there a guidance counselor? Isn’t there a school social worker or psychologist? They take care of those things, right? We see teachers like, “I know my subject matter, close my door, I got that I’m good.” Well, all of that was happening all the time anyway. And now it’s just unavoidable. It was there all along. But now, we need to intentionally address it, make it conscious. And I think what can happen going forward is that teachers can have different, stronger relationships with their students. And those bonds are productive for learning. Not to create a new friendship group, but to create relationships that allow learning to happen. I don’t know about you, but I know for me, those teachers that I really liked when I was younger, the ones I remember, those are who I learned the most from.

Katherine Potts 

As a child, you’re like, you understand me. So I feel comfortable with that level of vulnerability. When you’re struggling with something, but you feel comfortable, you feel like you can trust this person. And it just makes the learning experience more cohesive and more unified, which is great for sustainable education, where everyone’s feeling good and not feeling burnt out. Because the goal isn’t just to get teachers and students through the year. We’re not trying to develop robots; we’re trying to develop emotionally balanced people with the idea that academics are important.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

As providers of these types of services, there is an understanding of how we can measure that impact and measure what happens as a result of that kind of emotional well-being, sometimes referred to as the softer skills. Or we might be thinking about some Emotional Intelligence scores or other things that help us see where a student is in an emotional sense of being balanced. What kind of social skills do they have to navigate and negotiate? Challenges as well as celebrating victories, celebrating success, and carrying success to the next level. If we do not have those things in place, they become an increasing challenge as a child grows throughout the system. I think teachers would benefit from having that be a marker for the impact they’re having because they’re impacting their students emotionally. 

Back to those teachers, the ones I didn’t like, I remember those too, for probably not great reasons. They had an impact. So everyone in that building is having an impact. And if we could make that part of what defines success, when that impact is having a positive, uplifting sense or balancing out well-being is one of the things we’re looking into at Counseling in Schools. That creates a higher quotient of hopefulness. We want to look for – how do we measure hope? What does hope add to the equation of wellness? We know that hopelessness is identified as the key factor for students with really negative mental health outcomes, particularly suicidal ideation and violence. So if we can talk about the impact of being hopeful, how do we create hopefulness in ourselves, in teachers? Coming in on every given day feels like I’m hopeful that my students will succeed. That’s different than coming in thinking, oh, I have no idea how this is going to go.

Katherine Potts 

Teachers shouldn’t be in survival mode, they should be feeling hopeful, feeling inspired because that trickles down. When you see how someone’s behaving and how someone’s feeling, you pick up on that. And I think it starts with the teachers. If I’m going to school and my teachers are in a great mood and hyping me up and everything’s exciting, it bounces off of you, and you’re able to show up better. 

What I’m hearing you say, too, is that even though the pandemic has been very unfortunate for many people, many families, and everybody in the world, it’s given us this opportunity to restructure how we look at school and

 school experience.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

That’s right. And I think that’s one part of this moment, for all of us in education is to say, would we have structured things to come about this way? No. But it did come about this way. So what is the takeaway going forward? What does have value, does have benefit? And I think this is a big one. There are a lot of us in this arena that Counseling in Schools works in that have been saying for a while that we need to focus on this. And it was hard for the school system to see it as integral, it was hard for teachers to see it as integral, it always was a sort of specialized thing that a few people take care of, but the overall institution isn’t responsible for. Now you’re really talking about what’s the climate of the school? What’s the culture of the school? How is it positive? Is it affirming? Is it culturally responsive? And all those layers now fit into this idea of emotional wellness because feeling understood and feeling like you’re represented and feeling like you have a voice in the building also becomes part of it. And those are things that were certainly being talked about pre-pandemic, but also, again, it was always kind of like, well, how do we do that? How do we react to a lot of tension? But how do we do it? 

Now that the cover is blown off, we can put it back together in a way that includes all of that.

Katherine Potts 

Let’s round back to the teachers and the school staff. They can’t be alone in this initiative. We have to go back to their mental health. So how do we keep a high expectation but come together? How do we facilitate that? Because it is hard, there are a million things to juggle. And you do need that extra hand to help navigate this sort of nuanced area. That it’s not just that my kid’s here to learn math and learn how to write, and that’s it.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Absolutely. My respect and our organization’s respect for teachers are very high. And I think they come into this profession and particularly into the New York City public school system with the general public kind of looking a little bit sideways at them. You don’t hear a ton of positive press generally speaking about teachers. Talk about teachers, and they say, “oh, yeah, this and that, and maybe here a few union issues,” or something. 

But the number is high of teachers who have stayed and worked hard through this and are sticking it out and trying to figure it out. They are incredibly dedicated, and they really want what is best for every one of the students they work with. And it’s quite remarkable. They need that uplifting and celebrating. They need the cheerleading for them because it’s just as much an impact on them as it is on everyone else. 

Katherine Potts 

I have some friends, like I said, who are teachers, and you know, they don’t feel supported. And it’s kind of like “Oh, you have the weekend, you have a different time off throughout the year to figure it out, but you better make sure my kid knows how to do this multiplication problem.” And I was preparing for our talk, and I saw this quote from a teacher that I’d love to get a reaction from you. “We can’t have unrealistic expectations for educators and then gaslight them by saying they need to practice self-care.” I think that is so powerful because that’s a lot of what it is: show up, do your job now. You need to take care of them. But also make sure you do something for yourself. It’s hard.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It’s very hard. I believe strongly in a parallel process. You can’t expect students to walk away with anything you’re not also providing to the teachers. So this idea of social skill on an emotional well-being focus. If that’s what we want for our students, if you want students to be lifelong learners, then you have to set up that opportunity for the teachers as well. You can’t just say, “Well, you come in and do all the heavy lifting, do all the hard work, leave your troubles at the door. And somehow in there, make sure you take care of yourself even as you’re probably working until six or 7 pm. Between then and 5:30, when you wake up the next morning, make sure you get everything worked out for the next 48 hours, papers graded, make sure you’ve made all the phone calls make sure your students are feeling great.” 

We try to run this organization that way, to have anything that we’re trying to offer our students that we support also be given to the staff that works here. And it takes a lot of effort. It’s not easy. It’s a commitment of resources. But it’s absolutely invaluable. And it pays big dividends in the outcomes. 

We have people who experience the same thing that we want for students. That they feel heard their voices is acknowledged, they’re responded to, and they’re willing to give, and they’re there to give, but you have to give to them. They can’t, you know, you can’t give from an empty cup is another? Yeah, like loads of these, you know, little sayings for a while, but I’ll leave it at that.

Katherine Potts 

In your experience, what are some things that you’ve seen as outcomes when the teachers aren’t prioritized, and it is solely about the students? 

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Burnout takes a lot of different forms. The people shut down. I mean, you see this in almost any profession, when someone is there to check a box just to get through their day. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re really hurting, or you’re traumatized, or you’re in pain, you have very little that you can do outside of the bare minimum. That’s survival mode. Sometimes, you see adults responding to children in ways that you don’t quite understand. That’s a child. You would want to give a little more grace for the way they understood or expressed or what behavior they were undergoing.

When you see that in a school, it means there’s not a lot of support there for those teachers. If you were to ask them when they started in the profession, is this the kind of response they were looking forward to having with students? I think they would all say no. It’s not what I envisioned my career as a teacher to be. If you don’t get the support, what ends up happening is teachers end up blaming the students. I think the place to look is that actual system you have in place within, institutionalized to support teachers.

Katherine Potts  

Such a big message that I’m hearing from you, Kevin is it’s everybody plays a role in this. And it the impact is so strong. The impact will show you when you see students showing up in a better mood, you see teachers being able to do jobs better. And the social skills or academic outcomes all come together. But I do think sometimes we get lost in this space of one thing that will fix everything.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

That’s right. You want a quick fix. Within the city right now, within the pandemic, one of the things to look closer at is that we’re going to hire 500 social workers because of the pandemic. Well, that’s not a bad thing. But it seems to want to follow that prescription of, we dropped this one set of people into certain schools. By the way, there are 1800 schools in the same system. How is that going to be part of all of what we’re talking about here? A real community-based support within the whole school community? You need specialized skills for specialized cases. Yes. But what we’re talking about here is the impact of the pandemic on teachers and school communities. It’s not to be left to a specialist, it’s to be left to the whole school community, each in their own way. 

Just going back to when people say, “Oh, well, you’re asking me to do more work.” I would say, look, it’s happening anyway, right now. 

When I think about those great relationships I had it was with a school librarian when I was a kid. Now, maybe they had less pressure or something than my teacher, I don’t know. I’ve seen some librarians who do a great job of yelling at people. This librarian just found a way to seem to understand every child that walked in. It might be a school safety agent, that’s the most important person to a child, or even another staff person who makes you feel good when you see them. And the more of those people you can get, the more that school climate can create. If we can just make it conscious.