During COVID-19, Teachers Became Emotional First Responders

teaching during covid-19

As We Return to School, Let’s Take Care of Our Students and Ourselves


On our last day of remote class in May, my freshmen writers and I assembled on Zoom to share their final projects of the semester and to wave goodbye. Zoom meetings were not mandatory for my first-year writing class at John Jay College, a CUNY school in New York City whose student population was disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Yet the students who could attend our optional virtual class meetings seemed to benefit from the community these virtual meetings provided, and from being able to discuss assignments and ask questions.

In my morning class, after each student shared their project, I asked everyone to turn on their video cameras so we could have one last visual moment together. We laughed as cameras came on, showing most of my 18-year-old students wearing pajamas, and sitting on their beds in their rooms. “It’s like a slumber party!” I said. We all wished each other safe summers.

After my last class that afternoon, I went for a walk through my quiet neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. I was relieved that nearly all my students had made it through the semester, but was also unbearably exhausted, burned out, emotionally sapped. Unlike in previous years, when my students and I had mutually patted each other on the back about how well everyone had done or how much everyone had learned or pushed themselves, this year we were like war buddies. Just making it through the battle — or in this case turning in some semblance of academic work — was enough. What I couldn’t even bear to consider was: how would I do this again in the fall?

Becoming an Emotional First-Responder

My bonds with students during COVID-19 became much more personal than ever before. Some students had my cell phone number; others told me about the deaths of family members, or of parental job losses that forced them to support their household with a part-time job. Some students were overwhelmed by our sudden migration online, and many lacked laptops, reliable internet, and most of all, the privacy and space to complete assignments and focus on learning. Others disclosed traumatic scenarios exacerbated by COVID-19 and quarantine with family — harassment, emotional abuse, depression, and sadness.

Throughout all of this, I really had no idea what to do, except to say: “I’m so sorry. Please take care of yourself. Let me know how I can support you. Of course you can turn in the assignment late.”

In any given semester, teachers at all grade levels encounter student hardships, trauma, and emotional emergencies. Yet this spring of 2020 created an unprecedented moment for all of us — a peak in educator interventions outside the scope of their training, as amateur therapists or “emotional first responders.” It was the first time I’ve ever encountered anything of this scale. Usually, in a given class of 25-30 freshmen, somewhere between 1-3 students experience some type of extenuating issues throughout the semester. But this spring, 10-15 students per class encountered crises during the COVID-19 emergency in New York City.

I felt utterly unprepared to step into this role. Sometime in April, I stopped checking my email on the weekends. I couldn’t cope with hearing about the scenarios my students were facing every single day. I braced myself on Mondays for a deluge of disasters, and responded with a personalized variation on what had become my usual refrain: “I’m so sorry. Please take care of yourself. Let me know how I can support you. Of course you can turn in the assignment late.”

The most pressing problem is that teachers are not, in fact, therapists. We have to maintain boundaries, control over our classrooms, and enforce a consistent schedule for the course in order to promote rigorous learning. While I didn’t ultimately change my course schedule that much, I also granted every single extension that was requested. I mean, come on, it’s a global pandemic! I also really had to consider, what’s most important here? My first priority became expressing empathy and trying to keep all my students enrolled — encouraging them to finish the semester and not to drop out of college.

How to Help Educators Have a Better School Year Next Fall

Having weathered this immediate crisis, teachers hope to re-enter a virtual or physical classroom in the fall with more preparation, resources, and tools. We are also more prepared for the mental gymnastics of moving between in-person and remote learning. Yet, even with this practical preparation, how can educators be effective emotional first responders and prevent emotional burnout?

Here are some things that I’ve learned for addressing these issues, from speaking with other educators, interviewing mental health professionals, and my own research. If you are an educator or work directly with young people, I welcome feedback, and hope we all find supportive and useful ideas together for both caregiving and self-care.

The Challenges of Supporting Students Through Online Platforms

This spring, David Whitcomb, Middle School Special Education Teacher in Brooklyn, NY, became acutely aware of the stress produced by distance learning for both parents and students alike. As he explained, “There are families in really bad situations right now. In single family homes with multiple kids and a mother has lost her job, and then a teacher or school staff calls — parents told me how burned out they were, how overwhelmed they were.”

Moreover, even attempting to emotionally support students using remote technology platforms is much more difficult than in person. Whitcomb emphasized that “the distance has made it 1,000 times more difficult…It’s hard to read kids’ emotions in that format…while in person, I would just ask a kid to talk after class alone, it’s so hard to perform emotional support tasks remotely, without having a system to do that.” Other teachers I spoke with agreed that the platforms of Zoom, email, and text chats were both unsatisfying for teachers and a difficult way to reach students emotionally.

In my experience, many of my students didn’t feel comfortable turning their cameras on in our Zoom full-class discussions. Other students lived in loud, chaotic apartments, so they couldn’t turn their microphones on without exposing us to the background noise of their lives. As a result, I often found myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to lead a free-flowing class discussion on Zoom with 20 black rectangular boxes. Asking folks to turn on their microphones to contribute was like calling into the internet void. “Anyone? Bueller?” This explains my specific request for students to turn on their cameras to say goodbye during our last class. While I had more success with one-on-one individual conferences, it was often difficult to fully understand what a student was thinking or feeling. There was an invisible wall of emotional insulation between us — and that wall was Zoom.

Students of Color May Face the Most Daunting Challenges

In a Teen Vogue article, “Distance Learning During Coronavirus Worsens Race, Class Inequality in Education,” which focused on the experiences of university students in the California State public university system, experts highlighted the disproportionately high emotional and medical toll of COVID-19 on students of color. For example, according to Lawrence (Torry) Winn, co-director of the Transformative Justice in Education Center at UC Davis, “students of color have been harmed the most by past and current racial inequities in our schools. Inequities existed before COVID-19.” This was certainly something that I observed in my experience, as John Jay’s student population is nearly 75% students of color.

The article notes that “distance learning assumes a lot about students’ access to computers, reliable internet connection, space to work at home and parents’ ability to help students with work,” which means that in the absence of these things, students fall behind more privileged peers simply because they face greater pragmatic challenges.

I learned that a number of my students had relied heavily on campus computer labs and high-speed internet access — not to mention the designated time and space for studying that being on campus provided — to facilitate their college academic experience. Without these resources, merely attending digital classes or logging in to our course site became exponentially more difficult.

Racial Justice is Difficult to Tackle Via Zoom

An article in Education Week highlights the additional challenge for teachers in addressing issues of racial injustice and police brutality during the last few months of protests after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among others). In particular, it quotes Evin Shinn, an 11th grade U.S. history and language arts teacher in Seattle, who emphasizes that “‘It’s hard because as a teacher, you’re not a therapist, you’re not a social worker, you’re not a doctor or a nurse — but those are all roles we take on when you become a teacher…Particularly as a black educator, it’s so important to show up for students in moments like this.’” Students turn to teachers not just for their grades, but for emotional support, and as models — of how to respond and make sense of scary realities like the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans by police. Teachers help students make sense of the world, regardless of the subject being taught.

When I spoke with Mr. Whitcomb, he explained that, “After the murder of George Floyd, my colleague and I took the day to give the kids space to talk about it. My 6th grade students didn’t really understand, or want to talk about it, but my older students did, and they really appreciated the space to express themselves.”

He also noted that “you have to make time for that communication. There was no place in our daily school schedule for this, but we created safe spaces to vent to each other, come up with creative solutions, and I only got that kind of support from my peers.” Perhaps our educational institutions should realize that empathy needs to be part of the curriculum.

How Can We Cope and Help Students Feel Better?

Here are some tips, resources, and strategies to help respond to students and young people in meaningful ways, as well as to deal with our own reactions:

Get to know your students (in person or online) and solicit feedback about their preferences and needs

I spoke with David Sanchez, a middle school reading teacher in Brooklyn, who said that he is preparing for a COVID-19 fall semester by attempting to get to know his students first — whether they meet in person, online, or with hybrid schedules. “It’s important to offer them several feedback channels, such as anonymous surveys as well as open forums for discussion, to express their feelings about their educational needs,” he said. “By soliciting feedback early on about what works best for them, as well as what their home situation is in terms of technology, privacy, and the ability to get work done, I can tailor my teaching to my students’ needs. Then we have the channels for communication later, if they need to bring up other stuff as it happens.”

He also creates space for students to share their feelings by talking about his experience with COVID-19, as well as what some of his students went through this spring. “Even just knowing that other people are going through the same thing they are helps students open up and ask for the help they need.”

As for advice for those starting this fall online, Mr. Whitcomb suggested, “Make time to communicate with people in a way that they’re comfortable with. This is going to be a really difficult year for the educational system, for educators, teachers, and parents. It’s going to be hard to make friends, meet people, and maintain friendships, but there are ways to keep the joy factor alive even virtually.”

Students may be coming to education from a place of trauma

An article published this spring by the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) reminded professors of an important factor when designing online courses for the fall — trauma, both our own and that of students. The article points out that:

“Our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, anger, and trauma. So are we…From everything we know about learning, if the trauma is not addressed, accounted for, and built into the course design, we fail. Our students fail. None of us needs another failure. This means thinking about access in all its dimensions: technological, intellectual, personal, financial, medical, educational. We should be building our courses around the reality our students are carrying that emotional workload.

As we start thinking about how to get to know new students in the fall, possibly via distance learning technology or hybrid scheduling, it’s important for us to remember that both students (and teachers) have just had a very difficult spring. Our student may associate school with frustrations about access, technology, financial hardship, loss, or isolation. Students (and teachers) may feel that these compromise solutions “aren’t good enough,” so why should they try extra hard to succeed despite the challenges?

Accepting that everyone is going through something difficult — and that we are nonetheless continuing to teach and learn during these horribly challenging times — is a triumph of effort. Any strategies or tools we use will likely never feel as natural as previous learning environments did.

Express empathy, but accept that it might not be enough

I spoke with psychotherapist Niles Willits-Spolin, LMFT, asking him what advice he would offer to educators who have been feeling overwhelmed by playing the role of emotional first responder. His insight shook me to my core:

“First, accept that what you do is not going to be enough. In order to do this on a long-term basis, you have to accept your own limitations as a caregiver. This idea puts you right up against the enormous, almost inexhaustible needs that others have. Whatever you do, it will not be enough. But if you stay grounded, and stay regulated, and accept this truth, then you will really be able to help those around you, again and again.”

Willits-Spolin also recommended intervening on a very basic level when encountering a student in an emotional crisis. Start with a few small, tangible things that can provide comfort, such as calling a friend or family member for support. “Look around you at what basic foundation they have. Can you spend some time making a meal, talking to friends? That is essential medicine for anyone, regardless of how big the trauma.” Taking small steps to help and provide comfort means that you won’t address all of someone’s emotional needs, nor should you.

He also recommended offering a student in crisis access to what you yourself do to cope, either with COVID-19 or with similarly difficult circumstances. “Self-disclose what you’re going through, and how you’re coping, what your experience is, and what you’re actually doing to cope — dicing tomatoes, taking a walk, going to bed early. It helps to regulate people when you express and show your sanity, self-care.” He also recommended offering someone an opportunity to “state how they’d like it to be, what they’d like to change, and how they could influence that change with agency.”

In the best moments, I wonder if this crisis will help us all be more empathic, will help us explain ourselves better, be clearer, and build better systems? When I’m optimistic, I think that perhaps COVID-19 can offer us a way forward into a better world, and offer us an opportunity to become the best versions of ourselves. But it takes one small step at a time, and an effort to create time and space to accept the limitations of this new reality. In our country where a deadly disease rages, each new moment will change what it means to work, live, and learn.

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