Author Archives: Katy

Teaching in a pandemic: emotional labor + decision fatigue + constant uncertainty

Every single teacher I know: family, friends, on social media, across Vermont education..they are exhausted. Like brand new teacher, working 24/7, going to bed at 8pm exhausted.

They are living day to day. Doing the next right thing. Over and over again. They are simultaneously trying to do right by their students and their families, and colleagues, then also trying to parent, check in on family and friends, make sure there are groceries, and driving to practices, appointments, etc.

This has always been true, but the current situation has magnified existing problems in the teaching profession, leaving many educators deeply bone tired and at risk for the health consequences of that.

I’ve written quite a bit about teacher sustainability and attrition (Why Great Teachers Quit, and more recently, for Edutopia) and how schools can focus on increasing teacher agency, humanity, and wellness. Recently, I wrote about three more concepts that are often hidden, barely expressed, but consume more of teachers’ lives than ever.

They are emotional labor. Decision fatigue. And daily uncertainty. These ideas were not talked about much before the pandemic, and now, I think they are the main reasons teachers find themselves, like I did, unable to hold conversations with my spouse about schedule coordination at 8:30 pm, unable to to read directions on a Get Out the Vote action I wanted to do, and unable to even watch a TV show on a school night this past week.

The emotional labor of teaching in a pandemic has increased exponentially. For those of us teaching in person (and virtually too, come to think of it), we are on heightened alert emotionally, looking out for students’ mental and physical health. With parents and caregivers under significant stress, students are feeling this and are carrying it with them. Teachers have the constant labor of working to keep kids safe at school, with very high stakes. This looks like mask reminders, bathroom monitoring, material/supply management, and careful learning activity planning to safely social distance, or long screening processes.

We hear the whisper.. “If you mess this up, your students and their families could get sick”.

This conflicts with how much I want to help students, as I bend over to say, yes, you can take a break, yes, it is okay to feel scared/nervous/anxious/worried. And then there is the labor of constantly evaluating situations.. is this activity okay? Is this too close? Do we wear masks outside for this game? This lesson? Do I pick up that pencil or book? Do we share books in the classroom library? And then of course, how am I keeping my own family safe spins in the background. Consider teachers who are pregnant, or families that are fighting other illnesses, or preexisting conditions.

All of this combines to create decision fatigue, because teachers were already making thousands of decisions a day — and now– thousands more, with much higher stakes.

It is no wonder that you stare at the salad dressings for 15 minutes, in your sweaty mask, unable to decide. Or can’t fathom deciding what to make for dinner. Our decision making skills have been all used up.

And then there is the creeping uncertainty that chases teachers around like a small, aggressive, barking dog. It is the bark of: be ready to go virtual at any minute. Do you have what you need? Do you have all the materials? Because this building might get shut down at any second. Or your situation might change at any minute. So, be ready. The ground you stand on is not solid. And standing there is exhausting. Behind that is all the news, the stories, of sick teachers, of Covid closing schools, of new cases, a constant bark that unsettles, takes away sleep, and sets you off balance.

So, in all this coverage of teaching in a pandemic, consider the heavy toll emotional labor, decision fatigue, and massive uncertainty is taking on your teachers. It is an often untold story.

If you are a school leader, consider, how can you streamline communications, support your teachers’ wellness, and simplify their lives right now? How can you also do that for yourself?

Because it is only September. And we have only just begun.

Summer 2020 updates (remote learning + anti-racist resources)

You did it, #vted. For you, I share my deepest gratitude and jazz hands

It is a blazingly hot summer day. I’ve already spent some time in the river down the road, and quite possibly might go back again later today. It is one of those days where us Vermonters just melt. I’m so thankful for all of the places I can access water, shade and woods here.

In many ways it feels like years since I wrote the last post here, about remote learning resources in March, and the very quick pivot teachers, students and parents had to make. And now, we have been at this for months, and so much has happened.

My normal response to a crisis is to work, work, work. Try to be helpful, try to use the tools I have to assist in any way. And that is what I tried to do much of this spring and early summer. Over at the Tarrant Institute blog, we were all very busy trying to bring forth resources, posts, and tools that could help teachers and students through this challenging time. In case you missed any of these posts, here are a few:

Street art by Elly Budliger

The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ammaud Arbery, and the subsequent protests, brought into sharp focus the need to address anti-racism at all levels in schools. Of course this is not a new call. This time, though, more people than ever were reaching out, wanting to do better, to refuse to stay silent, to get involved. I have been reading, listening to, and following educators, scholars and activists of color. I am reminded by Ijeoma Oluo that this is our work.

“The next frontier is white people trying to dismantle the systems of racial oppression that benefit them. In a way, they’re the only ones who can do that. White people need to want racism gone.”

—-Ijeoma Oluo, White Lies: Ijeoma Oluo on Privilege, Power, and Race

Here are some of our recent posts about anti-racism, and here are several other super helpful resources, no matter where you are with this work.

Now, of course, we struggle with the unknown. How will we go back to school.. what it will look like. How will students, teachers and our families stay safe. It is a scary and overwhelming time. I myself am trying to take it one day at a time. One moment at a time. Each day, I start with meditating, even when I am antsy, unsettled, and with a full to-do list. That is probably when I need it most.

image by Kurt Budliger

And each day I am trying to notice things, like the red on the hummingbird’s neck that comes to our feeder. Or the yellow and black Tiger Swallowtail butterfly flitting around the yard. The light breeze on my skin, or the magic flashes of light from the fireflies at night.

What is keeping you grounded, and keeping you present? Wishing you and yours a safe, happy and relaxing summer, despite the barrage of news and challenges.

More soon. Poems and sketchnotes on recently read books. Stay safe and healthy.

Home Learning Resources + Support

Freshly created sketchnote on our currently reality.

First of all, sending wishes for love and health to you and your family. These are overwhelming times. The world feels out of control, big and scary. But I am also seeing so much love, humanity, and a return to focus on what really matters. Connecting (not literally) with each other, checking in to see how the folks we love are doing, and creating things that will make this time better for everyone.

Many had forgotten. I sure had. The slowing down, the news, the changing reality, has put into sharp focus the goal of helping others and caring for loved ones.

I saw that an author and person I greatly admire, Kate Messner, was gathering videos of authors reading aloud their books for kids who are now learning at home. First, I thought, I can do that! The salamander season is soon to begin. Then I thought, ugh, I have to change from my PJs! I have to face the video camera. I know nothing about video!

Read Aloud of Salamander Sky by Katy Farber and Meg Sodano

Well, how many things are we doing right now that feel hard? And this isn’t even hard! Just hitting record and fiddling a bit. So, along with my sneezing cat, I recorded a video of me reading Salamander Sky, which was illustrated by the incredible Meg Sodano and published by Green Writers Press. We have many resources to extend learning about the salamander (and amphibian) migration!

There is an educator’s guide which has a letter from me, plans for project-based learning, science learning, discussion questions, and multi-media resources. Meg has created some fabulous visual resources including this coloring page of a vernal pool, and this identification guide for spotted salamanders. Please be in touch with any questions that your kids might have!

Also, we have been busy posting on the Tarrant Institute for Innovation blog resources for educators suddenly pivoting to distance and remote learning. We now have a homepage with resources for remote learning.

We also have fresh posts based on educator’s requests and needs:

This padlet of resources I created is full of resources for educators (and families) as well.

In addition, on Facebook I have been sharing publicly the many resources I see for families to help with at home learning. The same goes for Twitter. I have been retweeting all of the incredible resources and opportunities for virtual learning I have seen.

If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. I’d love to see those finished coloring pages, and I will certainly stream when the migration begins! We are in this together and it is showing us what is important, and the work we have to do to create more just, equitable, and humane systems. Sending love and good health your way.