For the first time in her decade of teaching, Coral Zayas is eating lunch every day. It may sound small, but for her, it’s a major victory. “I don't normally eat three meals a day, because I'm usually working and don't even think about it,” Zayas said in September. In addition to her new lunch routine, Zayas, who teaches STEM and social studies at a public school in Leander, Texas, has set a regular time when she turns off her computer at night. “I'm working really hard to put what is in my brain of what balance looks like into reality,” she said.
“Balanced” is not a word that many educators would use to describe how they feel in 2020. Even before COVID-19, recent studies found that 93% of elementary school teachers and 94% of middle school teachers experience high stress. Add to that a pandemic, upheaval in job duties and ongoing social unrest, and you’ve got plenty to worry mental health professionals. “We were in crisis a year ago, and now the house is on fire,” said Michelle Kinder, a licensed professional counselor and co-author of "WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive."
With that backdrop, how has Zayas managed to prioritize her well being more than any other time in her career? In large part, she attributes it to the support and connection she’s found with other educators. She is part of a group of Texas teachers that formed as a short-term response to school closings last spring and who are now leaning on each other to stay resilient as the pandemic persists.
Filling the gas tank
In March, Zayas volunteered to facilitate a teacher support group organized by Teach Plus Texas, an organization that trains teachers for policy leadership and advocacy. The support group met twice weekly in the spring. When summer arrived, some members wanted to keep it going. They decided to read "Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators" by Elena Aguilar together.
The book follows a June to May calendar and includes an accompanying workbook. Each month Zayas and up to seven other teachers meet via Zoom to discuss key takeaways from the last chapter, share what’s going on in their classrooms, and reflect on what they need from themselves or others to be well. That last part is an important part of mental health, according to Kinder, who has worked with educators in individual counseling and at large-scale trainings she led as executive director of the Momentous Institute.