Loss, Burnout, and (Not) Moving On

By Lynn Mandeltort, CTE Assistant Director, and Liz Ramirez-Weaver, CAPS Licensed Clinical Social Worker

CTE Assistant Director Lynn Mandeltort (PhD) and UVA Engineering psychotherapist Liz Ramirez-Weaver (LCSW) discuss what the ambiguous loss of the last year looks like from the faculty and student perspectives, and what this means for (not) moving on in the classroom. We will consider some of the factors affecting both instructors and students, and look for concrete classroom application of ideas that Liz sees affecting her student clients.

Lynn MandeltortLiz Ramirez-WeaverThroughout March, U.S. media were flooded with pandemic anniversary notices and think pieces. Usually anniversaries mark time: in the case of birthdays, they can signal more joy to come or acknowledge lives in the midst of being lived; in recovery and grief they help us see that we’ve successfully traversed a memorable or difficult chapter and signal our strength to keep going. For the pandemic though, we are still actively living ambiguous losses, those without closure, without gatherings to mark the time or to fully, humanly, instinctually recognize our grief. We hope this post does not serve to remind readers of ongoing pain and incompleteness. Instead, we offer a set of observations through a therapist’s lens that can inform how we continue to cope and also make plans for the future. How can we both move on and not move on at the same time? How can an understanding of individual loss and grief inform our teaching and classrooms as we (do not) return to normal?

First, a note from the traditional conceptions of faculty and student roles at the university: faculty and student perspectives on teaching and learning can mirror each other. Rhetoric often positions students and teachers as discrete and irreconcilable, perhaps in perfectly opposing roles, irrefutable hierarchy, or yin and yang. But faculty and students are human, members of this university community, and have lived many of the same losses, stresses, and traumas of this year. Liz (Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselor) and Lynn (CTE assistant director) sat down to discuss the convergence of student and faculty well-being in the classroom.

In our conversation, Liz noted that her almost two decades of professional experience and training hadn’t directly prepared her for this moment: “I’ve never lived during a pandemic. There’s no pandemic theory from graduate school that I can call upon,” as she worked with students in a frontline capacity. Liz’s pockets are deep with empathy. She’s spent years practicing mindfulness and self-care to buoy the weighty work of counseling students struggling with mental health concerns and consulting with faculty and administrators in the engineering school. Entering our conversation, she emphasized that her daily “practice of mindfulness and self care has been developed for many years” and still leaves her feeling like this ongoing work is unsustainable. The CTE team, which collectively lept into action as the university called for emergency remote teaching last March, was similarly positioned. With multiple decades of experience among the 8 CTE faculty, we’ve faced the same basic premise—we’ve never lived or worked during a pandemic. We’re not completely sure how to do this. We all feel like we each are in uncharted waters.

Yet, recognizing that our own individual struggles are also a collective experience triggers a sense of guilt in some folks. Liz sees this repeatedly in her appointments with students, who say, “Everyone is struggling, so why is my struggle special?” She says some students feel like they don’t deserve to have their struggle recognized, and many try to go it alone, pursuing their work independently and without asking for help. This individual shouldering of intense experiences is mirrored at the faculty level. By and large, instructors have adapted to the dynamic situation with efforts that border on self-sacrificing and heroic, learning new technologies and redesigning course websites, and swimming in a sea of new skills with steep learning curves and hundreds of hours of work that will never be fully reflected in their promotion and tenure dossiers. 

Somehow, amidst an already rampant culture of burnout and/or demoralization, educators gave even more. For a lot of students, though, it simply wasn’t (and isn’t) what they needed. At the intersection of faculty and student stress, we see the shared consequences of burnout, demoralization, and persistent mental stress. Faculty efforts to be accessible may backfire for students who are experiencing depression or malaise. For courses that don’t offer substantive synchronous engagement, students may delay watching recordings or doing asynchronous work, and it piles up and ceases to matter. By the same token, an overly flexible schedule where “anything goes” or requires students to make too many choices can overwhelm students and fill faculty inboxes with queries to address the logistics of individual but similar situations.

We know this in-betweenness or duality is affecting us as well as our students, so how can we help them while helping ourselves? How might Liz’s advice resonate with instructors in the classroom, in addition to the students in her Zoom office? Here we share the counseling advice resulting from common student struggles (Liz’s clients) and apply it to the faculty perspective (Lynn’s clients).


1.

LIZ: Be honest about “where you’re at.” Grief is not linear. Sometimes we take a step forward toward acceptance only to shortly thereafter take a step back.

LYNN: Structured policies and assessment approaches that allow students to adjust their commitments across time (such as the “tokens” feature in specifications grading) can help them focus their efforts when they think they are more receptive. At the same time, transparency with assignment design and classroom policies alleviates a small part of the uncertainty that we’ve all felt over the last year.

For your own bandwidth, set up boundaries for grading and email. Try “lightly graded” and low stakes opportunities to provide students with feedback. Have predictable ways for students to deal with common questions and seek information from each other (such as a clearly used Discussion forum) to minimize email inbox overflow. Train TAs to deal with common scenarios, and set expectations for clear lines of communication.


2.

LIZ: Apply the “both-and” principle in your day-to-day mindset. This approach is captured in the title of this piece. In some situations, it will feel like we are moving on—making plans to be back in the classroom or attending sports events—but we are also still grieving the losses of the last year and not ready to move on. Both can be true.

LYNN: Have your course be “both-and.” Consider a deliberate mix of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for students to engage with you and the course, and with each other. The synchronous components help students feel connected and accountable, while the asynchronous provide some flexibility.  


3.

LIZ: Leverage what is under your control, do what you can, and validate. Stay away from “should have, could have, would have” statements. Validate and acknowledge your own experiences.

LYNN: For your classroom, focus on what you can do with your strengths and resources. It might be different than what someone else can do. You don’t have to be a Hollywood-style movie editor for your course recordings; you shouldn’t be a counselor or therapist. Notice where you can address issues with a group, course, or systems perspective (e.g., direct a group of students, not just individuals, to seek academic support; embed connections into your classroom with in-class TAs; include guest presentations from student peer mentors). It’s not all on the professor to do the work of support—they can tag other people to help and check in (see #6 below about networks).

For yourself, validate and acknowledge your own experiences as a teacher. Teaching over the last year may have been extremely difficult or even disappointing. A part of your identity may have been tied to seeing students' smiles in the lecture hall, and maybe your past two semesters teaching didn’t live up to your own internal standards. Accepting these imperfections as real and valid is a step toward righting yourself as an educator. With the “both-and” principle (#2 above) you can be both a mediocre teacher and an excellent teacher.


4.

LIZ: “Build your resilience capacity.” Find ways to make small additions to your “resilience bank account” to absorb the impacts of adversity, and gradually build them over time. This is particularly difficult for perfectionists and self-described high achievers.

LYNN: For your students, scaffolding assignments is a great way to help them build confidence and motivation. Rather than one big project, have students complete smaller concrete assignments that can add up to a larger task. For yourself, if you’re feeling depleted, one way forward is to impart a capacity for hope in others. In this piece, Mays Imads suggests how to “take helplessness and transform it into something active, resistive and restorative.”


5.

LIZ: Notice that this ongoing situation disproportionately affects people who are marginalized in our community. As many people move on, getting vaccinated, tending to their social lives, and returning to normal-ish work lives, others will continue to experience isolation and suffer from financial loss. This especially includes folks with disabilities, low-income families, and immigrants. Travel restrictions mean some international students have not seen their families for over a year, and may be physically exhausted trying to connect with loved ones across multiple time zones, while also working and studying in the local time zone. 

LYNN: A mix of synchronous and asynchronous components will be helpful to students trying to work across time zones and juggling multiple responsibilities. In general, instructors have the ongoing obligation of always trying to see and address inequities in our learning environments. Are there alternatives or multiple modalities for students to access learning and complete assignments? The framework of universal design can be helpful here.

The summer of Black Lives Matter protests and increasing publicity of anti-Asian violence have left many students, faculty, and community members feeling vulnerable, marginalized, or alone. Notice the ways that your courses are situated at a primarily white institution, and how this impacts students and colleagues with minoritized identities. Share information about student affinity groups and work to amplify or re-center voices (e.g., students, writers, scholars) that historically may be pushed to the margins.


6.

LIZ: Use and sustain your networks. Don’t go through this alone.

LYNN: For your course activities, take some of the pressure off of yourself to be the sole proprietor of disciplinary knowledge and create conditions for students to connect. Consider approaches like peer-led learning and structured group discussions. 

Don’t let those “student help” and “academic support” sections of your syllabus languish—refer to them regularly and earnestly, connect students with them, and be deliberate about including those faces and names to enrich your students’ learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. For example, instructors in the engineering school are encouraged to take the first 60 seconds of every class meeting to point to specific support services, often coupled with brief guest appearances so students actually see and know other faces in the school. You can create the conditions in your classrooms for students to build and learn through their networks.

For your own well-being, notice where your network and university resources can make a difference. Are you on a committee that can influence structural change? Do you have TAs who can help you create activities for your courses? What about colleagues who can share insights and materials from similar (or the same) courses? 


Throughout our conversation, Liz and Lynn returned to the central theme of acknowledgement and nonlinearity. We, along with our students, have some good days and some bad. This work is ongoing, and we make a practice of leaving room for occasional backtracking in our professional units. Here in Charlottesville, the Lawn is transforming back to its verdant green and pollen is beginning to dust the bricks along the East Range. As we put together courses for summer and fall, devise and redesign new curricula, we aren’t moving on. But we are.

 

References and resources

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