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No One Is Actually Learning Because We Are All Grieving

With several weeks of the coronavirus hitting the U.S. like a freight train on a country-wide mission that has suddenly derailed its entire cargo system, we’ve felt the jarring impact on almost every level: physically, economically, mentally, psychosocially, emotionally, and spiritually.  

The physical impact is heart breaking as the death rates around the world increase, and the rest of us continue to quarantine and isolate ourselves in our homes, social distance from others in public, and do exactly what humans aren’t supposed to do – not be around each other. 

It Feels Like A War-zone Inside

As if that’s not hard enough, the emotional and psychosocial impact has created a war zone inside of each of us. 

Some of us are talking about it. 

Some of us aren’t. 

Still others are in deep denial. 

While this invisible enemy reaches its violent hand across the world, educators have turned their classrooms and schools into overnight virtual learning centers. 

It’s admirable. 

It’s inspiring. 

But, it’s also troublesome in a sense. 

Some Perspective Taking

Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of those educators that turned my mindfulness classroom into a virtual classroom overnight. 

I personally was excited for the challenge, because I love growing and I love my work educating youth. It keeps me steady in the unsteadiness.

The first week in, after several team zoom meetings, I started to share an experience about my day, and completely unexpectedly, I couldn’t get my words out in a coherent fashion.

Instead, I cried, like the kind of cry that makes your face red, your nose snotty, and your chest heave. 

I realized that I was no longer enjoying the challenge, at least in that moment, or perhaps even that day. 

Everything felt extremely overwhelming.

As I hid my face from the computer camera, dropping my head in embarrassment that I didn’t have it together, I realized, almost in a weary kind of relief, that I have felt this biting, needle-pricking feeling before. 

Hitting An Emotional Wall

I took a deep sigh and wiped my eyes clear. “Oh, no, this is grief and it just hit me really hard”, I whispered to myself. 

Upon this unpleasant realization and after releasing such a strong emotion over the interwebs, I shared with my team that I wasn’t just upset or sad, but I was grieving.

Truth be told, I still am grieving. A lot. 

I haven’t lost anyone personally, at least yet, from the virus. 

But, because of the virus, I have lost a lot of things that bring me so much joy, such as teaching in my physical classroom each day and seeing my students in real time. 

Oh how my heart longs for these precious moments.

Feeling grief isn’t a new thing.

Many of us have felt grief before because we’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and special objects that are meaningful to us, but for the first time in my life I felt a kind of grief that I’ve never experienced. 

I’ve experienced individual grief many times.

However, it is the first time I’ve experienced collective grief at this level. 

That realization hit me hard. 

What has since ensued since that big emotional release with my team is an increase in grace and compassion for myself and others, particularly my students and their families, because we are teaching and learning and transforming schools into virtual hubs while we are all at war with a seemingly invisible enemy. 

It’s dizzying. 

It’s unsettling. 

It’s heartbreaking.

Trauma and Grief

At times it feels like, as my neuroscience teacher taught me about the impact of acute stress and trauma on our brain, that I’m having intermittent moments of a “trauma linked brain disorganization.”

It’s hard to focus, concentrate, and feel joy the way I did before all this happened.

While I’m still striving to cultivate joy with my team, students, and parents, it just feels different.

I know many of us are working so hard to make virtual teaching and learning accessible, challenging, and fun, but the more I allow myself to acknowledge these unpleasant feelings and the impact they are having on my mental and emotional energy, the more I realize that no one is actually learning, because we are all grieving

My students, they feel the loss, too. They feel it deeply.

And, certainly our students are learning and teachers are teaching, but not to the same degree and depth in which we were before this pandemic.

Sure, my students are very excited to be back in (virtual) school. I’m also very happy to still virtually connect with my students, parents, and teacher colleagues, because this work of teaching and learning, gives me, and I know for many of you reading this, life. 

There’s magic making that occurs in the physical classroom from the in-the-moment energetic exchange between students and teachers, and now those moments are gone without any clear understanding of when we will return together. 

Of course, they aren’t gone forever, but we don’t know how long. 

The level of uncertainty and loss in or current circumstances is hard.

Really hard. 

It’s also very challenging to process all of it – mentally and emotionally.

Post COVID-19 

The way the world was pre COVID-19 will never come back and we must settle into a new world reality post COVID-19 without knowing what that actually looks like. 

It’s also stressful and it’s painful. 

Right before COVID-19 hit our community in Houston, Texas I was teaching my students a unit about the science of the brain. 

A thumbnail sketch of the inner workings of our mind may be helpful as we continue to teach and learn virtually in this pandemic war-zone affecting the entire world, because it reminds us what we all really need to focus on right now.

Key-point: when we are stressed, particularly in acute stress, we aren’t really learning because our ability to intake and process information is completely disorganized.

It’s Hard To Learn When We Don’t Feel Safe

Moreover, our safety, perhaps even the perceived notion of our safety, has been highly compromised, which sends our stress response system in overdrive. 

You may feel like I shared earlier that it’s hard to focus and concentrate, and that your emotions feel like they are on the “rona coaster”, experiencing highs and lows from moment-to-moment, day-to-day. 

Perhaps you just feel a bit “off” and you can’t seem to put your finger on it. Whatever you may be feeling and experiencing from the effect of the pandemic on your mental and emotional health, you are likely just feeling really different

That’s the “trauma linked brain disorganization” I referred to earlier. 

When our stress response system is activated, it’s because we don’t feel safe – whether it’s real or perceived. Our brain doesn’t discriminate.

Many of us, especially our students and families we serve, particularly if you teach in communities classified as “low socio-economic status”, don’t feel safe right now. 

This pandemic has shaken our fundamental sense of safety.

Viscerally, we may feel this unease in the core of our being to the way we do everyday life. 

Stress Response System

The behaviors that transpire from this state can cause further trauma and stress unless we become aware of how the stress cycle works and have tools to practice during moments of acute stress, such as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As I have explained, the stress response system (activated in the adrenal system, think cortisol and adrenline) is activated when we don’t feel safe.

When that happens two centers in our brain that work together to create a sense of harmony, peace, and equilibrium, and give us a sense of control in the world, no longer work together. 

Generally speaking, the pre-frontal cortex (what I call the “green zone” with my students) that is responsible for planning and thinking is no longer communicating to the region of the brain that is responsible for emotional responses – the amygdala (what I call the “red zone”). 

When the red zone and green zone aren’t working together, it’s a dangerous mix and we can make many mistakes, including not being able to regulate our intense emotions.

Whether we realize it or not, this pandemic has activated our amygdala to be on high alert that there is danger and we must act swiftly to stay safe (perhaps like hoarding toilet paper and non-perishables). 

When our amygdala is triggered, there’s no reasoning with the person. We cannot reason anyone into a more focused, calm action.

Remember – in this state we are disconnected from the very brain center that helps us with rational thought. 

Processing The Intense Emotions

The intense emotion must be acknowledged first, then regulated.  

We also have to process the emotion, and finally release it.

When we are grieving, we are experiencing a strong emotion and our amygdala is triggered. In that state we are not fully connected to our green zone. 

We often feel off balance, not like ourselves, foggy thinking, and just hard to focus on anything for a long period of time. 

The green zone is the area of the brain we use most in school for teaching and learning.

Virtual Teaching Within Acute Stress 

Now, let’s add into this mix that we are all teaching and learning in this new context, along with having multiple family members of various ages at home for long stretches of time without many options to break up the emotional friction.

On top of that (as if that weren’t enough, right?) we are learning a completely new way of teaching and learning that most of us are doing for the very first time.

That’s a lot of mental, emotional, and psychosocial dynamics at play!

It takes a lot of focus and concentration to learn new skills, which right now in the pandemic context we must ration for other things like appropriately taking care of ourselves and our families. 

So, if you feel like one task takes forever, you are not alone.

We are stressed. We are worried. We are anxious. 

And, we are grieving – individually and collectively. 

Remember to give yourself, your students, parents, and your team plenty of grace, empathy, and compassion. 

Setting new virtual expectations are vital.

However, it’s a disservice to our mental health, and the mental health of our students, if we try to impose the same expectations we had pre COVID-19. 

Certainly, different contexts require different expectations and guidelines. 

We aren’t going to be bringing the same level of emotional energy and mental focus to what we do, and neither are our students and parents. 

Adaptation to a New Normal 

We must give our brain time to adapt to the warzone we are all navigating. 

Many educators are already doing what educators do best – simply being there for our students and parents, and loving them with a lot of tenderness, care, and concern.    

That’s what they need more than ever right now. Our phone calls, text messages, zoom chats and dances, and virtual spirit days and challenges show students that you are there for them no matter what. 

These small acts of love and connection not only feel amazing, but they signal our stress response system out of high alert and help us feel safe and seen again. 

Deeply breathing and moving are imperative right now too, because these tools help move the intense emotions many of us are experiencing in high doses out of our body and mind.

Giving plentiful opportunities for our unpleasant emotions to move, gives us space for the green zone and red zone to be activated, and to work together again. 

The rigorous teaching and learning will come. 

What We Need More Than Anything In Eduction Right Now

Show up and love. Do it a lot right now. We all need it. 

When we do this, we will create our best new normal while giving our brain and heart time to adapt to the stressful context. 

We must fully grieve to create something new and spectacular. 

When WE do this, we give our kids permission to do the same.

We are grieving the loss of a world we’ve known for a long time while simultaneously reimagining a new one, for ourselves and our students.

This process will take space and time.  

It’s the education we all need right now, and by doing this we are truly BEING together by staying apart. 


In my next piece I’ll share specific mindful breathing and movement tools to cope with acute stress. 

Photo Credits: Karim Mantra, Unsplash


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