Riding the Wave: Managing Uncertainty Personally and Professionally

Categories: Teaching
July 10, 2020

Now is a time when I’m grateful I’ve talked to my kids about mixed feelings. They like being home with me, but miss their friends. They are relishing our nature walks, but missing swimming. You’re probably experiencing similar complexities. We’re all navigating an extraordinary range of emotions, often several at once, many of them feelings we generally prefer to avoid. This mass of emotions is amplified by the loss of our routines and rituals, which in “normal” times provide a sense of predictability and confidence in the world as we perceive it.

In becoming a teacher educator, I’ve reflected a lot on my discomfort with uncertainty and with change which I don’t initiate. Even for my friends and colleagues who thrive on change, 2020 has been a crash course in dealing with uncertainty. A young woman I coached during her PEBC Residency year recently reached out, concerned about planning for virtual learning and how she’ll maintain her classroom management skills. As she shared her worries about what the coming year may bring, I realized she was struggling with the same challenge most of us are: How do we engage with uncertainty? Here’s some of the strategies I’m turning toward as we all navigate this essential question.

Take care of your base. Many of us try to do really hard work without adequate self-care. We push ourselves, especially during the school year, forgetting we are human too. Managing significant uncertainty is hard enough when we’re balanced and rejuvenated. So if you’re worried and overwhelmed, physical and emotional well-being is the place to start. I ask myself questions like: What might you need most right now, and how can you start small? With working and parenting concurrently the last few months, I’ve been feeling short on sleep, so I’m aiming to be off technology by 9 p.m. and in bed before 10:00. For others, self-care might look like connecting virtually with trusted friends or taking a daily walk. It’s easy to delay well-being practices in favor of productivity, but that’s also like white water rafting without a helmet or life jacket. If you’re lucky enough to make it through, you’re going to get pretty banged up.

Act from your values. In her PEBC blog, Sustaining Classroom Community Amidst Uncertainty, PEBC lab host Shawna Jensen named the classroom elements she wanted to prioritize and retain as she transitioned her students to online learning earlier this spring. She modeled an important process we can also engage in for our personal lives. In times of greater or lesser uncertainty, gaining clarity about the values we want guiding our lives can support our emotional well-being. This process can also help us set aside tasks which, upon reflection, we realize don’t align with our goals, freeing energy and time for value-driven efforts. The strategy is cultivating a bit more simplicity in my daily life, helping me refrain from fussing and my kids about our messy house and instead focus on sharing these strategies.

Among your concerns, discern what you can control and what you can influence. Often uncertainty triggers a sense of powerlessness and blocks us from effective action. In response I’m returning to regular use of a reflective tool that has been a significant stress management resource for me. The “Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence” model, which I first encountered in Stephen Covey’s work, supports us in identifying concerns and then naming realistic and feasible action steps. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, through identifying which concerns I can influence, I experience agency. Even though our neighborhood pool will remain closed, I can find other ways for my kids to enjoy their summer. I can’t singlehandedly reduce the negative impact of COVID-19 on our state’s budget for K-12 education, but I can continue to educate myself and others about school financing in Colorado. Elena Aguilar has a great graphic here if you choose to try this strategy.

Recognize your strengths. Often when I’m coaching teacher residents through a situation where they feel stuck and overwhelmed, I ask them to recall a time when they overcame a significant difficulty and to name the skills and strategies which saw them through. In the midst of disillusionment or overwhelm, this question can shift teachers’ sense of efficacy, helping them recall their successes and intentionally transfer those skills to their present challenge. How might it support you right now to list your strengths or reflect on other challenges you’ve overcome? As professionals and in all the other roles we live, we each have multiple capacities to draw from as we navigate the realities of COVID-19 and the need to work for equity in American society.

Get curious and creative. Even though it can be very uncomfortable when our daily rituals and routines are significantly disrupted, we can also use these situations as an opportunity to generate new solutions. For me, figuring out how to work and solo parent from home full-time has depended on being creative. I’m trying to further demonstrate curiosity by consciously asking my kids about their current needs and concerns, inviting their perspectives, and listening well. One result: I’ve decided that eight is a great age to learn to cook dinner, since I can easily supervise from my “office” at the kitchen table. It frees time for me and helps my kids learn crucial life skills. In studies of the creative process, the ways an initial problem is defined have been shown to strongly limit the resulting solutions. By broadening how we define a challenge itself, we can individually and collectively create a more expansive range of solutions. The box we are familiar with has been rained on and stomped flat. We have opportunities to build new boxes or dispense with them entirely.

I have not been able to confirm if this quote originated with Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” but I am finding myself drawn to it more than ever. We like to think that we have more control than we do, even in times when society isn’t in the throes of significant (and much needed) change. One of the practices which remains within our control is how we choose to respond. For the sake of both our professional commitments and our personal needs, let’s dedicate ourselves to social and emotional wellness practices that help us ride these waves.

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