Why chocolates and tissues?
Let me be honest, I have a HUGE sweet tooth. Chocolates usually make me feel better when I am having a rough day. I extend that same solution to my co-workers and students. I have a nice seating area in my office that I have told students they can use if they need a quiet place to get away from everything for a bit or if they need to vent about their frustrations. Of course, with covid-19 there are new social distancing requirements in place. I cannot even count how many times I have people “drop by” for a chocolate and to ask for advice about this or that. This goes for faculty and students.
I have my “regulars” who stop by weekly to check in with me. I have the “occasionals” who stop by only to ask a question about an exam or an assignment. I have the “co-workers” who stop by to troubleshoot an idea for a lesson plan or lecture. And, once in a while I have someone from outside my department stop by for chocolate because they heard I have them in my office.
The tissues usually come out with the students who have requested a short meeting which ultimately turns into an hour or more discussion in which they share their anxieties and begin to cry. I am a psych nurse, and they know they can talk to me. I have a good rapport with the director of our campus counseling center, and I have referred certain students to make appointments to really get to the core of their anxiety. I have even had a few students ask if I provide therapy. While I am flattered that they feel comfortable talking with me I always tell them I cannot be their therapist but am always happy to listen and refer as needed.
The current pandemic has added an additional level of stress to all that we do both professionally and personally. Students left for spring break and then were told that all courses would be going online for the remainder of the semester. Faculty were given an extra week between spring break and resuming the semester to transition their courses to the Blackboard format we use for online learning. For faculty such as myself, this was extra work but not the end of the world. For faculty who are not comfortable with Blackboard or who have never taught online before this was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool when you don’t know how to swim. My university has been wonderfully supportive by frequently providing positive feedback and support so that everyone could move forward smoothly. As we begin the fall semester, we have a mix of online and face-to-face courses, with many social distancing and safety practices in place. While most students are happy to be back on campus with their peers, there is still a feeling that we are on tenuous ground. We understand that things can change very quickly if we start to see a spike in covid-19 cases on campus.
My mental health nursing course is a first-semester course taught in a flipped classroom style. I am passionate about the subject matter so it felt like I couldn’t teach everything I wanted to when the semester was shortened by a week and switched to online learning. I had to look at my syllabus and determine what topics needed to be kept, what topics could be reduced, and how to turn a flipped classroom into a totally online format, while still meeting my course objectives. I also had to consider the students’ stress levels and how I could reach them virtually. I changed my assignments and made sure that I had really clear instructions. I also scheduled weekly Collaborate sessions as a way to touch base with my students.
What I found surprising was that only a small core group of students regularly attended the weekly Collaborate sessions. Was it just me who needed to see that my students were doing okay in the midst of social distancing? One week I had no one attend, so I canceled the next week’s session, making myself available for any student who wanted to meet individually. My last session was a course review prior to the final exam.
I discovered that the students who were having a really rough time reached out to me and asked for extra help. They e-mailed, texted and called me. I scheduled individual Collaborate sessions with them to do exam reviews, clarify assignment instructions even further and offer what support I could as they missed their on-campus routines. These were the students who stated that they preferred face-to-face classes. They were the ones who felt more motivated by being with their peers. Many of these students needed help with time management as they reported not changing out of their pajamas for several days or feeling a lack of drive to get schoolwork completed. If I didn’t hear from these particular students, I made sure I e-mailed them with a short “check-in” to ask how they were doing. I did this with my second and fourth semester students as well, as I already knew that some of them have underlying anxiety even in pre-pandemic times.
My favorite Collaborate session was one in which we all introduced our pets to one another. Course questions had already been answered when my cat jumped up onto my desk. I introduced him and then it was like a chain reaction. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy meeting a pet? One student had just gotten a puppy and everyone “oohed” and “aahed” at how cute he was. In those minutes, the airwaves between us didn’t matter. We were socializing and laughing. It felt great to be with my students at the moment.
My co-workers were not forgotten in my efforts to connect with people during the spring semester. We had frequent emails and phone calls. One of my co-worker friends is our college’s Instructional Designer. She and I had a Collaborate coffee break one day. It was great to see her smiling face and just have a regular conversation once again. I helped a few of my friends get their exams loaded into Blackboard as I am so used to doing it that it doesn’t take me long to complete the task, yet for them, it seemed overwhelming. I also was contacted by the director of our university counseling center and asked if I would like to do some sort of webinar for our campus. I lead a faculty/staff relaxation webinar. Is there something you have done or could do to help others through these tough times? Do you have a stress-reducing idea you would like to share in the comments below?
When I have students come to me in a panic because they are feeling overwhelmed, I try to offer some stress-reducing tips that are easy to use. I found that in the last eight weeks of the spring semester I was needing to use some of those tips myself. I am going to share some of those tips with you so that you can suggest them to your students and co-workers.
Tip 1: Everyone gets stressed. Remember that none of us is above getting stressed from time to time. I have a PowerPoint slide in my first mental health lecture that contains just a horizontal line with the question, “What is this?” I always stump my students. They look at me like I have two heads and say, “A line?” I tell them it is the fine line between good and poor mental health. Then I remind them that anyone can be on either side of that line given one tipping circumstance. Right now, that tipping point could be the sense of isolation many people are feeling. I tell them it is okay to ask for help and give them the contact information for the university counseling center.
Tip 2: Belly breathing. Begin by lying down or sitting comfortably. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Imagine your stomach is a bellows. Take a long breath in through your nose and feel that breath going all the way down into your belly. Think of the way an infant breathes with their tummy doing the work. Try to keep your chest as still as possible. As you inhale pay attention to expanding your stomach. Slowly exhale the air out through your mouth as you concentrate on retracting your stomach. Repeat this for five to 10 minutes a day. This exercise can be done anytime you are feeling stressed. It gets easier the more you practice. Performing belly breaths has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease stress, decrease blood glucose levels, and improve lung strength (Elkaim, n.d.).