As the virus that shut the world down seems to be in retreat, I see clients and colleagues returning to their workplaces. It’s good to be coming back. But what recovery work do we now face?
Through the research for our book WHOLE and its coincidental release in March 2020, I saw we were about to enter a period beyond most leaders’ understanding and bandwidth. So, I reached out to Dr. Jeff Jernigan, a renowned expert in PTSD and burnout. Since April 2020, we have helped various organizations to understand and prepare for the psychological implications.
The Lasting Impact of a Mass Disaster
While most administrators are working hard to make schools safe, too many remain unaware of the pandemic’s present and future psychological impact.
Dr. Jernigan and other mental health professionals have studied the impact of trauma from mass disasters. They know the resulting wounds can last for decades. They also understand trauma changes gene expression, and that change can last up to four generations. What does that mean for children who lost a year of learning? What does that do to the cognitive muscle tone and rhythms essential for our education system?
Before the pandemic, 4 percent of the population was estimated to suffer post-traumatic stress. When we return, 30 percent of our workforce will know PTSD! Those numbers are incomprehensible.
I initially found pandemic-related trauma hard to accept because my reference point centered on military and first responder PTSD. I was wrong. The brain interprets stressors, regardless of origin, the same way. Have you ever been frozen by fear—racing heart, hyperventilating, dry mouth, agitation, and foggy brain? The trigger may have been a flashing red light in your rearview mirror, hearing a sinister diagnosis from your doctor, getting fired, losing a loved one, or any other severe emotional blow.
Whatever the source, your fight-or-flight response was automatic. You had no control over it. For most of us, we settle down and go on with life after such an experience. For others, however, trauma forms a pattern called a default-mode network. And that mode functions as a script or an algorithm. Once triggered, the script launches a continuous and unstoppable loop.
We Can’t Pick up Where We Left Off
The impact of the global pandemic has changed everyone and everything. We are not the same people we were before the pandemic. It’s like high school reunions. At my class’s tenth reunion, my classmates looked and felt familiar. We shared high school memories as if time had stopped. My thirtieth reunion revealed the big shift. Some brought grandkids, Ferraris, second or third spouses, bald heads, and terminal diseases. Our lives had shot off into different orbits around different planets. No way could we just “pick up where we left off.”
If you dig below the surface of those returning to the office after a year of quarantine, the gap may be more like my thirtieth high school reunion than a return from vacation. We will need time and processes to reintroduce ourselves, rebuild connections, rewire new languages, and establish trust. As much as we want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, that’s not how our emotions work.
We can’t pick up where we left off, but we can share our stories. In fact, sharing the spaces and graces of our lives often starts the healing process.
The Power of Your Story and Peer-to-Peer Support
In 2013, I witnessed the power of social-emotional literacy at the Momentous Institute in Dallas. That led to a deeper understanding of student abuse and trauma. It also led me to Will Richey, one of the leading practitioners of peer-to-peer support. Will is the co-founder of Journeyman INK, an organization that guides students through a healing process by embracing and telling their stories in the form of spoken word poetry. I took good notes from my conversations with Will because I suspected that social-emotional literacy also applies to our cultural moment.
Here is what I learned: peer-to-peer support first creates a safe space for stories and those who tell them. The storytelling format includes seven stages of emotional processing:
- What did you experience?
- How did it feel?
- How did it affect you?
- How are you doing now?
- How have you changed?
- What concerns you about your future?
- What do you hope for?
Those elements not only bring closure but also lead to crafting a new and positive narrative. You know what happens when you push two magnets together. Depending on their polarities, they will either fuse or recoil. I’ve seen this peer-to-peer process help realign the polarities of injury, trauma, and shame so that all the pieces of the story suddenly flow into an integrated and whole life. And it works in corporate America just as it does for traumatized children.
I was a presenter and attendee at the Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) in 2019 in San Antonio. The next iteration of this event, Converge 2022, next March in San Diego, offers a much-needed opportunity to ask your colleagues and friends these questions, and to answer them in return. Sharing your story and providing peer-to-peer support within the space of Converge can be part of the healing process from the trauma of the past year and a half.
Take Care of the Caregivers
Through our research for our book WHOLE, we learned thattaking care of the students begins with taking care of teachers. That is known as the caregiver’s dilemma: if my job is to put others first, that must mean I come last. Let me challenge you with what Dr. John Gasko, former Dean of the School of Education for the University of North Texas at Dallas, told our research team:
“We have to change our mental health framework from a ‘disease’ mentality to one of building wholeness, strength, optimism, and resilience. If the teacher isn’t healthy and happy, her compromised presence and state will transmit to every student. And, if the system within the school and with the community isn’t healthy and supportive, it is an uphill battle for everyone. Only the resilient and the heroic will survive.”
We will recover and reenter. But doing so will require new levels of cooperation with, and care for, those around us. Our faith in God and our love for one another form the foundation from which to build resilience. The text is ancient, but St. Paul’s words read like they were written to us. Here. Today: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3–5NLT).
In this new rebuilding season, we will need endurance that comes from faith—especially because there is no predictable timeline for a full recovery. Christian schools hold one of the most pivotal positions in society as a witness of the power of learning for healing within a caring community. That’s why returning to our schools is a heroic undertaking. As I wrote in my latest WHOLE, “Education is a habitat for heroes. And what would you expect? Teaching tackles and fulfills one of the more foundational and primordial purposes of civilization. Teachers prepare children for adulthood and careers. More than that they preserve the social order.”
In other words, teachers and educators keenly appreciate the new challenges we face in preparing children for adulthood and preserving the social order. I feel confident that we can rise to the challenge by remembering we must get there together.