The Highs and Lows of Educating During a Pandemic

Susan Vachon

Last week my son sat at the kitchen table while the CBC played the dulcet tones of Dr. Henry in the background. He looked up from his homework and said, “You know, my life is pretty good right now. I am going to school and playing sports. The only real loss is I can’t see my grandparents or go to Mexico but I definitely still don’t like the constant reminder that COVID is lurking in the background ready to pounce.” I must admit his observation pretty much sums up my thoughts.

Each morning, Director Richard Brambley and I stand at the doors of the Middle School and greet our masked students while reminding them to sanitize their hands. This new ritual is a blessing. I love seeing the students and starting my day this way. And with each day that passes I am more aware of how lucky we have been so far. Each night I express this gratitude that we are still learning together. Yet despite starting and ending each day with these joyful daily practices, my weeks also have periods of fatigue, anxiousness and serious introversion that are more pronounced since the start of the pandemic.

As a self-identified navel gazer, I like to get curious about why I am feeling the way I am. I informally poll friends and colleagues about how they are feeling, and I read and listen to podcasts seeking solace in shared experience. A recent article by Tara Haelle in Elemental seemed to be written for me. In this article, Haelle speaks of the side effects of the pandemic falling into the category of “ambiguous loss” which is particularly difficult for people who take great pride in efficiency, routine and who enjoy problem solving – uh-oh! She also writes about the concept of depleted “surge-capacity.” Humans have built-in adaptive systems for short-term survival of very stressful situations, such as a hurricane, but are less well physiologically well-equipped to deal with chronic ongoing emergencies. Our capacity becomes depleted and is difficult to renew.

So, in an informal survey of the Middle School faculty room it was not surprising that many of us have developed a new routine of changing into our pajamas as soon as we get home and spending our evenings in an uncharacteristic unproductive state. There’s not much juice left in the battery. In a recent Grade 6 meeting, I asked the students to close their eyes and raise their hands if they had been teary in the evenings over the course of that week and at least half of them did. It is not only the adults who feel the impact.

This juxtaposition between joy and gratitude and limited capacity is mirrored by the daily juxtapositions of daily life at SMUS. We know from the research that living during a pandemic requires us to expect less capacity in ourselves and others but we are also highly invested in maintaining an engaging and motivating environment for our students. We know that currently our community is relatively safe from the direct impact of the pandemic but as my son noted there is that nagging fear of the pounce, which at this moment of writing seems more and more imminent. We recognize that we are so blessed to be at school, learning, creating, singing, and running but cannot deny that things are different and there is loss.

According to Haelle, managing ambiguous loss and depleted capacity requires a bit of creativity and one of my other nightly gratitudes is feeling so blessed to be part of such a creative and innovative school that is willing to put the effort and focus on how we an offer an amazing experience to our students while keeping them safe, as exemplified by our recent Remembrance Day Service. Another aspect of management was touched on by Middle School personal counsellor Allison Peace in her recent SMUSpaper article on being aware of our own thoughts and feelings and accepting that life is different, and that grief in all its stages and reduced capacity are normal reactions.

So to all those early pajama wearers, feel no shame, because building routines that allow for more rest are important, as are nutrition, exercise, meditation and self-compassion. And to teary students, parents and teachers, it is OK to expect less of yourselves. With the duality of acknowledging both how lucky we are and how difficult this situation is we will continue to provide a safe and inspiring environment for our learners and teachers, and we will also acknowledge that it is OK to not be OK.


  1. Susan, you’ve articulated our challenges and hopes wonderfully, thank you. I think we remain curious, vulnerable, and hopeful.


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