Survival adaptations and moving forward from here

Scrolling TikTok the other day, I saw a fantastic post by comedian and veteran Patrick Loller. In it, Loller draws parallels between their experience as a veteran struggling to reintegrate to civilian life and people struggling to adjust to “post-pandemic” life. Some of the key points in the TikTok:

  • There were public health campaigns about staying inside, distancing, etc, but not parallel campaigns about how to reenter the world 
  • People often process trauma after the crisis is over, so some may be processing/struggling now in a way they weren’t a few months ago
  • Humans adapt well to traumatic situations, but those adaptations don’t just go away when the crisis is over

I really appreciate the way that Loller puts this so clearly, and it’s got me thinking a lot about adaptation, trauma, and where schools go from here. What adaptations have we made to cope with the pandemic, and how will we let those go as we enter post-pandemic (or at least post-vaccine) life? 

Adapting to the pandemic 

Even as I write this, I notice one of my own adaptations to this collective trauma: an unwillingness to plan ahead to “post-pandemic” school. When the world so rapidly changed in March 2020, and restrictions and case counts continued to fluctuate, I adapted by narrowing my focus. I didn’t plan too far ahead, and focused instead on what I could do today or this week. I wrote “post-pandemic” and immediately felt that adaptation’s tug. Don’t get too comfortable, my survival system tells me. We may not be out of the woods yet. It’s going to take some time to unlearn that instinct, to truly feel safe, and to focus more on the future.

Educators adapted to pandemic teaching. Our students have adapted to pandemic learning. And we’ve all adapted to pandemic survival. We’ve learned to be hypervigilant, constantly scanning our environments for cues of threat and danger. We’ve learned that being physically close with people isn’t safe. We may emotionally distance ourselves because we’ve adapted to being alone. We might not ask for help from peers because we’ve been figuring it out ourselves. These are just a few examples. What adaptations have you made?

Unlearning, shifting, and how things are now

As the world changes yet again this summer and fall, a few things feel important to me. First, to recognize that we aren’t “going back” to anything. Things are shifting to something new. The goal isn’t to shake off adaptations and go back to an old way, but to find adaptations that help us live with how things are now. Within this, let’s acknowledge that the pandemic isn’t over, even though case counts are lower in many places. Indeed, some people may find themselves more stressed or leaning more heavily on survival adaptations now that most states have ended systemic safety guidelines.

Second, recognize that things have changed. Our adaptations helped us survive a pandemic, but survival isn’t the whole story. We might feel we learned lessons or new skills. We might be worse for wear. We carry grief and trauma from the act of surviving, and the fact that so many did not. Adaptations to stress can permanently shift how we interact with the world. Don’t expect yourself or your students to have the same patterns or personality that we did before.  

Third, we can recognize that the work of unlearning our survival adaptations isn’t simple or easy. We have to recognize our patterns, evaluate whether they still serve us, and practice other ways of being. For me, some of this work will take the form of mindful noticing and self-reflection. We can also lean on friends, family, and other support systems to process and make sense of change. This can be as simple as a quick conversation: “I went into the store without a mask today, for the first time since this all began. Here’s how my body felt during those five minutes.” “How did it feel to hug your sister?” “I’m trying to decide whether to stay virtual for this workshop or go in person. How would you decide?” As we build our self-awareness, we can make choices about where to go from here. 

Supporting students 

For educators supporting students, we should remember that this process is personal, it’s messy, and we can’t necessarily dig into the details with each of our students. We can foster moments of self-reflection, but we can’t unpack everything. Students may need or want to lean on their own support systems. And just because the pandemic crisis is abating (in some places, at least) doesn’t mean that crisis is over in general. We don’t know what students are going through, and more crises are sure to come. As some students work to let go of pandemic adaptations, others may still be actively in survival mode every day for unrelated reasons.

This means that we need to show up for students with flexibility and care. Survival adaptations aren’t “disruptive,” “inappropriate,” or “disobedient,” even though that’s how we might label them at school. They are behaviors and actions that literally keep us alive. 

The best we can do for students is the same we try to do for ourselves: build self-awareness and make choices about where to go from here. Just as we reflect with our own colleagues, friends and support system, we can offer moments of reflection for our students. 

I recommend that teachers find ways to do this that are not connected to a grade or evaluation (don’t make it worth “points” or anything!), keep it private, keep it optional, and have a plan for connecting students to additional support if needed. Building self-awareness can look like simple prompts: how do you feel today? What does your body feel like when you walk into the school building? What are some of the ways that you cope with hard times? 

You can also model this for your students by commenting on the moments you notice your own adaptations: “oh wow, I just noticed that I keep inching away from you while we’re talking. It’s not about you; that’s one of the things I started doing during the pandemic to try to stay distant from people.”

Remember: there is no timeline for healing, and it can’t be rushed. Some students may be able to establish a sense of a “new normal” relatively quickly, while others will be impacted for a long time. There is no moral value to how fast you adapt, so we need to unconditional create space for how all of our students show up any given day.  

Striving for safety 

We can’t let go of survival adaptations until we are actually and truly safe. Teachers cannot create true safety for our students, because no one can define safety for someone else. But we can do the work of striving for safety, especially through systems change. We can advocate for our schools to follow public health guidance, to adequately staff and fund our classrooms, and to support families. We can push back against the current wave of harmful laws being passed in many states, banning discussions of race in schools and dehumanizing transgender children. 

We must take up this structural work with the same vigor and enthusiasm as we bring to creating our cozy corners, bulletin boards, or classroom check-ins, because true safety can’t be accomplished within our individual classrooms alone. When we do this systems-level work, we move closer to the possibility that schools are a place where students (and teachers) can do the hard work of adapting to something new.

I think again of Loller’s TikTok: people struggle when we leave them to their own devices to adapt to a changed world, and it doesn’t have to be that way. As we approach the fall, let go of “back to normal” or “learning acceleration” and embrace the mess instead. Let’s join alongside our students and view this next school year as a transitional time, and support everyone to adapt to what’s next. This is how we move forward: with care, together.


Photo by Stefan on Unsplash

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