We get our class lists in July and make a mad-dash to the first day of school with every effort focused on our new bunch of kids. We clean, scrub, cut, laminate, make lists and revise those lists. We read, research, plot, plan, organize and prioritize. All while envisioning the students we don’t yet know -- how will they fit in, feel inspired and be comfortable in this new space?
Together we meet as colleagues to collaborate, argue and settle on strategies for our classrooms. We begin to really attach to our groups, to our students. We take in the advice and wisdom from others but then go with our own gut instincts to finally decide what will work and what meshes with personal style in the classroom. We lead with our hearts and want so much to make it all work for each and every student in our care.
Teachers find a way to weave compassion through all the lesson plans, school schedules and administrative expectations. We dip into our own pockets to fill in holes in the snack shelves, supply closets and classroom libraries. We are classroom teachers and we are ready for the first day of school.
We have energy, stamina, and resilience. We arrive early and stay late. We pack tote bags with plan books, a laptop, teachers’ guides and student work – an evening on the couch with paperwork awaits -- after dinner, kid’s homework and a load of laundry.
I began the year with a solid self-care solution in place, a sickness-prevention routine. It developed naturally over the summer. Wake early, drink a cup of coffee, do a mindful practice, and get outside for a brisk walk. It was my time, my self-care routine. It fit my work life and home life. I was able to be faithful to it for the first few weeks of school, but meetings piled on, so did planning and grading. My morning turned into work-time, evening was increasingly packed. By the end of September, I only walked two times a week. Coffee was never in jeopardy, but everything else was. A FitBit would have loved how I counted being on my feet all day as weight-bearing cardio.
By October’s end, nothing strictly for myself could be wedged into my long school days. Weekends were for sleeping in and planning lessons. I sprinted to get through parent-teacher conferences and report cards. The fatigue was setting in with the first big break only days away. It was the light at the end of the tunnel, but the November tunnel felt long and dark. Grading and grades turn into report cards and projects fuel parent-teacher conferences. I just kept going and going, faster and faster with more and more stuffed in. I felt like I was pedaling just to stay upright -- much the way we ride two-wheel bikes, just keep moving and you stay balanced, up-right. No slowing, no stopping. Just make it to Thanksgiving. With no actual sick days and just a few sniffly-nose mornings and headache afternoons. And now we rest, and eat and rest. But so often my immune system had held me together (up-right) long enough, it was what forced me to pause. Teachers speak of Holiday Sickness, but we always hope it misses us.
All too often the teacher’s body has a plan, a guarantee that we will rest, lay low and rejuvenate. Most recently for me, it began with swollen glands under the jaw. Then the sore throat and headache combined to slow me down. I stayed home, slept and hoped I’d be mostly better for Turkey-prep. But not this year. Fever, fatigue and nausea were just emerging. I was done, my teacher body had lost the fight, the immune system needed me to stop, really stop. There is no ignoring that kind of message, from inside.
Teachers experience compassion fatigue. We got into this work to care for others. We committed to carry the load of whatever our 28+ students needed us to. And when we turn our attention to ourselves, we all too often feel guilt, a sense of selfishness and quickly do an about-face back to their needs, as many as we can shoulder. But without solid, unwavering self-resilience routines, we fall. In the fall. Or at least by New Years.
Fifty percent of my 16 years as a classroom teacher played out just this way in the fall, whether it was the flu, a nasty cold or even the Mono virus. I did not feel that the culture of my school allowed for prioritizing my own needs. I gave all that I had to my students. When administrators asserted, “It’s what’s best for students,” they were not open to the belief that, “What is best for students is having the healthiest teachers.”
“Teachers are among the true culture heroes of our time… daily they return to their classrooms, opening their hearts and minds in hopes of helping children do the same.” ~Parker Palmer
An apt metaphor is the basic but critical instruction offered regarding proper use of the oxygen masks on commercial airplanes: “Should the cabin pressure or air quality change during flight – masks will drop down from the ceiling. Place the mask over your own mouth and breathe calmly before trying to assist others.”
We teachers need to be reminded, supported and encouraged to take the time we need, build in the breaks that help us refresh and rejuvenate, as people first. Then we can offer the best of ourselves -- as the compassionate professionals we are, in our classrooms, with our students.
Proven supports are within reach and very accessible. Well-crafted professional development can guide us to commit to our own wellness. Resources grounded on scientific research and years of experience bolster efforts to take care of ourselves. We teach who we are, and need to hear that and feel that often. The nervous system teachers bring into the world of their students has far greater impact than many school cultures are willing to admit and then intentionally nurture.
Built-in self-care breaks, links to teacher-friendly apps, buddy-systems for frequent check-ins, book study groups and reminders over the public-address system (or even all-school emails) can enhance a school community’s efforts toward creating a network of mutual support. Classroom curricula, developmentally-matched lessons and teaching tools that focus on self-care, social emotional skills and mindfulness practices encourage modeling of these approaches with students, in real-time. Parent-teacher organizations, district non-profit foundations and local community health committees can be tapped to grow a sustainable funding model -- valuing teachers as human beings first, then enhancing the invaluable roles they play in the classroom, school and community.
Ultimately, if we (as teachers) are not healthy and balanced the entire classroom can, and eventually will, suffer. Learning will also become more and more difficult. Listen to the flight attendant: secure your own oxygen mask first!
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