Self-care is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation.Audre Lorde, feminist and civil rights leader
In anticipation of the coming fall and start of a new school year, I dedicated several hours a week over my summer since early July preparing for our return to the classroom. And while I spent hundreds of hours reading, watching videos, and engaging with my social media community, absorbing, learning, and reflecting, I greeted the first full week of classes with…a panic attack.
While I’m not interested in sharing the details of the event, I will convey my feelings that immediately followed. After nearly twenty-four years of teaching in public education, I had never felt such a level of anxiety and pressure; never felt the weight of what I do as a teacher so much as I did last week. I had never felt such a massive imperative to address with my students our collective existential crisis that is climate change nor acknowledge and explore the residential schools fallout as the number of unmarked graves of children continued to pile up. While my thoughts never veered into the realm of self-harm or other dangerous behaviours, my sleep became immediately disrupted and I found myself in a perpetual mental ‘fog’. Tears came easily and often; my concentration and ability to focus on a single task was absent for days afterwards. Most embarrassingly, I was dropping the ball with family responsibilities and connections. Not good, indeed.
And that wasn’t all. I ran the entire spectrum. I questioned whether teaching was for me anymore. Was it? Is it? I began to question the only career I had ever known. The only thing that I really ever wanted to do (besides becoming a fire fighter or a morning radio disc jockey). And, oh, a whole boat load of shame, too. Why am I just not strong enough to muscle through this? What will my colleagues and leadership think? The judgment or rather the self-judgment was scathing. What would happen to my students and families if I’m not there? Those families were counting on me to show up for their kids.
What about their learning? (Actually, that last one was more ego.) Who can ably take the reigns of this class this early in the year? (Ah, that one, too.) I have held a theory about teachers and ego for nearly a decade. And it is this: teachers have very large egos. And we need to. Quite often it’s what helps us get up in the morning and head to work even when we know that our headache and fluid filled sinus demand otherwise. I wondered many times have I ‘toughed it out’ and gone to work ill, drained, or sleep-deprived for nearly a quarter of a century (I would quickly run out of finger and toes to count). A healthy ego also helps educators to remain present and compassionate in the face of struggling students (many not receiving the necessary level of social-emotional and/or academic support), disgruntled (or even worse, aloof) parents, poor school or district leadership, and even fractious or dysfunctional faculties.
Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.Brene Brown, researcher & social biologist
Against my highly fragile ego, I waved the white flag. I took a knee. I took a week off of teaching.
Through an episode of tears, I sent a message to my families with my decision to take a week to dedicate myself to mental health wellness. I did not really know what to expect. Scratch that. I did know what I expected. Just not to the level of compassion and support I received. The responses were overwhelming (a good kind of overwhelm): “Thank you for modelling self-care for our kids, Jeff. Take the time to heal and rest.”; “I appreciate the courage its takes to manage self-care”; “Jeff, we’re here for you, please let us know how we can help”; “Rest, reflect, and refresh, Jeff”; and “I hope you have a peaceful and healing week next week. We will be thinking of you and your family.” wow.
A week of deep reflection and often uncomfortable reflection, with the supports of a coach and therapist (and really strong-listening skilled friend), has allowed me to clear my mind so that I can decide what exactly I need(ed) and the necessary steps to take. While it was easier to admit my struggle to my families, my employer, my supervisor, and my colleagues, without question, the most difficult admission was to myself. I recognized that needed a reprieve. This is weakness. Recognizing and taking action is strength. Given everything in our complex world, it simply wasn’t enough to charge into the classroom with my year-long theme planning tucked under my arm. Something was missing. maybe it was the weight of IPCC report and our inevitable existential crisis, the completely unnecessary distraction that was the federal election, or the long overdue truth and reconciliation with all indigenous peoples, residential schools, ongoing legacy of the Indian Act and its impact on all Canadians. COVID and its fractured societal landscape (vaccination, mask-wearing, etc.) still heavily weighed on my consciousness. Or maybe it was an elixir of all of those social dilemmas combined with a class of twenty-nine (11-14 yo), several of which have specific learning challenges. I think you know where I’m going with this…
Self-Learning into Self-Care
Perhaps the most significant piece of self-learning has been the recognition for, and a commitment to, stronger, healthier boundaries involving my professional practice. As educators, we have all heard the warnings to ‘manage our health before it manages us’. Whether it be invoking healthy email boundaries, minimizing preparation time at school after a long and often exhausting day, taking time at lunch to leave the building, seeking out colleagues during the day for a quick connect, or drinking water throughout the day are just a few of the essential self-care tools that I had neglected (or lost) over the past couple of months. And that took a toll on my mental wellbeing.
One other significant piece of reflection: I never (ever) have to do this alone. This past week has been one of journaling, meditation, yoga, trail running, and mowing the lawn at noon on a sunny, Tuesday afternoon in late September (something I have never done). Long and deep conversations with my family physician, long-time therapist, and two former mentors have reaffirmed that ‘no one walks their path alone’. A close and respected colleagues called this collapse weeks before (obviously I never listened to them). Even my principal and I shared some tears and a hug.
But I have made the decision to return to the classroom next week. I will be taking it one week at a time. One day at a time. One morning at a time. Time is all that I really have, in the end. I can’t afford to fritter it away.
I owe that much to myself.