When I was in my twenties, I regularly startled awake with terror, grabbed a small paper bag, and hyperventilated into it until I began to feel myself become lightheaded. In my thirties, I went to the emergency room twice for panic attacks so severe I thought I was having a heart attack. Is there a coincidence between the fact that I traded one high-stress job - journalism - for another: teaching?
I kept my panic and anxiety a secret, ashamed of the fact that "nothing was wrong with me." Clearly, something was wrong, and the root of it was the driven nature of my personality. A driven nature rewarded for workaholism, yet had the side effects of severe anxiety and self-loathing.
Kindness was something I could give to anyone else but myself. And I see quite a few teachers who seem to have the same problem. Maybe it's because the dark side of the profession can encourage codependency, martyrdom, toxic levels of guilt, and self-blame. Teachers, as a rule, aren't kind to themselves.
In Othello, Shakespeare wrote: "Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners." In other words, we are the ones who control what grows within us, for good or for bad. So, let's start by being kind to ourselves. Without that base, it doesn't matter what techniques you use, what strategies you employ - you're going to burn yourself out like a played-out plot of land and be of no use to anyone.
I resisted the temptation to write this post at the new year to keep it far enough away from Jan. 1 so as not to confuse it with a resolution. In February, it seems that diets die, all the Christmas bills come in, the weather turns nasty, and everything seems dark and depressing. Now feels like a good time to prepare for the storms ahead, particularly the hurricane of stress that comes from spring testing.
Inspired by two writers, here's a list of five concrete actions you can take to be kind to yourself that I've adapted for teachers. Each of the links lead to resources I've relied upon to keep me happier, more grounded, and more kind to myself - and others.
1. Schedule a conference with yourself.
Give yourself "planning & preparation time." Deliberately plan to spend 15-30 minutes at the beginning or end of your day on just you. Feed your head and heart by reading, listening to music or watching something that inspires you, or helps you to understand yourself, or points you to topics that make you wonder, make you curious, and make you know that there is goodness in the world.
2. Nurture your inner coach.
Most everyone has an inner voice that runs game tape on everything, pointing out failures and flaws. Few of us have an inner coach, a voice that cheers us on and points out what we did well. When faced with inner or outer criticism, try to cultivate a voice that reminds you how much better you've gotten since this time last year. It takes practice to nurture that positive voice, but imagine your coach having the voice of someone who's always loved you. Ask yourself: what would that person say to you in tough times? Then have your coach repeat that to you.
3. Develop a reflective practice.
Use a digital or physical journal to process your day. I try to do this once everyone clears out of the building and before I go home for the day. Start by setting a timer for ten minutes then thinking through three questions:
The questions help you to remember your successes, which we often forget to credit ourselves for, plus ground you in the reality of what can improve. The final question keeps you from ruminating on what went wrong, cultivates a sense of hopefulness, and creates a more accurate picture of your practice.
4. Do something small and good. Because teachers make hundreds of decisions each day, it can sometimes be paralyzing to make decisions for yourself. On those days when you feel, to paraphrase Herman Melville, a dark, gray November in your soul, choose one of these to take one step towards the light:
- On your lunch break, go to your car, drive out of the parking lot, put on your favorite song, and sing. Sing like no one's listening - because they aren't.
- Or, turn your lights off, shut and lock your door with you on the inside, then put in your headphones and your best dance mix. Dance like no one's watching - because they aren't.
- If the weather permits, eat lunch outside. This is something my dept. chair used to do to give herself a break - and to make herself scarce for a bit so she could have some moments to herself.
- Don't feel guilty - this actually makes you a better teacher, plus there's research supporting small breaks.
5. Take a brain break.
I love videos of baby otters, of baby goats, or really any kind of baby. I also love clips from comedians who make me laugh, humor writers, and the pictures people send in to Awkward Family Photos. And I schedule 5-10 minutes to watch one in my day. Friends and students make suggestions, which introduces me to even more funny stuff, and the goodness of this is compounded when they're watching and laughing with me.
When things get particularly stressful, I've noticed that even watching the video of the otter stacking cups for the 50th time can still make me smile, or that looking at really bad Christmas family photos makes me laugh. And again, science shows multiple benefits from laughter, so consider it a healthy practice.