It seems like it wouldn’t take courage to take care of ourselves, but I actually believe it does. Our fear of all the things we won’t do, all the balls we will drop, all the people we will disappoint, make it hard for us to put ourselves first. Honestly, the older I get, the easier I find it to be!
My very first principal told us, her staff, to take mental health days when needed. My currently principal frequently reminds us that we must put our own oxygen masks on before we put on anyone else’s. I’ve been lucky to work for principals who recognize the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
Another thing I’m learning, still, slowly but surely, is that taking care of myself requires setting boundaries and drawing lines. I have to know when to say I’ve had enough, I’m doing enough, and that’s it. I know many teachers who give their cell phone numbers to students and/or families. I rarely do that. It’s a line I know I need to draw. It’s not the same line for everyone. Some teachers never give their number. I have done so in special circumstances. Some give it to all. You have to know what your lines are.
Another piece of taking care of ourselves is presuming positive intentions. This is very challenging for me. It is not a natural instinct. In fact, ‘presume positive intentions’ is a mantra for me. I have to repeat it in order to keep that focus. This is true when it comes to students, families, colleagues, and administrators. But when I don’t presume positive intentions it increases my stress levels and makes me feel worse. It’s worth doing for myself and for the others in my life.
Finally, taking care of ourselves requires that we keep going and that we know when to quit. We’ve all had those mornings when we just can’t get out of bed. We can’t face the mountain of papers, the meeting with an administrator or parent, that student who will push our buttons, and so on. Getting out of bed and keeping going on those days requires effort and courage.
We also have to know when to quit. Pam Moran shared with me that a mentor of hers told her, at the start of a new job, to write her resignation letter. That way if she was asked to do anything that went against her beliefs, her values, her core as an educator and person, she was ready to quit and walk away. I worked at one school for sixteen years. I thought I would retire there as it was such an amazing place to work. A friend and former colleague referred to it as the think tank because of the atmosphere of learning and growth that permeated the staff. Growing up as a teacher there was a gift. Eventually however, factors (mostly) beyond the school crept it and things changed. I realized I had to walk away from my professional home for my own sake and for the sake of the students I served. I could no longer do my best there. Quitting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally.
I feel like that’s a dad who doesn’t know when to quit. He would be far happier and healthier if he had walked away from this argument far earlier. (That said, the mom here is a genius. And this girl is awesome. We should all have her confidence in ourselves. She’s going to be just fine.)
Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Sometimes the problem is the system. We can only do so much when the system is a significant part of the problem. I don’t have an answer for that. I just feel like it is important to remember that we can only do what we can do. I think that’s why knowing when to keep going and when to quit is critical. The challenge, of course, is that the kids don’t get to make that choice. It’s a vicious place to be for far too many educators.