Teaching WellBeing

Live Well - Be Well - Feel Well

Are you actually stressed…or is it something else?

It’s easier to identify stress than to identify its root causes.

Anxiousness, irritation, insomnia, exhaustion, digestive problems, crying spells, bursts of anger – these are all telltale signs of a body under stress.

But what are the causes of this stress?

Is it the heavy workload? The class that never seems overly unruly? The rude, demanding parents? The paperwork? The demands of our home life?

Those things ARE stressful and contribute to our full plates – but are they the actual cause? Outside of those stressful events…how do we feel about our life?

Human beings need more that a lack of stressful stimuli and events to feel whole and healthy.

Humans have core needs – and when they go unmet and unfulfilled – we feel lack. When we are in lack, we go into survival mode of flight fight or fear. Those are the 3 stress responses that can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.   Some of these core needs are not obvious – so when they are hidden it’s more difficult for us to meet them.

What are these mysterious core needs?

People have 9 core needs that people have to feel whole and healthy. They are:

  1. The need to give and receive attention. This is usually met through our relationships with others.
  2. The need to look after the mind and body physical needs. We can meet this through rest, sleep, good nutrition, exercise.
  3. The need for a sense of safety and security. These are met in healthy relationships and stable life situations.
  4. The need for a sense of community and making a contribution. Teaching is definitely one way this need is met, but if our work feels meaningless then we’ll feel lack in this area.
  5. The need for challenge and creativity. We meet this though learning new things or taking on projects where we can make progress and have fun.
  6. The need for intimacy. This need is met though close friendships and relationships where we feel heard, seen and valued.
  7. The need for a sense of control. We can meet this need in being organized, following through on decisions, and having good boundaries.
  8. The need for a sense of status or significance. This is met by having a positive basis for our self-esteem and self-worth.
  9. The need for a sense of meaning and purpose. This need is fulfilled when we have plans for the future or a strong set of values that guide our choices.

We seek out to fulfil these needs in both positive and negative ways (though the negative ways are largely either unconscious). The teacher in us also seeks to have those 9 needs fulfilled.  All the meditation, yoga, exercise, healthy eating and positive affirmations in the world won’t make a dent in our stress levels if we don’t address if our core needs are going unfulfilled.

It’s not that we need to create a to-do list of ways to fulfil these 9 core needs! But it can be helpful to look through the list and see where we feel we are feeling a sense of lack. Take one area and do something to bring some light and fulfilment to it. It can be done in small ways. That way it’s not overwhelming a task to take on. Sometimes the care we give ourselves to renew just one of those core needs is enough. It takes the edge off stress. When we are fulfilled, happier – we manage stressors better.

Sometimes self-care can feel good without making much of a difference in our overall stress reduction and stress-handling capacity. Self-care centered around taking care of fulfilling some of our unmet core needs is a great strategy. Rather than brushing over them, it heals some of the root causes of stress.

Resiliency and Self-Care is not what you might think it is

What is at the core of being resilient?

Just bounce back…

That’s the standard for assessing someone’s resiliency to set backs, stress and upsets.

It’s not a bad thing to be able to bounce back…but how many times do we bounce back before we feel bruised and exhausted? Resiliency is a concept thrown around as a sort of cure-all for any kind of stress or problems.  Pick your self up and try again,

Well we all know that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of craziness.

When stressors are systemic in nature, it’s easy to give the advice “just be resilient”. It takes responsibility away from the organization to create meaningful change. It’s easier to just blame teachers rather than look at the dysfunctional practices in school boards that impact teachers in negative ways that they have little control over.

Even on a personal level…when we just ‘bounce back’ after stressful events with the expectation to put on our positive face and cheerful nature and keep going we are denying ourselves the gift of healing. Positivity is positive until it’s not. When it masks deeper issues that hurt and need resolution, positivity becomes a negative force.

My idea of resilience is a bit different. After a set-back, it’s good to take a step-back. Step back and assess how you’re feeling, how you got there, what you need and what needs to be different going forward so you don’t end up in the same place a few months down the line.

Giving ourselves the gift of time, love and compassion to do some healing work  – we elevate to a new depth of understanding and development of self. We don’t bounce back.  We rise.

But what does that really involve? It requires stepping into our authenticity.

Authenticity can be an over-used buzz word. But it’s actually very meaningful and helpful in countering stress and burnout. Being authentic means being you. But for many of us being “you” is sometimes fraught with so many expectations, assumptions, obligations to others’ needs and wants – we don’t actually know where we stand with ourselves.

To really be authentic we have to get in deep touch with our life. What we want. What we don’t want. What is meaningful and valuable to us. What makes us come alive. And what does the opposite.

The path to authenticity is really a rather austere one – the stripping down of everything that is not you, doesn’t work for you, doesn’t represent you, doesn’t value you, doesn’t serve you – to reveal what at the core you really are. And from there what you want and need.

When we are clear on that – our priorities crystallize – and it is so much easier to manage our time and our tasks – and put value on feeling good, well and happy rather than making choices that set us up for feeling burned out and unhappy. It doesn’t just make us happier – it makes those around us – family, friends, colleagues, students – happier too.

You are not meant to be burned out.

Your authentic self would not stand for it.

The healing journey is about saying yes to your authentic self.

Saying yes to your authentic self is the core of self-care. The purpose of self care isn’t treats and luxuries (though those can be nice!) The purpose of self care is to pay attention to and respond to our needs. Not our need for chocolate, or a massage or a workout (though there’s nothing wrong with those things!)

But our deep needs. Our need for respect. Our need for time to reflect. Our need for feeling valued. Our need to feel good about ourselves and our lives.

The needs that self care should concern itself with are those needs that often go unmet. Our deep inner needs that are neglected, put off, suffer, endure.  When we identify what those core, often unmet, needs are – our whole approach to and prioritization of self-care changes.

Then it’s no longer an option.

It becomes a core practice in our resiliency to stress.

What’s the purpose of wellbeing in a school system that is systemically oppressive?

At its core wellbeing is life: it is live giving and life sustaining.

What is wellbeing in a school system that is systemically oppressive?

White supremacy suppresses life.

And in the cases of police brutality, it eliminates life.

When protesters hit the streets to voice both their pain and demand change schools should take notice. We like to think that schools are safe places. And they are largely filled with good hearted teachers and the energy of youth and optimism. We don’t think that schools harm – but the structure they are embedded in can harm deeply.

The school to prison pipeline is no secret. That that structure even exists means that it has systemic supports that uphold it – some overt, most not. What kind of learning space does that create for BIPOC students?

No one can or should be expected to learn (or teach in the case of BIPOC teachers) in a system designed to harm people’s spiritual, emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.

Wellbeing and self-care are often thought to be personal acts of self-preservation and self-love. And they are. But that’s not all they are. There is also such a thing as organizational care – where wellbeing is central in all the facets of the functioning of the organization.

In a school system founded in (and largely still sustained by) systemic white supremacy – what does wellbeing look like?

It doesn’t look like bubble baths.

It looks like dismantling white-supremacy.

That is an act of profound organizational care & healing.

In schools that looks like interrogating the hidden curriculum, the disciplinary procedures and practices, the streaming of students, the quality of materials we teach with – just to start.

And speaking as a white female teacher there’s no room here for white guilt. Guilt is a tool of the dominant system to keep you stuck in your emotions so you don’t have the energy to effect change. Guilt prevents healing. The work of dismantling white supremacy within the self and within the school system is an act of love. It’s an act of love for the whole school community. The transformative power of love has to be given a channel to flow through that is wide enough. When white teachers decentralize their experience to more clearly be able to see the realities of other people’s lived experiences, we widen our own channel for love. We can’t be part of the solution if we don’t see the problem clearly. If we don’t see the problem clearly when we are trying to be part of a solution, we add to the burden of our BIPOC colleagues’ mental and emotional strain. It is not their job to educate us, nor to be alone in the front line of anti-racist work in schools.

I know lots of teachers are already and have been for a long time committed to this work. Events like the protests we’re seeing in the spring of 2020 is a reminder of how schools fit into the overall picture of what work needs to be done for justice.

We all have the responsibility to do this work. Literally – we all have the response-ability. We are able, with our skills and hearts as teachers, to respond to the systemic problems in schools that disproportionately harm BIPOC students. Taking that kind of responsibility is the face of love that is good for teaching, for teachers and for students. That is a love that is life-sustaining and life giving. Love is the foundation of wellbeing.

Mental wellbeing – it’s not always a mental or emotional cause

a healthy nutrition is good for brain

It’s #worldmentalhealthday today. It’s good to de-stigmatize issues around mental health – because we all suffer mental and emotional distress to some degree. There’s no point in having it be taboo.

But most people don’t know that there are various causes of mental health issues that aren’t often considered. Usually it’s understood that the following things can impact our mental and emotional health negatively: stress, trauma, negative childhood experiences, toxic relationships, financial worries, loss of relationships, grief, feeling stuck in our lives, feeling unfulfilled, bullying, life pressures building up, and feeling isolated among other things. This is all true but there are other factors that impact mental health. 

There are physical factors that impact our neuro-biology, brain health and physical stress response – and these have nothing to do with emotional or social or psychological factors.  Sometimes – our mental health crisis is rooted in physical causes. 

Extreme Reactions

I remember my father, one of the top alternative medical docs in Canada, telling me stories about what kind of reactions people would have to during their allergy testing. Even regular things like chlorine, onions, oats – would set some people off into violent, aggressive rages. Once they were administered a dose to neutralize their reaction – they would return to a normal mood with no recollection of their previous behaviour.  And as a teacher I always thought – some of those out of control kids in our classes were probably reacting to everyday products and foods – they just didn’t have the right kind of help to be able to understand and mitigate their medical reactions.

The most common reactions he would recall from physical substances would be: brain fog, inability to concentrate, hyperactivity, rage, uncontrollable crying, exhaustion, sudden weakness, aggression, mood swings.  Even if a person’s reactions aren’t as extreme as this physical things can still have an impact on our mood and mental health.

Physical causes of disrupted mental health

The top physical factors that impact our mental and emotional processes are can come in 3 categories: things we breathe, things we ingest, and systemic issues.

Things We Breathe

The most common culprits that can cause mental or emotional responses are these:

Molds: these can be toxic black molds that grow indoors after water damage, but also outdoor molds from rotting leaves, etc.

Chemicals: these can come cleaning products, pollutants in the air and water, and artificially scented body care products.

Heavy Metals: these can come from things like lead pipes, air pollution, water contamination, metal tooth fillings that release invisible vapours.

The process by which these items affect the brain (your emotional and mental processing centre) is that when you smell something the olfactory system goes in reaction. The end of the nerves from the nose end up in the frontal lobe of the brain – this is the pathway along which the toxic substances travel, eventually impacting the limbic system.

Many of these substances are known neurotoxins – meaning they are toxic to the neurological system – of which the brain is a large part.  The best remedy for this is avoidance of the problematic substances!

Things We Ingest

There are a few ways that the things we ingest can impact our mental/emotional health.

Medications:

Some medications (strangely enough even ones designed to help with mental disorders) have side effects that include depression, anxiety and increased suicidal thoughts. Never assume that any mediation you are taking doesn’t have these kinds of side-effects and talk with your doctor.

Fungal overgrowth (candidiasis):

This can come from a diet rich in sugar-rich foods, or antibiotic over-use, and is known to cause feelings of lethargy, depression and achiness, amongst other symptoms.

Nutritional deficiencies:

There are key nutrients that are required for healthy brain function. If our diet is not sufficiently nutritionally dense we are going to have nutritional deficiencies.  Brain health requires a healthy mix of B Vitamins, essential fatty acids, minerals, amino acids and enzymes for proper function. Poor gut health will not allow us to absorb nutrients from our food. All nutrients have enzymatic reactions and those reactions use minerals and vitamins as coenzymes in order to create the right chain reaction. That chain reaction allows enzymes to create the appropriate neurotransmitters and hormones required for optimal function of your brain and body. Without them you lack the building blocks for essential chemical reactions of healthy body and brain function.

Gut imbalance:

What creates an unhealthy gut and how does it directly impact our brain health?  The gut microbiome has both beneficial and unbeneficial bacteria. Bad eating habits, overuse of antibiotics, and processed food among other things, can create imbalance in the body’s microbiome resulting in more bad bacteria than good. The destruction of the healthy (probiotic) bacteria creates the process of putrification. That is essentially the process of rotting – and manifests as stinky gas and breath. This rotting impedes proper function of our gut and good bacteria cannot flourish.

Not only do probiotic bacteria create a healthy immune system, but they also create the substances required for a healthy brain and mood. Probiotics in the gut control the central nervous system by metabolizing certain substances to create neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters (like serotonin, dopamine and others) are essential for healthy mood and brain function. So when there aren’t enough good bacteria in the gut, your mental wellbeing is directly, negatively affected.

Systemic issues

Other neurotoxins include pathogens. Some pathogens are very stealthy at infecting their hosts. These are infections (Borrelia and Streptococcus are two common ones) that are not picked up by regular blood tests because they hide under the surface not detected by the immune system. These stealth infections attack the immune system but it is unable to sound the alarm – and that is how traditional blood work detects infections. Some of these bacterial pathogens shed toxins that can damage the brain and cause blockages in brain tissue. These pathogens can cross the blood-brain barrier and create inflammation – which can manifest as mental or emotional symptoms.

Systemic issues can also be caused by hormonal imbalances. Many hormonal imbalances occur when there’s a disruption to the HPA (hypo-pituitary-adrenal) axis. Any stressor (be it an emotional response, a toxin, a chemical, a pathogen or a mold etc.) is processed in the same way. Stressors enter through our senses: hearing, vision, smell, taste, touch. The brain sends a message to the hypothalamus affecting the pituitary gland which sends a message to the adrenals. Adrenals are the major masters of managing and protecting us from stress. 

If your stress is temporary, your adrenals are able to handle it. The problem is when stress is cumulative and lasts more than two years. In a nutshell, in prolonged stress the adrenals go into overdrive, resulting in decreased cortisol. That leads to the next stage of burnout with sugar and salt and junk food cravings. This leads to blood sugar imbalance, hormonal imbalance and thyroid dysfunction. This progresses into a deeper stage with insomnia, headaches, irritability, depression, tiredness, and Metabolic syndrome. When the body can’t produce enough cortisol, one result is low hydrochloric acid which is essential for healthy digestion. Poor digestion creates leaky gut syndrome. That leads to increased food and chemical sensitivity and an increase in viral infections and chronic bacterial infections as well as an imbalance in the microbiome.  That leads to a decrease of natural killer cells – which can result in automimmune conditions and degeneration.  Poor adrenal function that goes on for extended period of time can throw a wrench into proper function of the hormonal system.

So, yes it’s just stress, but it’s not just mental and emotional stress. Living in environments for prolonged periods where any toxic stressors are present is also a stress – and will result in symptoms of illness – and that can present as emotional and mental manifestations.

Of course purely psychological and emotional factors can impact our mental and emotional health – but many physical aspects also impact our mental wellbeing. It’s rarely just one or the other and usually is a combination of both. All this information can be used to empower ourselves to be proactive about our physical and mental wellbeing. Wherever we can, it’s a good idea to control and eliminate the toxic physical and emotional load on our body and spirit. By reducing that load, we are improving the foundation for mental and emotional wellbeing.

A Lack of Integrity in Leadership

There are two types of leaders – those who get things done and those who don’t.

Yesterday in the Greater Toronto area a tragedy played out. A 14-year old child beaten to death by other students after school. These kids were known to be bullies – tormenting not just this victim, but other students as well. The administration was informed by parents, the police were informed. Nothing was done.

Now a child is dead.

It’s not the first time students have been killed by other students in incidents of school bullying. It happens in every city.

Will it be the last?

I heard the mother interviewed on the news this morning. Her voice broke my heart. No one should expect to go to school and come home dead – killed by their classmates.

I have taught in schools where bullying occurred – we all have – and we’ve all had the experience of being under effective leadership and suffering under useless leadership.

In one school the principal put the entire school through an anti-bullying program. Mid-year he uprooted the schedule so there would be a full period a week devoted to doing this program in each class. He put up with no BS. Within a month the whole tone of the school changed. His was the compassion of firm action.

In another school the principal ignored the issues. Kids got away with flushing their victims clothes down the toilet, vandalizing the principals’ car, calling teachers rapists in the hallways, locking teachers in their classrooms and uttering death threats. Nothing was done. That particular principal said that to have compassion means to suffer with others. Hers was the compassion of fools.

In every school I’ve ever taught at (and I’m sure you too) we sit through “virtues” assemblies.

It’s easy to pretend you are actually doing something for your school when your response to problems is to have kids do some cheezy disco remake of R-E-S-P-E-C-T – but actually demonstrate no respect for your students, staff or school when you lack the integrity to actually tackle the difficult issues.

Do more kids have to die?

We have district-side walkouts over climate change.

But we’ll all sit quiet over the violence exploding in our schools.

Yelling with placards warning of the end of the world.

But when a kid dies – and it’s the end of their world – everyone is shaken but carries on with school as usual.

Where is the mass walk-out to protest the ineffective leadership completely lacking in responsibility and integrity?

It’s nowhere.

Because school violence has been normalized.

We know it happens.

I have talked with union presidents who say admin does not even want to ask what the problem is because they don’t know how to deal with the issues facing schools.

Looking the other way.

School “leaders” more interested in climbing the educational ladder than effecting change in their schools.

No integrity to take the harder path of facing problems, instead masking inaction under the guise of compassion. We all have been in schools where this happens.

How many students don’t feel safe at school? More than a few.

How many kids’ bodies and souls have been damaged by bullying?

Where are the walk outs to protest this?

And all levels within the education system need to be able to discuss hard problems and practical solutions and not gloss over the problem with PC solutions that sound nice and have no teeth to effect change.  Feel-good policy meetings while kids are being burned, beaten bullied….to death.

Fundamentally – the system doesn’t care about kids. Kids are just numbers into a funding formula, I guess.

Maybe some individuals at the administrative level are supportive and stellar – but as a whole – there is too much conscious ignoring happening.

Oh there will be calls to action made.

Mea-culpas.

And for a while everyone will be under scrutiny and on their best leadership behaviour.

But for how long?

And how has it gotten to this point?

Why take on a leadership position only to abdicate the responsibilities that come with it?

A fish rots from the head.

For shame.

Working Sustainably and Finding Time

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability in the environmental field. The fact that we need to discuss it means that for too long we haven’t been doing it. That pattern has extended into how we work. We consume our resources – and then suddenly we realize we don’t have enough to go on – so we’re running on empty.  We need to work sustainably.

It’s true, sometimes you will need to put in 80 hour weeks. Sometimes there is a time where there will be no balance in your life.  Some examples of this is when everything seems to fall into your lap at once and it just has to get done, or when you are putting on a big production or show, or when it’s report card season, when you are breaking ground on a new project.

That is normal. You can handle hard and busy – this is where the virtue of endurance comes in handy.

Support yourself when you are in this stage. Do not pull all-nighters or skip meals as a habit – you need to sustain yourself with rest and nutrition to be able to carry this workload. Have ways to release the pressure value that all this work will create.

But that level of work not sustainable for an entire career.

Plot out your year. Put in your big goals and events – and buffer them with time that you are not going to fill with more big goals and events. After such a big goal or event is completed, give yourself sufficient down time to recover.

Beyond that, it’s actually the run-of-the-mill busyness that is most likely to steal your time.  Teaching can eat up all your time if you let it.

So often teachers say that they’re so run off their feet they don’t have time for their families. Your family (and you) comes first. We can prioritize our personal and family goals. When we do that, teaching has to fit around it. For teaching to fit around it – it means we need to trim our teaching. We need to prioritize our teaching goals too. You can’t do everything and have enough time for everything. Prioritize what is important in your teaching practice – and cut, delegate or defer the rest – or find a way to do it more efficiently.

Here are some basic ideas:

We have to find ways to be more efficient. We have to look at where we put in too much effort that has no value. Some teachers give daily journalling prompts. These tasks are not weighed the same as a major assignment, so they should not require the same level of grading engagement from you. A journal can be skim-marked. If you use a descriptive rubric – the student gets feedback from the rubric parameters and doesn’t require you to write anything at all.  Save your thoughtful comments for thoughtful assignments.  It’s one example, but if you look at your teaching habits, you’ll find where else this kind of over-functioning is occurring.

You have to put time limits on the teaching tasks that take up the most time. Set time limits for your tasks. Eg: I will mark these quizzes in 30 minutes. I will finish this lesson plan in 30 minutes – or whatever reasonable time you set. Otherwise your task will expand to whatever time you have available. If you have all day to mark those papers – it’ll likely take all day. Don’t you have better things to do with your day?

If you are procrastinating, just start the task and set a timer for 20 minutes and tell yourself you can stop working then if you want. After the timer goes off – you’ll likely already be on a roll and will just finish the task.

Your baseline has to be manageable. Then if your time and energy levels expand you can put in more activities if you like, but the baseline cannot be you being run off your feet.

Whatever you do has to be sustainable for the longhaul. As your life changes your teaching will change. It’s a good idea to do an occasional inventory of our teaching practices and habits. See which ones are working or aren’t. Which ones need to be changed or stopped because they no longer fit the classroom dynamic or your personal life dynamic?

The idea that we should be able to do everything and sacrifice ourselves in order to do so is an outmoded concept of work. Prioritizing and working sustainably is actually professionalizing your teaching. 

Self Care is not Going to the Spa.

Self Care is not massages, and time for tea, a fun outing or catching a few hours for self-time. Those things are fine & good. It’s good to regularly treat yourself as part of your routine. But that’s not all of what self care is.

Self care is radical self love. It is the creation of a life that supports your wellbeing.

It is the creation of boundaries against encroaching interests on your wellness.

It is the examination of your norms and if they support wellbeing or if they encourage stress and toxicity.

Self-care is making time for the deep kind of self-reflection that has the power to uproot the shit in your life and finally plow the barren land of your soul to plant a thriving crop to sustain you.

Self care is the release of programs of punishment. It is ending the abuse of endurance. It is the healing of misguided ancestral wisdom. It is the excavation of a long forgotten way of being:

The way of power, of pleasure and of purpose.

You know why we find it hard to find the time to do pleasurable things like spa, massage, self-time, yoga, dancing etc?

Because we have lost touch with our instinctual inner power and purpose. We have lost touch with it because it has been conditioned out of us by societal beliefs that tell us it is normal to work ourselves ragged, that a hungry soul only needs to exist on scraps, that being good and doing good is reward enough.

It is not. None of that is enough.

We say there is not enough time, not enough resources, not enough help, not enough, not enough, not enough – because we exist on not enough. It is our norm. That’s why we ‘sneak in a little self-care time’.

That has to change.

To activate the trifecta of power, pleasure and purpose requires a radical self-love.

A self love that translates not just to self care – but self-fulfillment.

This is what it means to give from a full cup. It does not mean to fill your cup and then empty it to others and then fill it back up again. That is within the paradigm of not-enough.

You do not fill your cup with scraps and expect to feed those who you are responsible for.

To fill your cup means to fill yourself to overflowing. An over-flowing that that is self-generative. A divinely sanctioned blessing onto you – unending, unconditional. You are made to carry the blessing of the divine – you are created to be a channel of divine abundance – and from that overflow you give.

To be able to give you need to be able to receive. After all, you expect people to receive what you give. So to complete the circuit, you too need to receive.

Sometimes it means receiving a compliment. Sometimes it means fully receiving the enjoyment of a pleasuable activity. Sometimes it means fully accepting the boundary you have placed to receive its benefits.

It also means to exist is a state of reciprocity. What do you expect to receive from your students? Respect? Greetings? Following guidelines? Effort?  Courtesy? Honesty? Assignments on time? What do you expect to receive from your colleagues and admin?  How do you expect your students to receive what you provide? The cycle of receiving and giving has to be a conscious covenant between the parties involved. Reciprocity is a core value in the ethos of radical self-care.

That is what self-care looks like, outside of the paradigm of scarcity.

You, and all those who depend on you, deserve nothing less than that.

Mindfulness & Meditation is not Enough

I burned out in a meditation retreat. I started teaching in 1998. I started meditating in 2001. I burned out in 2005.

I was the poster child for meditation. I went to my first meditation retreat, a form of mindfulness meditation, called Vipassana, because someone recommended it for my stress. The meditation technique was intense. It is a discipline of mindful letting go. 10 days of silent meditation for 10 hours a day. After my first retreat, I was hooked. I was calmer. Things didn’t rattle me. There was a buffer between me and the things that stressed me.  I loved it. It brought the calm I sought. I made it a point to meditate one hour a day. I even meditated with my class. The next year I went on another 10 day retreat. The next year I went on another.

The day after coming home from that third retreat I collapsed on my bedroom floor sobbing. I could not go back to work, I was wracked with anxiety, paralysis, hopelessness, I felt a terrible constriction. I couldn’t even meditate anymore.

You see, meditation soothes. You can actually be stressed, without exhibiting any of the signs of stress – until it all comes crashing down.

Meditation does not fix the underlying problems as to why you are stressed. It is a tool, not a root cause.

Meditation will calm you. You’ll think more calmly, you’ll react less.

But you need to not just think calmly – you need to think differently.

You need to disrupt the patterns, habits, beliefs that are toxic, limiting and unhelpful to being a happy, productive person. The causes of your stress need to be uprooted. They need to be named, examined and transformed.

What no one tells you about meditation is that it can be a powerful awakener. In Vipassana they refer to it as waves of the ocean slowly washing away the debris, until you hit a huge obstacle. These are karmas. If your meditation hits a big karma – you need to know what to do with it, how to work with it. If you don’t have the right guidance, this kind of awakening can feel like dissolution of self – a breakdown.

I prefer for people to have the awakening without the breakdown. That’s what the Teacher Wellness Code course is about. Unpacking the blueprint of teaching from the toxic culture of teaching and replacing it with an empowered teaching identity and a path to wellbeing. I created the course for that very purpose – you need to wake up from the spell of burnout, not be calm and relaxed in the midst of it.

I’m not against meditation. I actually think everyone should experience a Vipassana 10-day course. Meditation is a healthy practice. It’s a foundational maintenance practice – like brushing your teeth – but for your spiritual life.  So is prayer. Yoga can be that way too. I do all those things – but it is not enough.

You can meditate until the cows come home – if you don’t change the underlying structures of teaching around you and within you, you will be in a constant state of burnout, even if you feel calm about it.

Burnout is Soul Rebellion

The work of recovery from burnout is a spiritual journey reclaiming of the core self, of restoring the soul.

I share because if you are where I was – past burnout into breakdown – I want you to know, and I truly believe this, that burnout is a spiritual awakening and emergence. It is a divine alignment of your soul path to the goodness, promise and wellspring of God (or whatever you conceive that power to be). I am not a traditionally religious person. Whether we call it God, Universe, Higher self – at some point it calls us to align with it. To break away from the illusions of our world of false beliefs, scarcity, struggle and isolation and connect firmly to the power of the divine that flows through us.

That is wellbeing. Once you are connected to that power. Once you feel it’s power coursing through you – when you see how it loves you, supports you, grows you, keeps you, rests you, comforts you, exalts you – you know that it is love. Wellbeing is love. You exist in love, through love, because of love. You are an expression of love.

It doesn’t feel like that when you’re in the throws of burnout. But think of it as a spiritual excavation. The universe gives you a pick-axe to chip away at everything that obscures your authentic self. The self that knows how to live without burnout, without self-neglect and self-berating, without the false beliefs and ideas projected onto us from our society, our families of how we should be, how we should live. Burnout is an opportunity for total self-liberation, soul-liberation.

When you choose wellbeing, the entire universe conspires to support you, your teaching and your students. But you have to make the choice and back it up with actions. You have to do the work of extracting yourself from the patterns that create burnout.

Start simply. I mean it’s not really a 3 or 5 or 10 step process, it’s a journey, but this isn’t a course, it’s a blog post, so here are 4 key ideas that are helpful.

Key 1: Purging. It is cleansing. Make a list of everything and everyone in your life – teaching and non-teaching. It if supports your wellbeing, keep it. If it supports stress, get rid of it. This alone will bring up a lot of feelings and questions. Get a journal. Journal it out – or do art – something to express it. Find someone you can talk to who can guide or coach you through the processing

Key 2. Resting. You need lots of rest. To process, to recover, to allow your body and spirit to rebuild. We underestimate our needs for rest. Our body needs to rest, the more you work, the more you need to balance with rest. Rest is not idleness. It’s prescriptive for wellbeing and recovery.  

Key 3: Attending. Attending to you needs. Especially all the unmet needs. And begin to meet them where you can. Give yourself permission to attend to yourself.

Key 4: Dreaming. What do you dream for yourself? What’s your vision for a happy, fulfilling life? Who are you going to thrive for (maybe your children, your family, or yourself)? What do you think is the divine dream for you?

These 4 keys are always useful to help you get unstuck.

You have to commit to yourself. Completely. Unapologetically. Fully. You have to love yourself enough to save yourself.

Burnout as Neglect

Teachers are not always treated like valued professionals. We are treated like pack-mules. Pile on dozens of roles that we are expected to take on, add unrealistic paperwork & too-frequent curriculum changes, grapple with inadequate supplies and resource, carry the projection of parental abdication of responsibility to their kids, tie it all up with the idea that we are supposed to solve everything – and along the trail of education we go.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The toxic culture of teaching isn’t just the systemic issues that place unrealistic expectations and workloads on teachers. It’s when teachers buy into this and propagate it.

I once asked a veteran teacher what her tips for novice teachers were from all her years of experience to make their first years easier. She volunteered to be interviewed for an article I was writing.  Her response? “I wouldn’t tell them anything – they can suck it up and deal with it like we all had to”.

I heard a 5th year teacher remark, “I’m doing all this extra work now, and then when I have kids and a family I’m going to expect the younger teachers to do the same thing I did. I’ll have paid my dues.”

I recall a principal telling a teacher with a good reputation for “being able to put a lot more on her plate than others” that she’ll have to “pull her weight like everyone else” when she wanted to know if the class sizes were going to be reorganized by the district as they were past capacity at 42 students.

Is teaching like some hazing initiation into a toxic sorority?

How many teachers actually think like this? Teachers, we can do better.

That kind of turning on each other is a symptom of a culture that prioritizes self-neglect as a virtue.

That can be triggering to read because most people who burnout are hardworking, loyal, dedicated, committed, responsible – and they generally feel good about their work.  Until they don’t. And if we don’t heal from it, those kinds of heartless, thoughtless responses is what we get.

And instead of problematizing it we say: oh we’re all in this crazy boat together – let’s make the best of it.  Actually. Let’s not.

This self-neglect isn’t intentional. It’s conditioned by-product of a toxic culture.  Where self-sacrifice is held up as a paragon of virtue, where our needs are always placed last for the good of the kids, where self-denial supplements nourishment, where martyrdom masquerades as heart-based teaching practice – wellness cannot thrive. Truthfully, even surviving becomes difficult.

This conditioning is within the culture of schooling. It’s also within the larger society, and within our own families.  This is why I say that recovering from burnout is not about going to the spa or taking regular breaks. It’s uncovering our core self from the layers of toxic beliefs about work, care, engagement and vocation that we have been enculturated into.

The first step out of self-neglect is to have compassion for our needs. It is to love ourselves enough to meet our needs. Being able to survive on an ethos of self-neglect is not being self-disciplined. Self-discipline is to be devoted to the care of the self. If teachers want to be valued, we have to start with valuing ourselves and eachother.

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