At its core wellbeing is life: it is live giving and life sustaining.
What is wellbeing in a school system that is systemically
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
You, and all those who depend on you, deserve nothing less
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
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
But you need to not just think calmly – you need to think
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
How many teachers actually think like this? Teachers, we can
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.
We tell teachers to be resilient – to bounce back. Bounce
back to what? The same old same old that creates their stress – and if they can
endure it then that’s resilience, and if they can’t and burnout they’re shamed?
As a society, we exist in a dysfunctional paradigm that
prioritizes self-abandonment, glorifies busy and keeps everyone toeing this
dysfunctional line by policing people with shame and blame.
A good work ethic is healthy. Being convinced that working
yourself into poor health for the system is what a good worker does, is
enslavement. Working yourself into poor health with a drive for perfectionism
often masks some underlying issue that incessant working is serving to numb.
Our culture glorifies the workaholic and projects all of our
disowned needs onto the person burning out, shaming them for daring to express
what everyone else doesn’t have the courage to name and own.
Burning out is not “not being able to handle it”.
Burnout is a high form of intelligence and insight that is
warning you that your current situation is not sustainable. It is actually a
very good instinct. It’s an instinct of self-preservation. If we had more teachers, principals and
administrators tuned into this instinct, rather than normalizing insane levels
of stress and work, we would actually be able to create a sustaining way of
teaching at the systemic level.
Problem solving and innovation are hallmarks of leaders and
highly valued employees. Preventing burnout needs to be framed in these terms.
Going along with the status quo of burnout is lazy leadership.
Dealing with Burnout on a personal, professional or
political level requires 3 things: Awareness. Honesty. Transformation.
Awareness: We cannot teach like cogs in a machine. We have
to engage a metacognitive perspective about our teaching. Instead of
normalizing feeling stressed – become aware of what is causing it. Investigate
the external (school) and internal (you) structures that might be contributing
to the stress.
Honesty: Honesty is integrity. It is ok to admit that
sometimes you hate your job; that you are imperfect, that aspects of the system
don’t work. Lying to yourself and
pretending its fine when it isn’t, is being out of integrity. Speaking these
truths is important. Venting is an important pressure-release valve. But if all
we do is vent – then we don’t just release the pressure, we lose steam and get
into a downward spiral. We have to take the next step to make venting useful.
Transformation: This is the ability to make thoughtful
changes that have tangible inner and outer results. Most of us are taught to endure. Endurance
has its virtues – especially in situations that are not changeable. But endurance
is only one strategy. Enduring negatives that can be shifted and changed is
disempowering and draining. We need to shift from enduring stress and the
status-quo to transforming it into something better and more sustainable where
we are able.
Improving teaching for teachers is a valuable goal. Teaching
has a toxic culture of burnout. Becoming aware of it, being honest about it and
transforming it means we take teaching and education seriously. It means we
take ourselves seriously so we can be effective professionals. When admin and
districts take it seriously, it means they see their teachers as valued
professionals, not disposable commodities. Creating that kind of change is the
kind of resilience I like to teach.
We cannot be there for our students if we are not there for ourselves.
If teachers souls were truly valued in education, teacher identity would be defined less by the values of emotional sacrifice through overwork, and there would be an understanding of the teacher as an individual, separate from her students and her work. We would give space to the teacher’s soul to create sustaining and fulfilling teaching practice.
When we think of burnout our culture tends to define it as being frazzled and exhausted. So the remedies recommended are to get more sleep, to eat better, schedule a pampering day at the spa. And why don’t we do it? Because it’s not addressing the real issue.
Burnout has less to do with having no time, being overwhelmed with work, juggling too many responsibilities, and more to do with feeling that we have lost touch with what matters.
Says Clarissa Pinkola Estes in the classic Women Who Run with the Wolves:
“When we are overdue for home, our eyes have nothing to sparkle for, our bones are weary…we can no longer focus on who or what we are about…She’s so cross-eyed with tiredness she trudges right on past the place of help and comfort. The dead litter is comprised of ideas, chores and demands that don’t work, have no life and bring no life to her. Such a woman becomes pale and contentions, more and more uncompromising, yet scattered. Her fuse burns shorter and shorter. Popular culture calls this “burnout” – but it’s more than that, it’s hambre del alma, the starving soul.”
Recovery from burnout is not an exercise in time management, it is a spiritual discipline of liberation from dysfunction and of empowering and re-aligning of our energy with our inherent worth and values – it is an exercise in consciously nourishing the soul.
It is not about bringing our personal life into our work life and finding balance. It is having the courage to awaken to and cut out dysfunction and assumptions that starve our soul and work to align our actions and thoughts with beliefs that feed our soul.
When we are soul-starved it can be hard to even know where to start. But we can start by asking ourselves where in life do we feel caged? Where are we told to forget the needs we have and things we love in exchange for tokens of social acceptance or professional accolade? Where do we feel starved?
Sometimes it is what is going on in our personal lives that is the real stressor. It is just that the tremendous workload of teaching exacerbates that stress. When bogged down with the many expectations of teaching, the roles to fulfill, the crushing workload, it is hard to find the space to address the pains of our personal lives.
We must remember not only what a teacher is, but who we are. Teaching can eat up a lot of our lives. Sometimes this feels empowering because when you love what you do, it is a real high to be fully engaged in it. It can be sheer joy. But sometimes it is good to remember that “Teacher” is simply one filter through which the “self”’ is expressed.
In the patriarchal paradigm that has historically influenced the discourse of teaching defines service and care through a lens that does not give full expression to the psychic space of women: to express not just nurturing, serving, and sacrifice, but also strength, structure and agency. Though student-centered teaching is a solid educational practice, it should not render the teacher invisible. Teachers teach kids and the kid is a large part of why we teach, but we also teach for our own fulfillment, our own professional desires and creative endeavors.
We also teach because it is a way to earn a living that allows us to have a life outside of teaching. When we hear disparaging remarks like “Teachers are just in it for the summer holidays”, it can feel like we are not allowed to claim the fundamental truth that we do not have to live for our job. We don’t have to pay with our wellbeing to prove that we are dedicated.
Teachers are very giving. The patriarchal paradigm allows only for a femininity that is giving and sacrificing. But spiritually, the function of the feminine is primarily receptive. When we give without making space for receiving for our own wellbeing, we fall out of balance.
When we show up for ourselves, we reconnect with our soul-essence to receive its blessings. We cannot be there for our students if we are not there for ourselves. When we listen to our deeper needs we are showing we can be there for ourselves. We show up to receive the gift of our would wellbeing when we provide for ourselves what we need to feel secure; take the time to nurture the places in our lives that are hurt, feed the places in our lives that are hungry and give pleasure to the places in our lives that seek joy.
Our souls know how to receive wellbeing. We only need to tap into our intuition to know what in our life doesn’t serve our highest good. Recovery from burnout is realigning our energy with the things that matter to us, awaking to what matters to us and who we really are.