Teaching WellBeing

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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.

Stop Telling Teachers to be Resilient

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.

Valuing Teachers’ Souls

Sunny Spring day

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.

Teacher Burnout and the Good-Mother Mindset

A One-Room School House

Many teachers feel burdened by the expectations to be a nurturing teacher, a social activist, a creative pedagogue, a worker with a limitless work ethic and to do it all with a smile and boundless energy. When much of your free time is spent on planning, marking, creating for school or thinking about how to improve students’ experience, you can lose a sense of your own life. What teacher hasn’t experienced feeling buried beneath countless worksheets from many classes you teach, the extracurricular activities, the multiple school and district committees to sit on, and having hundreds of students to report on?

I remember thinking many times when I was teaching: “If I were a CEO I would have a team of administrative support staff to assist me. But since I’m a teacher I just feel like I’m in a one-room-school house with no one there but me to do all the work.” But I never considered it to be problematic. It was just what you did. That’s what teaching was. That’s what every teacher I knew, had or worked with did.

When I was considering my leave-options to handle my burnout from teaching, I remember going to the district’s employee program. The counselor there sized me up and said, “You know, I can’t ask how old you are, but from how old you look most women your age would already have had a maternity leave and that would help you feel less stressed.” My jaw unhinged. With that comment I understood for the first time how sexist notions of femininity in teaching and the primacy placed on women being mothering had contributed to my burnout.

I saw how the culture of schooling socialized me to be complicit in my own burnout. Even as a feminist, I was embodying sexist norms that I didn’t agree with. Being self-sacrificing. Putting my own needs last. Being in service to everyone but myself. Ignoring my needs for time and support because someone always needed caretaking. These were all the underlying themes of my stress in teaching. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. How was it possible to become complicit with these sexist norms without realizing it? How had I lost myself, when I thought I was doing myself and my career a service? For how many teachers is burnout-prone behaviour normalized through the unspoken norms of sexist femininity that is embedded in the culture of teaching?

 

The Wounded Roots of In Loco Parentis: When Mothering in Teaching Harms

Although mothering is only one expression of femininity, when working with kids, mothering becomes a feature of the dynamic. Mothers bring life into being. They nurture existence. Ideally mothering would teach love, self-esteem, individuation and communal responsibility to the growing child. It would be a respected role, which respected the woman in it. But historically mothering has been the ground of homeschooling patriarchal values. The role of the good-mother grows out of the norms of sexist femininity.

The ideal of sexist femininity is rooted in the history of teacher development. The earliest influences in the 1800s in North American public schooling came from the social norms of that time. Of course in those days only single women were allowed to teach – so that their full attention could be on their young charges. The single teacher was prohibited from becoming a wife and mother if she wanted to keep her career. In this way the independent woman was deprived of an adult role and relegated to role of the good daughter and patriarchy was not disrupted, only entrenched. This good daughter was encouraged to become a good-mother to her students. In her historical analysis of the feminization of teaching, Madeline Grumet writes: “Catharine Beecher (an early theorist in education) argued for placing educational responsibility in the hands of women, maintain their submissiveness and elevating feminine self-sacrifice, purity and domesticity into moral superiority.” Beecher’s now antiquated argument has impacted the lives of teachers for 200 years. It settled into the culture of teaching and it has never left.

Of course this is 2017. Women have made such social, legal and economic advances we have to ask if this is still relevant today? Grumet thinks it is. She writes, “From those early days of industrialization when the first women took a day at school or summer school session to their majority in the teaching corps today, women teachers have been weighted down by this attribution of passivity and self-abnegation”. You can see the manifestation of this in the 25% burnout rates amongst teachers. Enforced passivity and self-abnegation depletes the self of vitality. To prevent burnout, teachers need to un-school themselves from these ingrained values that shape the expectations, identity, roles and workloads of teachers.

The historical roots of patriarchal femininity expressed as traditional mothering as a model for teacher education shows up in the expectations we have of what makes someone a good teacher. Grumet posited “The education for this cult of motherhood required the mastery of self-denial”. We can see this influence in some of the norms of practice embedded in teaching. These five principles are some unspoken assumptions in what it means to be a good teacher.

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.
  2. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of the teacher.
  3. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching.
  4. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.
  5. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems.

These five aspects of “good teaching” serve a system that requires teachers be complicit in their own stress by dressing up patriarchal norms of femininity and mothering as good teaching practice.

 

Examining “Good” Teaching

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.

This principle is rooted in the social construction of teacher roles in the 1800s. Grumet write that “This image of the ideal woman and the ideal mother were extended into the training and work of the ideal teacher” and until today has a tight hold on the culture of teaching. This diminishes the professionalism of teachers by over emphasizing their role as natural caretaker over that of professional educator. The concept of in loco parentis legally requires teachers take responsibility to act in the best interests of their charges in the absence of the students’ parents throughout the day. This is good and no one is rejecting that premise. But acting in loco parentis doesn’t mean to take on the emotional and spiritual responsibilities of mothering and parenthood. There are ways of being caring without enmeshing the role of mother with teacher.

  1. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of their own wellbeing.

This principle follows from the first. The guilt put on teachers to negate their own wellbeing, time management and personal boundaries for the good of their students is symptomatic of the mother-concept in education. The result is often compassion fatigue, a syndrome common amongst the caring professions, particularly female-dominated ones such as nursing, social work and teaching. A healthy ethic of care, in 2017, should move beyond gendered expectation of women bearing the brunt of emotional caretaking. And I’m not forgetting about the men who serve in our schools. In teaching, men’s experience of teaching becomes influenced by notions of patriarchal femininity as well. Regardless of their gender, the emotional labour traditionally placed on the shoulders of women is placed on all teachers.

It’s interesting that there is some research to suggest that male teachers burnout at a faster rate than women teachers. I think this is because women are socialized to shoulder the sexist expectations and demands of emotional labour in society at large, and teaching being a feminized environment women teachers know how to exist within those parameters, even if they disagree with them. Men are not socialized in the same way. Men are socialized to be the recipients of this emotional labour, even if this is not conscious on the part of men. The male teachers I have worked have been as caring, dedicated, and hardworking as any female teacher I know, but I wonder if in feminized environments male teachers experience a cognitive dissonance between their socialization outside of the school and the demands of emotional labour within the school culture. You could say that any person who respects their sanity would be driven to quit teaching, But women are socialized to align with these patriarchal values and are used accommodating this value of servitude. Men are not and I think this might be why men leave teaching for other careers at a higher rate than women. The 19th century mores encouraging “self-abnegation and sacrifice” have no place in 21st century schools. Good teachers can serve their students with integrity without destroying their own wellbeing.

  1. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching

This principle echoes the mother-ethic. Patriarchy equates femininity with motherhood. It requires mothers to be of service in a way that denies a woman’s personal agency. Denied of agency she cannot advocate for her needs. Her needs are rendered invisible; her only need is to serve her family through mothering. What if teacher-training were designed as if the teacher actually mattered as a person with goals, aspiration, passions and not just a conduit of educational facilitation and emotional-caretaking for students? This invisibility of the teacher is nothing new. In her analysis Frances Maher states that in Dewey’s treatise Democracy and Education “the curriculum and the students are the main concern, not the agency of the person who brings them together”. Maher describes how this historical omission of the visibility of the teacher has led to education courses lacking a space for the inclusion of both the teachers’ and students’ voice, minimizing teacher autonomy, and lacking intellectually stimulating in-service training.

Making teachers’ needs and desires visible is important. If the teacher burns out who will teach? Teachers are the core of education. Their needs cannot be make invisible. They are too important. Unfortunately their personal and professional needs are very often sidelined.

  1. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.

This principle shows up when teachers are blamed for all manner of issues within education. Whether it is student behaviour, or test scores or the state of schools, the implicit understanding is often that teacher who has anything go wrong must not be “raising the kids right”, because of course, mothering and teaching so often are conflated. Mothering within patriarchy is an unsupported exercise. Historically relegated to the hearth, the mother figure is cut off from other forms of personal agency and social connection, and when she struggles she is blamed for her inability to cope with the strictures imposed on her. Maher’s feminist analysis blames this patriarchal narrative of the mother-like teacher isolated in her classroom with her kids as reinforcing “the false assumptions of individual teacher blame and responsibility. Teachers need to be supported and respected rather than ignored or solely blamed for the conditions of their work”. When the toxic guilt instilled by this principle is internalized, emotional distress increases. The teacher has influence to be sure, but the sphere of influence on each student is far wider than any one teacher. The many political, systemic and social factors that influence the classroom hold far more power than any one teachers’ resistance to them. You can only take responsibility for what you have control over. To frame your teaching practice on a false assumption of total teacher responsibility is a recipe for frustration.

  1. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems

This principle sounds so positive on the surface, but it is an excuse to blame the teacher rather than do the political and systemic work required find effective solutions to the issues facing students, teachers, and schools. And doesn’t that just sound like what a good mother does? In a throwback to 1950s ideas, the good mother takes care of her kids, is always smiling and can handle any crisis without complaint. As Grumet notes, “the cult of maternal nurturance prohibited those who stayed behind the desk from confessing their rage, frustration and disappointment to each other”. This principle denies the teacher an avenue to express dissatisfaction. It shows up when voicing personal struggles with stress is equated with professional incompetency or a lack of dedication and care.

Burnout is still an issue that not many teachers want to openly admit to suffering from. It labels you a teacher who “can’t handle it”, rather than being understood as a natural reaction to a working within a system that has been molded by historical norms and assumptions that are detrimental to a persons’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. To reclaim our wellbeing as teachers we have to stand against the forces that would have us be complicit in our own disempowerment. Teaching is a profession dominated by women. Imagine what could happen if we all stood up and claimed    non-patriarchal femininity as the norm for defining good teaching. Would teacher burnout even exist?

 

Sources

Grumet, M. (1981). Pedagogy for patriarchy: The feminization of teaching.

        Interchange, 12(2-3), 165-184.

Maher, F. A. (1999) Progressive Education and Feminist Pedagogy: Issues in Gender,

Power and Authority. Teachers College Record, 101 (1, Fall), 35-59.

 

 

 

 

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