Teaching WellBeing

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Category: How To Reduce Stress

Too Much Responsibility?

Teachers are never just teachers.

At different times throughout our teaching day we are mother or father, counselor, social worker, first aid attendant, driver, motivational speaker, law enforcer, healer, guide, activist, advocate, political player, lunch provider, snack provider, provider of jackets and shoes, shoe tying assistant, nurse, parent advisor, mediator, crisis manager, health advisor, fitness coach, life-coach, mentor, role-model, researcher, instructional leader, school-success visionary, curriculum expert, pedagogy specialist, fundraiser, event organizer, clean-up crew – and then we also plan, prep, teach, deliver and grade curriculum expectations to a classroom of students.

There’s an African proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child”. True. But in our schools it seems that the responsibility of the villages rests with the teacher. Is this fair or realistic?

It’s not that teachers resent these roles, it’s that how do you maintain any sanity when so many roles are downloaded onto one person responsible for a minimum of 30 kids?

We just do it. We do it because we feel we must. We are responsible.

But are we responsible for everything? Or is this just what we tell ourselves?

Responsibility in the dictionary looks like this: blame, liability, accountability, job, duty, task, dependability, conscientiousness.

None of that sounds very inspiring or empowering.

Deepak Chopra, among others, has defined responsibility as the ability to respond.   Now that’s something. What are we responsible for? Not shouldering blame or guilt, but the power to use our ability to respond to situations that require our skills in ways that don’t wear us down. How can we use our power of response to make healthy choices for ourselves and our students? We could say:

“I choose to have this job and staff meetings are a part of the job description, therefore I choose to show up in a pleasant mood and to bring food to make it enjoyable.”

“I choose to use a ready-made activity, rather than create one so I can save 1 hour of time and use it to spend time with family.”

“I choose to drop one extra-curricular activity a week so I can have that time to do another important task on my long to-do list.”

“I choose not to become emotionally entangled in the problematic aspects of my students’ lives beyond that of my professional and ethical obligations, and refer them to competent counselors in trust.”

When we take back our ability to choose, responsibility is feels freeing, not burdensome. …and that is a step towards wellbeing.

Stressed and Silent

Everyone’s doing it but no one wants to talk about it…

It amazes me how many times in private conversations teachers will tell me about their extreme anxiety in dealing with situations that the most well-adjusted person would have difficulty coping with. I suggested to one such person that they take some time off to recover and get their health back. She said “I can’t do that. If I take leave for mental health, I’ll ruin my career within the district.”  I didn’t think that was true, but that belief felt very real for her – and it is very real to many teachers.

This stigma makes many teachers suffer in silence.

Everyone who teaches knows how stressful it can be – so why the stigma?  Why are we, as a profession, reluctant to name the issue and heal it in our selves and in the schools?

It is seen as a weakness to not be willing to deal with very real stress and dysfuction and affirm one’s own wellbeing, but a strength to endure in silence in situations that lack any sense of wellness or health?  A strength to go along with all that is wrong, a weakness to stand up for what is right?

Why do we accept stress as normal? Why do we resist finding a less stressful way to live?

This nonsense just makes it all the harder to deal with stress. It makes you feel isolated to begin with, feeling stigmatized prevents you from seeking help or connecting to people who also think the stress is ridiculous.

And do you know how many people that would be if we were to be honest? I’d guess that a lot of the very people who stigmatize those who suffer stress are the most stressed of all. Maybe there is a bit of the ” I had to deal with this same stress and no one helped me, so suck it up and deal with it” syndrome…

I always try to encourage people to not give into the stigma and stay silent. But to surround themselves with supportive people, make a case for their wellbeing and pursue their right to heal from stress.

Job stress takes up a big part of life – how do you want to be living your life?

Self Acceptance and stress

Self-acceptance is not complacency.Wanting better for ourselves, aspiring to move from stress to well-being and accepting our imperfections are not mutually exclusive states of mind. Of course, strong, educated, confident people find a way to live amongst societal pressures and uphold their own self-worth. Empowered, conscious living requires us to actively create the life we aspire to. Most of what is presented to us as the ‘ideal’ way to live requires us to uphold images and behaviours that are dysfunctional.

These images need to be interrogated so we are clear as to what we are aspiring to. It is important to evaluate our shortcomings, but within a larger picture of what we are trying to accomplish. Life is not only about achieving our aspirations and getting “a bit better everyday”. It is navigating the highs and lows of the road of aspiration. There are times on the path to go forward, and there are times to stop and rest. Wisdom and self-reflection allow you to discern that for yourself. Our quest to “do a bit better everyday” can’t be done in the same paradigm that drives workaholicism, overwhelm and stress.

Admitting to having days where everything falls apart and we don’t reach the summit we were aiming for is not begrudging those who can handle adversity better than us or who are better off. It is pointless to compare ourselves to others because the only one who is going to live your life is you. Finding within ourselves some humility and gentleness to accept that not everyday is going to be heroic, is not wallowing in self-pity — it’s accepting the moment for what it is in that space of time. If we can’t admit to having an “off” day without being told we might be wallowing in self-pity or begrudging others their wellbeing, we are setting up for ourselves an impossible standard of living and wellbeing to aspire to.

Gladwell off the mark with class size

A few weeks ago Outliers and the Tipping Point author, Malcolm Gladwell, gave the keynote address at the Imagining Ontario’s Future Conference. He’s a brilliant writer and thinker – but if he wants to speak on K-12 education he should spend some time in a classroom. Preferably a class of 35 Grade 7s in a portable resourced and designed for 25, in the unaircondiditoned heat of a sweltering Ontario June day.

He caused a bit of a stir in education circles. He said that reducing class size was pursing a dead end – what mattered most was improving the quality of teachers.

Now I agree that quality teachers are key to having a good educational experience, but what kind of quality education can an individual deliver in an over-filled, under-resourced classroom?

Not surprisingly, the Toronto Star’s Saturday’s paper on May 16 included many letters from incensed teachers.

I was one of them. Here’s what I wrote:

Advice to Mr. Gladwell: stick to what you know. Teaching K-12 is not like speaking to a university lecture hall full of grown-ups. Teachers negotiate diverse levels of academic ability, facility in English, behavioural tendencies, and home-environment influences in classes of children from ages 4-18. In his book, Outliers, Mr. Gladwell states it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert in any field. I have my 10,000 hours in teaching K-12; he has about 10,000 to go.

No Air-brushing please

Yesterday I had plans to do 12 sun salutations when I woke up, go to work, come home and go for a walk to enjoy the warm, sunny day. That would be followed by making dinner and lunch for tomorrow, call a friend to make plans, prepare a workshop, prepare some applications for courses, update this blog, and about 6 other items on my ever-growing to-do list, finished of with a half hour of yoga.

I managed to wake up, go to work, take a short walk, eat dinner, call a friend (who wasn’t even home – so that cut down on time used up!) and research some applications. I felt frazzled – because I hadn’t accomplished anything that I felt I really needed to. Then I felt cruddy – because I hadn’t completed my list. Then I felt guilty – because I don’t even have toddlers to care for and I still couldn’t get much done so early in the week. Then I felt cruddy again – because if I really were a superwoman I’d have toddlers – or atleast a cat.

But I did manage to sit in meditation for 5 short minutes – just long enough to quell the growing anxiety in my chest. In that quiet, I asked myself: who am I competing with that I have this anxiety about having it all together?

We are fed this socially air-brushed ideal of what our daily life should look like. We should all be happily married, economically secure, accomplishing everything in an organized and optimized fashion, eathing perfectly balanced meals, and filling our day with perfectly balanced activities and goals, and of course looking quite perfect as well with no interruptions, dramas, or emotional reactions to anything or anyone.

If that’s not the photo of our daily life, we must be doing something wrong. Or so we’re led to believe.

Real people develop real character and life experience for the very reason that their life isn’t airbrushed. It’s brushing up against imperfection that gives us our wisdom, strength, compassion, stories and laugh lines.

Give yourself a break. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to do it perfectly. No one is watching. No one is going to evalute you. Do the work that takes care of you and those you have in your care. The rest of the to-do list will get done – you know it will. Commit to not doing it with anxiety. Every morning and evening I light a candle, do some relaxing breaths, remember what is important to me, what I’d like to accomplish, what I need and what I am grateful for. Sometimes all I can manage is 2 minutes, sometimes I have time for a 30 minute meditation. The point is that it calms my centre, refocuses me on what is important and what isn’t. The calm beginning and end to my day assures me that everything will be ok, that I’m doing fine.

In the fashion world air-brushing has been exposed for the unrealistic expectation-maker that it is. Jessica Simpson is celebrated on the cover of this issue of Marie-Claire sans make-up or retouching. We should keep in mind to not try to live up to air-brushed expectations of daily living as well.

What’s Your Key?

I wonder if I would have read anything on this blog and considered it helpful when I was at my stressed-out-teacher worst? Back then I’m not even sure I knew I was stressed out. I think I assumed I was fine. I mean – I felt stress – all the telltale signs of it – but it never occurred to me to see that as something negative even though it felt negative. I was just doing the daily grind of what every teacher does, flavoured by my own teaching ideals. I just assumed since I loved being a teacher this must just be how it was supposed to feel.

It never occurred to me to question the job itself and how it’s done. ‘That’s just how teaching is’ is the message I heard. In June – after the bulk of the year is done, reporting is done and you’re basically just holding the kids at bay until the holidays – I’d have a giant crying meltdown once I got home. I’d always assumed this was normal.

Until I realized it happened every June. After my fourth June, it also happened at the end of August – right when you’re supposed to be refreshed and enthusiastic to start another year. That’s when I knew I was stressed out. Stress wasn’t the key – unhappiness was. It was the key that unlocked the door or my denial and placed me on a path to wellness. Everyone has their key. My friend got a big tumour (luckily benign) – that was her key. Until teaching becomes a profession where teacher wellness is approached proactively, rather than reactively; until unreasonable workload is considered a problem and not a norm – we need to be on the lookout for our key and open the door for ourselves to wellbeing.

Keeping Busy?

Are you keeping busy?

A couple of people asked me this recently – a part of a long-time-no-see kind of greeting.

My automatic response was: I’m busier than I need to be.

I wasn’t being entirely honest. Ok – not at all honest, actually. The truth is I haven’t been busy lately. Work has slowed to a comfortable pace and I’m enjoying my time just.. enjoying things, taking things slow. What was it that kept me from answering honestly? It was like some subliminal vibe informing me that the appropriate response is: Yes, I’ve been keeping busy.

What is it with our society? How did BUSY become a vituous quality worthy of a friendly greeting? If I’m not “keeping busy” then what is the image being projected upon me? That I’m unprofessional? Unintelligent? Spoiled for having time on my hands? Sloth-like?

I’m not trying to make a big issue out of a small well-meaning comment by friends. It just made me realize that our society in general seems to have an obsession with BUSYness? Are we afraid the BUSYness gods are going to come raging at us and give us a good talking-to about being slackers! Yikes! Can’t you be working at what is important and living life without being busy? How can we ever discover peace and create a life where stress doesn’t cause negative anxiety and resentment if BUSYness holds such a prominent place in our psyches?

It haunts my psyche too. I’d like to exorcise it! I don’t want to be busy. I’d like to be purposeful. I’d like to do what I need to do, choose to do, want to do with my time. The hours in the day are too precious to waste on being busy.