How Do We Care for Ourselves? How Do We Care for One Another?

A photograph of a rainbow taken from an airplane over a city

Content Warning: Trauma; multiple possible mental health triggers related to teaching; disordered eating

It has been a long week.

I am tired.

Among a myriad of meetings and getting a semester off the ground in my new role as department chair, this week, I began analyzing a large data set of current and former P-12 US teachers. The question I started analyzing was:

Please explain (in as much detail as you feel comfortable) how teaching has impacted your physical/ mental well-being

There are 514 responses. Early thematic categories: stress/ stress related effects; anxiety; depression; exhaustion/ fatigue/ sleep disorders; PTSD/ trauma; burn out; disordered eating/ weight fluctuation/ digestive issues; addiction; bullying; self-harm/suicidality; blood pressure issues/ hypertension; migraines; respiratory issues; bladder/kidney issues. Most respondents indicated multiple concurrent issues.

The stress of the profession comes up a lot in the data. This stress comes from administration (mentioned often) and chaotic school environments, parents, high stakes testing, challenges balancing the overwhelming demands of teaching with life outside of teaching (including the struggle to prioritize one’s own family and one’s health & well-being), fear of (or actual trauma from) school shootings, high stakes assessments, targeted attacks from the media. Sometimes educators also reported stress from students themselves (although as a source of stress, students were mentioned often in the context of not being able to support/ address their needs).

There are multiple stories of young teachers who are told by health practitioners that it’s unusual for them to have x condition at their age and it’s likely stress-induced or related. Others tell stories of mental or physical health issues that disappear on weekends, over the summer, or post retirement. There are many participants who report taking medication for mental health related illnesses or self-medicating through food or alcohol.

I am only through coding 8 of 28 pages of data.

To pace myself, I can only go through 2 pages of responses a day.

It is a lot to hold.

And it is so relatable, in many ways.

I have always loved teaching.

I only know how to teach with my whole heart.

I constantly push(ed) myself to do everything I could to support my students, work with their families (when I taught middle school) and improve professionally.

My first year of teaching, I would go the entire day without eating or using a restroom, and then be ravenously hungry and pull into one of the fast food drive thrus on the way home, sometimes finishing an entire meal in less than 5 minutes, my first of the day, as I was driving home around 6pm.

I went back to teaching 6 weeks after my son was born. He was tiny in daycare and got really sick almost immediately. We had to rush him to the ER when I was worried he might have meningitis at 2 months old (he didn’t, but it was super scary for our family, as first time newborn parents). I had terrible insurance. I spent the rest of that year trying to pay off the bills from my (and his) hospitalization following his birth and then the subsequent ER visit.

I’ve been in my classroom, with students, under a desk, during a lockdown with an active shooter that was not a drill. (If you’ve read this blog for a long time, you know that I have close connections to multiple mass shootings so active shooter situations are extremely triggering for me) I’ve taken on much secondary trauma, when a popular student at our school died suddenly on our campus, when students have reported abuse (that I have subsequently had to report) to me, when my students have lost friends or family members to violence.

I have struggled with balance. I continue to struggle with a tendency to overwork because there is always more to do. This puts my family behind my work and myself last.

I have had periods of serious disordered eating which has landed me in the hospital, major mental health challenges, been verbally attacked (once while pregnant) by parents, challenged by administrators for advocating for more humanizing grief support for our students and my colleagues. I’ve had multiple oral surgeries due to night grinding because of stress; I had migraines for a period while teaching. I used to get laryngitis every week and get my voice back Sunday night, just to start all over again.

All of this (well, I haven’t seen night grinding yet, but sleep disturbances are there) is in the data. Over and over. And more. Different but the same.

I left one type of teaching (middle school) for another (teacher education). I never have really been able to imagine a time when I wouldn’t teach in some capacity. Even though all of it. Because I love students and I love education, and I believe in the transformative power of learning, particularly in, with and for community.

Then, last year, I took a sabbatical. And had a mid-life crisis. And began unpacking years and years and years of ignoring myself. I had almost forgotten the sound of my own voice. I had forgotten what brought me joy. I had become so much a product of productivity that I lost myself.

The irony of the core of my work being about humanizing education was that I had completely lost touch with my own humanity.

I see this in so many of the responses shared in this survey data. I feel it in my bones. I know it, viscerally.

I know it’s structural, that we have to work to change the systems that demand such labor. I know it. I am working towards it, in multiple ways, with multiple collaborators.

But, I also know (well, I’m learning…I have a ways to go) the power of boundaries, of saying no, and of refusing to put myself last.

So, how do we begin to care for ourselves? How do we begin to care for one another?

I’m not sure about the answer for others, but the answer for me is always found in community. I could not be learning about boundaries without a 7 year old who demands her mother, friends who throw shade at me until I stop taking on more things (and threaten to fly from their homes to mine to say no for me if I don’t say no for myself), office colleagues telling me to go home and stop sending e-mails after hours, and accountability partners who remind me that I am more than my work, that I am loved for who I am, and that I am better when I am really present rather than really productive. I am reminded when I take the time to connect with myself and with those who I really love, when I let go of that one last thing to do, when I breathe deeply, laugh loudly, brew a perfect cup of tea, then I can bring myself to fight for better, to bear witness, to advocate for others, just as I am standing for myself.

If you’re reading this, I hope you have community, and if you don’t, I hope you’ll make it a priority to create community with people who get it, with people who value you and have your back, with people who will call you on your stuff, and remind you that you’re more than (even) the (extremely valuable) work you do, and that you’ll distance yourself from those that drain your energy, as you can.

I know that individual choices don’t solve institutional problems. I know that there must also be real changes to working conditions for teachers, we, as a society, must respect and value the work teachers do, we must invest in schools, transform the ways we structure teacher time, trust, honor & value teacher expertise. We have to pay teachers better, we have to make teaching sustainable. Teachers deserve better. Students deserve better. Our society deserves better.

I know all of this, and that this will not happen (unfortunately) overnight.

But pockets of humanity remind us that there is another way.

There’s a lot more data to sort through, a lot more (formal, published) writing to do, a lot more work to do for my day job, a lot of things to manage for my family.

But tonight, my act of quiet resistance is sitting, in a quiet house, where everyone else is sleeping, with a cup of perfectly brewed jasmine dragon pearl tea while writing this blog, releasing for a moment all of it, breathing, being, and soon going to sleep myself.

We can begin a revolution of care…for ourselves, and one another. We must because what is now will never be sustainable.

Decoupling my worth from my work

Photograph of a Japanese garden

It’s not so simple to navigate decoupling one’s worth from one’s work when you’ve spent your entire life working to prove your worth.

Conceptually, I’ve been on this journey for awhile. I understand that I am worth more than my work, that my work doesn’t earn me “worthiness points,” that I am not more loved or more lovable when I work harder, or that if I am, it is a shallow love based on productivity and not humanity. I know these things.

However, I’ve realized, in putting boundaries on my work, in order to achieve a balance between getting things done and being present to the world I walk in, that there are many things I’ve confounded with work and with worth…like writing.

I haven’t wanted to write recently, because writing felt like work, because in fact, writing is part of my work. But writing, in reflection, while always pushing me to grow, both personally and professionally, isn’t always work. In fact, it can help bring me to myself from a space where I am spinning, trying to find the grounding I need — something that work used to help me avoid, because there are healthy and unhealthy ways to make the spinning stop.

I can use work to distract myself (because there is always work to be done), or I can breathe into the space and be with what is there.

When I am present to what is, what is there needs a place to go, and when I am sad, that place to go isn’t through spoken words. It comes through writing, or through song, or through tears, or through cooking. It has to be transformed; it is energy that goes into creation or expression in one way or another.

I am learning to come back to myself.

I am reminded that I am in my writing.

But I am also giving myself grace as I grow. I will find times where I forget myself in my writing. I will have times where writing is labor and not expression; I will write for work just as I write for myself.

There are also other ways to come back to myself.

I sing, I cook, I cry, I laugh, I spend time with those I love.

I am still growing. I will probably have periods when I overwork. I will be too tired to write. I will forget myself. I will go back instead of forward.

Writing will not disappear. It will be here when I return.

I will not disappear. I will be here when I return.