At the start of the summer, colleagues of mine reposted a link to the Education Week op-ed, “We’ve Said Goodbye to This Year’s Students. Now It’s Time to Take Care of Ourselves,” by Justin Minkel. The article is quite sensible in identifying that “Teachers are notorious for taking care of everyone but ourselves,” but absolutely wrong in suggesting that “The coming summer provides a perfect chance to change that.”
Truth be told, year seventeen of teaching was a difficult year for me. Overwhelmed with demands placed on me by a new administration and new demands at home, my wellness took a hit. Coming off of surgery just before last summer, my exercise diminished as the 2018-19 school year progressed. I stopped taking care of myself, and I stopped doing anything that either wasn’t related to working for my students and school or supporting my family. I usually say, “Yes,” to administration, colleagues, students throughout the year, but this year I felt like I was saying, “Yes,” more and more. As an educator, I always want to help others so much that much of the time I don’t help myself. So what did I do? I forgot about writing or reading or guarding my time to practice ongoing self-care. I forgot about socializing and friendship. I pulled my head and arms and legs into my shell and waited it out. What was I waiting for? What I always wait for as a teacher — summer! Just like my past seventeen years as a teacher, I was relying on summer to “recharge and reboot and relax and refresh and rest.” Such words are also common in administrators’ end of the school year and start of the school year remarks, as if they are saying, “we acknowledge that you stink at taking care of yourselves, so do it in the summer!” However, Minkel’s article reminded me that this is precisely the problem.
The expectation put on teachers (by ourselves and our systems) that we must sacrifice our self-care during the school year is unhealthy and wrong. However, it’s what many of us teachers regularly succumb to, relying on summer to save us. Why? Because the alternative is downright even harder to do — to live differently with healthier and happier lives all year long. It surprises me that Minkel’s article narrowly advocates for coming up for air primarily at the end of the school year; many of his ideas should be integrated into the school year!
Instead of relying on some shared sense of a summer that saves us, we teachers need to work harder during the academic year at building sustainable, healthy lives that are personally and professionally satisfying. Can this be done? I think so. Looking back on my own challenging school year, I realize that what helped me at the end were four simple actions (which are interrelated and in no specific order), epitomized in this brief mantra:
A teaching life need not to be defined by the stress and anxiety so prevalent within an academic year. As teachers, we can prioritize what we do and to what we commit and still do right by our school and our students. Whatever is most pressing and directly benefits student learning should be done first. We have to let go of some things that just aren’t as important for facilitating student learning. However, you might ask: What if everything is important? Well, let’s be honest. It’s not. It might seem like it, but we should ask ourselves to whom is this work important? Is it important so that students in our classes learn? If not, let go of it. Is it important to administration but maybe not as important to student learning? If so, prioritize which is due first. Let go of what is due second, at least for the time being. Prioritizing and letting go work hand-in-hand. Everything is not important all of the time although it might seem that way.
We also need to self-reflect in order to know what we need. If we commit to practicing such reflection daily, we can take better care of ourselves and make clearer decisions about what we do and do not want for our own professional and personal lives. We can prioritize what we need at any time, but this is most effective after we have spent considerable time reflecting on our own situations. Prioritizing our own daily reflective practice, primarily through mindfulness or exercise or both, can help us sort through what is best for us personally and professionally. By reflecting we also can sort out what is important, and by doing this we can set boundaries (i.e. I will do this; I will not do that). In this way, we can still say yes, but we can grow in our courage to say no. Making a habit of tapping into this courage means sustaining the self throughout the year. To say no as an educator is not to say, “I don’t care.” To say no as an educator is to say, “I am practicing self-care.” When we say no we also allow ourselves to fully engage in the deep, meaningful work which we prioritized when we said yes. We enable ourselves to do better work on what matters most when we say no.
Standing up for one’s own self-care is empowering, and we won’t need to rely on summer to “recharge” as much as Minkel suggests if we make this a habit. Sure, summer can and will still be filled with everything that makes it such an amazing time of year for educators. However, it doesn’t need to be our salvation; it doesn’t need to be an “oasis” wherein we finally “get to” take care of ourselves.
So as I look forward to year eighteen, as administrators and fellow teachers welcome me back and express to me that they hope my summer was filled with time to “recharge my batteries,” I’ll smile, thank them, wish them the same, but in the back of my mind, I’ll be reminding myself to
As we all embark on another academic year, I challenge you to take whatever steps necessary for you to lead a satisfying professional and personal life all year long, not just in the summer. I look forward to reading about how you’re doing it.
P.S. If you’re really searching for one guide to help, you might consider starting with The Frazzled Teacher’s Wellness Guide. If you’re not ready to buy a full book on the subject, check out the article “Educator Wellness: Self-Care in a Selfless Field” or Edutopia’s Teacher Wellness section of its site. Also, check out these tips for prioritizing exercise! Enjoy what remains of your summer and have a great year!