I recently came across this brief article, “Buy a cat, stay up late, don’t drink: top 10 writers’ tips on writing” in The Guardian, and I thought it was especially appropriate for teachers who also want to make writing lives of their own.
However, I do have one additional piece of advice which is especially important for educators who want to make writing lives: in order to make a writing life, give to yourself first.
What this means is that although we, as educators, have the natural inclination to give so much of ourselves to our students and their parents, to our lessons, to our grading, to our after school activities, etc., we often neglect the necessary work of self-care that is absolutely essential for a writing life. This past fall, I was guilty of this. I gave up writing and exercising and replaced those activities with school work, sacrificing myself to meet with students, to respond to emails, to grade in the morning, and to generally allow myself to be consumed by my service. I became lethargic, enervated, and less than happy for months on end. And I kept giving this way, thinking that I needed to give more and more and more to my work as a teacher. However, I felt that I couldn’t ever give enough and that even though I was working so hard, there was always more to give. I became trapped in a cycle of giving so much to others that I had nothing left to give to myself. Why and how did this happen after over fifteen years in the classroom? Shouldn’t I have known better? How did I lose my way?
At my school, I am fortunate to have many, many students who want to excel. They work hard, and the vast majority genuinely care about their learning and/or their grades. They want to write better and to improve upon their abilities, and as an educator who cares, I want to be there for them to help facilitate their learning and to help them to achieve their dreams. This is my natural tendency, and the habit of many other educators with whom I work. However, some of us are givers who are terrible at giving to ourselves. I’m one of them, and I suspect that I’m not alone.
Enter December and its holiday break, which gave me time for reflection. What I learned is that prioritizing my writing and my exercising does not have to be in conflict with my grading, my lesson-planning, or my meeting with my high achieving students/their parents. Instead, in order to be at my best, I need to “give to myself” first with writing and exercising. Building a healthy and writer-ly life as an educator means that I must make the time for those kinds of work every day. I cannot shortchange myself by not “paying myself” at all. This has required me to adjust how I go about “paying myself.” Here’s my new standard schedule:
- I used to exercise in the morning, but recently I’ve discovered that this just won’t work for me anymore. I need more sleep than I used to. Now in the mornings when the house is quiet, when the cats snuggle up next to me, when I can have my cup of coffee, when I have my pen and journal in hand, and when I can think in silence before my family wakes, this is my writing time. Also, I used to immediately check social media in the morning. Now, after deleting those apps from my phone, I make a conscious effort to delay checking in online until I’ve had my writing time. Pen and paper. No computer unless I’m at a revision stage. No WiFi. No phone.
- Then it’s off to school work. Even though school is not yet in session for us, this time is still filled with comments and grading.
- I tend to crash around late afternoon, so when I’m at my energy low later in the day? Exercise! This shift is necessary for me; however, what it means is that I may have to say “no” to some after contract hours activities in order to take care of my physical well-being. That’s okay.
- At home with my family, I get little done in the evenings aside from occasional assessing of student work. I answer emails within twenty-four hours, so I cannot guarantee students will be able to reach me after I leave for the day. When I’m at home, I’m husband and dad first and foremost.
December holiday break can be a rejuvenating time. For me, I realized that writing, teaching, exercising, and spending time with my family are all restorative “must-do” activities for me. All of those things nurture my spirit and help me be better all around as an artist, as a professional educator, as a father and a husband, and as a friend and a colleague. If I’m spending time giving to myself by prioritizing my writing and my exercising, I’m happier, more focused, more energetic, and more able to engage in additional school work, if necessary. I’m also eager to give more, and I feel better about doing so.
So if, like me, you’re an educator who’s feeling bogged down by how much you give, give to yourself first. Engage in what nourishes you, and you’ll be in a better position to positively impact everyone around you. Before you know it, your writing will reflect this, too.
All best in writing, fitness, meditation, reflection, and self-care in 2018 and beyond,