We know students do not perform well under stress and pressure. So why are principals and teachers not modeling practices to reduce stress?
The countdown begins. Instead of making every minute count…schools everywhere count the minutes until the coveted last day of school. You can feel the anticipation as soon as Spring break ends and standardized testing season continues to dominate the schedule. And in the flurry of final performance reviews, graduation ceremonies and parties, report cards and celebrations – you can breathe again.
Have you ever tried driving a car when it is running out of gas? Your thoughts are anxious and unfocused. It would be quite difficult to make any type of decision feeling this level of stress and pressure. Moreover, you are attempting to force the car to keep running, even while it putters out…clearly needing a refill. This picture (unfortunately) sums up many years I spent in education. It took me a long time to realize that it is quite unhealthy and detrimental to push yourself until all you can do is collapse. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
I chose the picture above from last summer while I was vacationing for the first time out of the country. I started out simple, hopping the border to Canada and experienced Toronto and the beauty that is Niagara Falls. Undoubtedly, the most exhilarating two weeks of vacation I had ever experienced were during summer of 2016. My trip to Toronto was followed by visiting Spain and France. Despite the incredible experiences I was afforded, I still didn’t quite understand the concept of self-care becoming a habit.
When I returned, I hit the ground even harder than previous years in education; I launched a new high school campus for the nonprofit I was working for (the second one in one year). I got promoted and worked with 10 campuses. Often, I was on the road 3 days every week, crashing on coworkers’ pull-out coaches and relatives’ bunk beds. I was living the dream, right? I convinced myself every day that the mission was noble (which it was). That, somehow, if I just kept working harder I could make a difference. The problem was, that I was running on empty. And if I was running on empty, how could I possibly pour into others I was leading? How could I be effective at a few things if I was attempting to do a hundred things?
I share this experience as a cautionary tale. I started working when I was 15 years old. I would arrive at a local golf course at 4am, cut the greens and work until 10am, then go to two-a-days for volleyball, plus evening conditioning sessions. This type of work ethic became a bad habit. So it’s quite funny that I put the word “break” in quotes. In fact, for most educators, summer “break” is a myth; an urban legend. This is why, if you have habits (like I did) that tend to emulate an attitude resembling riding a bike until the wheels fall off, start taking steps to change your lifestyle.
“In occupations like teaching, or any kind of public service or mental health field, self-care is just too neglected,” says Adam Sáenz, author of The Power of a Teacher, a handbook for educators on practicing wellness. “I know that when I work with kids in my private practice, working with their parents, the adults in the home, is a critical piece of that,” he says. “My heart was to create an intervention for kids, but really, it was more directed to teachers.”
Sáenz was inspired to write his book for teachers and principals after working as a school psychologist. More deeply, his work is personal. He has coined his story “from handcuffs to Harvard” – calling himself a success because of the teachers who supported him as a student. “If we can keep teachers healthy, then every student benefits from that,” he says. “The most effective intervention for every student is a healthy teacher living a balanced life.”
Finally, he calls for principals to build a culture that values and promotes overall wellness. “In most of the schools I’ve been to, there’s no program in place for well-being at all. For the schools that have started talking about the term, it’s mostly about physical well-being. It’s a great start, but it’s such a small piece. As a psychologist, I know that all the areas of wellness are connected and they affect each other. Even if I’m taking care of my body, if my emotional well-being is poor, it’s going to tear my body apart anyway.” To read more of Sáenz’s insights, check out his conversation with NAESP: https://www.naesp.org/principal-janfeb-2013-teacher-staff-development/teacher-wellness-conversation-adam-s-enz.
Culture. The one element that reverberates through how organizations and individuals see, think, interact and live out beliefs in relation to concepts like self-care and wellness.
I used to feel guilty to take time for myself. I convinced myself that I was not serving my students, families or colleagues well. However, self-care must be self-initiated. And sometimes, it starts with modeling this behavior so others can follow your lead. The best piece of advice that one of my mentors shared with me was to take a Sabbath. Whether you are religious or not, a Sabbath observes one day where you do not touch work. It is set apart for rest and rejuvenation. In religious circles, to honor God. This may seem impossible right now. But it isn’t. Take one day every week to recharge, reflect and rejuvenate. If this is the only step you take towards better self-care, and essentially, longevity in career and life – do it.
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Justine González is a former elementary and high school turnaround administrator and teacher. She is the Founder and President of Educator Aide, a company specializing in school transformation through cultural mastery. Educator Aide is an exclusive partner company to The 6 Stages Group.