How Do We Teach and Have a Healthy Life?
A MiddleWeb Blog
I have just wrapped up one of the busiest fall seasons of my life.
In addition to a poorly-timed, major DIY home remodeling project, I took two graduate classes to apply for my teaching license renewal, presented at two national and one state conference, took on a new class at school, began writing a new monthly blog (this one), and decided to revamp major portions of my classroom curriculum.
This was coupled with trying to assist parents and in-laws going through some tough health issues of their own.
I don’t provide this list as some kind of bragging rights. I don’t think how busy we all are should be a competition. Plus, I know all teachers (or other caregivers) out there can relate and have a similar list of their own.
I share this information to put this article in its proper context– namely that is was written by a teacher in full exhaustion and in illness mode hoping (and needing) to make a change soon. You may be such a teacher, too.
Why don’t we take better care of ourselves?
I truly thought I was handling this crazy schedule well until I ended up in urgent care on Thanksgiving with an unconfirmed diagnosis of scarlet fever and a bottle of antibiotics. As I got angry with myself for letting it get this far, I reflected on how I should have seen the signs before I got to this point.
I truly love my career, and I have never wavered on my commitment to being a teacher. However, I cringe when I recall how mired down in negativity I have been this fall. I have a great job, yet I joined in on every single complaining session, even starting some myself.
There were many evenings where I sat, staring at the television, and felt like crying for no discernable reason. I passed up several social opportunities, even when I had really wanted to go. I was even starting to lose my patience with my students and not giving them the care they deserved.
Just as I was on the edge of melting down completely, I found respite in knowing I would be attending the National Council of Teachers of English convention right before Thanksgiving break. Because of social media, I now know many others who attend this conference, and it feels like a class reunion every time. I knew I would find some sort of inspiration to get me out of my funk. And I did.
What we can learn from fellow teachers
Several friends of mine gave a presentation subtitled “How to Be an English Teacher and Have a Life.” It was so popular that people were sitting in the hallway hoping to glean some of their wisdom. I had seen them give this presentation over the summer and knew they had great ideas to share about prioritizing what they were teaching and grading in order to make room for enjoying their lives. I took comfort in the fact that this topic struck a chord in my peers and that I was not alone in feeling overwhelmed.
The next day, I was a round table leader at a presentation about being a reflective teacher. At my table a calm, smiling professor from Singapore provided such profound wisdom that I immediately begged him to write his thoughts down in a book.
He reminded me that there is no “best” practice or “perfect” teacher, there are only more or less effective techniques. He said that as long as we are working to the best of our knowledge and capacity, then we are doing right by our students. I was truly grateful for this exchange. I also secured his contact information for future conversations. Our table came to consensus that we should have the confidence to do what we know is good for kids and share our ideas with others.
Bright Idea: My Stress Management Plan
Even though I came home from the convention ill and exhausted, I was still invigorated and inspired. Instead of remaining angry and frustrated about getting ill over vacation (again), I am going to take charge of the situation and see if I can make significant changes to avoid a repeat.
I decided I needed to make a Stress Management Plan so that I could enjoy a germ-free winter break.
First, I will take care of my physical health. This seemed the easiest to tackle because I know exactly what I was doing wrong this fall. I craved salt, sugar, and fat and gave in to these cravings far too often. I was not sleeping well and often found myself wide-awake at 3 AM for no good reason aside from stress.
I quit doing yoga and barely even found time to walk more than up and down the halls at school. I found numerous excuses to avoid my yearly dentist visit. I couldn’t even find time to squeeze in the one luxury I allow myself – a monthly massage – into my schedule. There is no excuse for this and it ends today.
My dear friend, Nancy, who is a hospice nurse, reminded me that I can’t give what I don’t have. Sound advice, indeed. I know I feel better when I drink my homemade green smoothies for breakfast, eat healthful food, drink plenty of water, and get enough rest and exercise, so I just need to make this more of a priority.
from “Doing More Isn’t Doing Better” NCTE presentation
Second, I will take care of my emotional well being. It is not normal for me to feel on the edge of tears all the time, and I should not have neglected that as a sign that I needed to change. Instead, I will find time to spend with my friends and family that does not involve shoptalk. I treasure these people, and I have neglected them this school year.
Instead of the whining and gossip that I had been engaging in with colleagues, I will try to focus on all of the blessings our job affords us and the fact that we have each other for support. I love to have fun and can recall only a handful of times when I had a good belly laugh this fall. I need to find time to get back to laughing every day.
I have also neglected the hobbies that bring me joy. My plan is to contact friends I haven’t seen in a while and arrange a meeting, do activities that make me happy, give my brain a break when needed, and focus on all of the good in my life.
from “Doing More Isn’t Doing Better” NCTE presentation
Third, I will make a professional attitude adjustment. At the beginning of the school year, I had high hopes that the ideas I worked on over the summer would be somehow life changing and I would finally be the “perfect” teacher I hoped to be.
While they were successful, nobody is perfect. Instead of feeling guilty that I am not the perfect teacher, I need to appreciate that I am doing enough to be good for my students. I need to focus on what is most meaningful and prioritize the learning opportunities I offer as well as how they will be assessed (if at all).
I need to realize that I am only human and it is not possible to revamp everything all at once. Taking baby steps toward incorporating change is still progress. I am going to surround myself with inspiration and focus on why I went into this profession in the first place and why I keep coming back. Teaching is the best job in the world.
Most important, I will not allow myself to feel guilty or selfish for taking care of me. As a teacher, I am the tools I use to do my job. As with any other profession, I need to care for my instrument. I am starting today by posting these words of my favorite poet/artist, Brian Andreas, on my wall:
Visit the Brian Andreas Story People site
What about you? What’s your stress management plan? Share in the comments…
Thank you for this encouragement and timely reminder.
Cheryl, once again, you hit the nail on the head. Now get offline and get some sleep! ;) Thank you for the reminders here – they will be read and valued and advice will be taken by many readers!
I’m retired now, but in my last years in the classroom, I decided to do more fun things curriculum-wise. There are lots of great lessons on the web, rather than having to devise lessons from scratch. But I wrote with my students both in our journals and for essays and shared it, we sang songs together, and I used Reader’s Theater and played Scrabble and other games. My classes wrote flash fiction stories together by brainstorming and then voting on the best introduction before going onto the middle. I justified these activities of course with the standards. But I remember actually looking forward to going to school the night before.
Thank you Cheryl for your courage and great insights! There is a saying that Patch Adams once said to me that has helped me tremendously. I had taken on an administrator role at the time. He said, “As a humanitarian, if you are not glowing, you need to take a break.” As teachers that want to give, want make a difference and care so much about so many, we often don’t give to ourselves. The book One Minute for Yourself (Spencer Johnson) and the app StopBreatheThink app have done wonders for me.
We as teachers need to focus on what we have completed in the day not what we didn’t get to.
Well said. We are often so busy we don’t have time to talk to colleagues or friends. I crashed for two days during the Thanksgiving break. Thanks for the reminder to not feel guilty and for effective techniques, not the perfect teacher or best practice. Brett
Good for you, Cheryl. You put a critical voice to what we all feel.
We have to do cost/benefit analysis when we teach. How much will this really ADD to my students’ lives? How much will it take away from mine? If it’s doing too much taking away from you and it won’t do much for them, you might need to rethink what you’re doing. I think we have a tendency to think that the harder we work, the better it is for our students. That just isn’t always the case.
Also, I get up at 4:45 every morning. Most of those mornings, I hit the gym with my friends. I am fortunate to belong to a group of wonderful crazies who work out when I do. It makes me feel great. On those mornings I don’t or can’t, I get up to do school work. I’m much fresher and can get things done twice as quickly than I can at night. I drink one green smoothie a day, drink my water and take my vitamins.That doesn’t mean I don’t indulge, either! I love rich foods, coffee, and sweets, too, I just try to keep them in moderation. (Well, not the coffee.)
Taking probiotics when working around children makes all the difference in the world. Once I started taking probiotics, I quit getting colds and other sundry viruses.
Thanks, everyone. I am happy that you saw that I am not unhappy with my job or how I am teaching, I just need to quit beating myself up for not being “perfect.” I guess it’s only natural that a side effect of seeing Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and many others present at NCTE would be to make me feel inadequate. :) Have a happy, healthy holiday season.
Thank you for your much needed words of wisdom. I have a question: even though I have been teaching in the Sp Ed field for over 40 years and am the only Nationally Certified Teacher in our district, how do I handle an administrator who constantly negates what I teach (our Sp Ed program does not have a curriculum)? She has never complimented or nor stated 1positive aspect of my lessons in the past 3 years. She is not familiar with the type of students that I teach but continually dictates how and what I teach, even though it is not what my students need, nor are capable of doing. The first year, under our new evaluation system, I came out as an exemplary teacher, which was the highest category. Last year, the 2nd year of the evaluation system, she stated that “that will not happen again!” Do you have any suggestions?
Cheryl, once again your words ring true, particularly, the idea that as teachers, we are the most important tools that we use. As I sit here with my foot on ice after surgery, I am writing my manifesto for the upcoming new year. It will involve taking care of this tool! ;-) Thank you.
Ms. Mizerney, I have always believed that some things come when we need them most. Thanks so much for being brave and sharing how you are feeling. I really needed to hear that today. I will make a plan as well to get up and give my self some TLC so I can be a better teacher! Today.
Cheryl, I understand exactly what you meant about the NCTE convention – I needed that to refuel & it was only November, but I walked away with so many possibilities swimming around in my head. Gallagher & Kittle both made good points circling around what do we feel is important for kids and what is in the best interest of kids- for either of those to happen I have to take care of myself- something I also have not done well this year- but am trying to regain a little control to get back to making healthy choices.
I was in the same dark place this fall. The past few weeks I have vowed to take better care of myself so I can offer more to my students. I have been doing yoga and meditating daily, leaving work at work, and making sure a day doesn’t go by where I don’t smile. I think this wonderful career can take more out of us than we sometimes realize. It is important to be a healthy person before we can be an effective teacher. Good luck and have a happy and healthy December!
I run. I am preparing for my first half marathon. I fI wait until I have time I will never accomplish this goal. I leave work at work and never take it home. I also pet a large fuzzy therapy dog a lot. Just remember beginnings are scary, endings are sad. It’s the stuff in the middle that counts. We are living the stuff in the middle right now.
Awesome article, Cheryl! As teachers, we need to start with the basics. While at work, we need to find time to use the bathroom, drink plenty of water, and eat lunch! Next, we need “me” time to enjoy a pedicure, haircut, or massage! This helps us revive and feel good! Third, we need to enjoy family and friends. This will feed our hearts. Last we need to have hobbies beyond school like reading, yoga, and exercise. These things will feed our souls.
This was just in time! I needed to be fed and have a renewal of my passions. Thanks for your honesty and insight. You have truly inspired me, and, yes, I shared your post with my friends. I think we all need this reflection at times and forget to look inward. I will keep this post handy for future reference. Also, I am inspired by some of the comments above.
My stress management plan right now is to take the rest of the year for maternity leave to be present to all of my son’s firsts. I’m blessed to have that option.
Thank you so much for your post, I really needed to hear this today. I have been very good telling the teacher whom I mentored to take care of her health and emotional well being and to not only worry about school and doing everything perfectly, but didn’t listen to my own advice. With only two weeks this semester to go, I decided to do what I can this week, help the kids through semester finals, and then take two weeks for my family and myself. And for the new year, do what I advise others, plan personal time by writing it into my planner and sticking to it. My students are much better off with a happy and content me.
I hear you. I created The Fit Teacher Network for this exact reason. As a 17 year veteran teacher I have always had a hard time saying know when my students were involved. But I’ve realized that I couldn’t put my personal health on the back burner any longer if I want to give another 20 years to my passion of teaching. Now I’m getting to help others with The FTN as I’m on my personal journey.
This is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT! After 23 years of teaching, I have come to the exact same conclusion. It’s brilliant how you got it all down in print!
Thanks for the article! Very well said! After 22 yrs of teaching, I totally agree (although I need a reminder from time to time) that we HAVE to take care of ourselves in order to be all that we need to be for our students. Thanks for the reminder. :)
Hi I’m an Australian teacher sitting in the doctor’s waiting room because I am so sick on my end of year holiday from school. Your words ring so true for myself too. They are certainly worth heeding. Thank you.