by Matthew J. Bowerman
“I’m just not sure I can go on anymore; I’m tapped out, just done, and I don’t have anything left for myself let alone the kids I am supposed to be reaching.” -Gr. 2 Teacher
Not so unfamiliar is it?
There is a world of educators caught between the fragile edges of wanting to teach, to support, to lead, and the overwhelming sense that one misstep will send you falling, spinning off into a place you might not have the strength or will to climb out of.
So here I am, reaching across the keystrokes to you, to let you know you are not alone in any of your feelings or frustrations. Three things hit me hard right away:
Lights up on our impassioned but weary school administrator.
Blogs are typically designed to reach out and grab your attention, delivering insights and information with accessible, soundbite speed–much in the same way a movie trailer sizzles across your screen in ninety seconds to two minutes, hoping to draw you in and make you want more.
For so many of us, so much is already coming at us too fast; ninety seconds, two minutes, that often feels like the extent of what we can pay attention to with life on spin cycle. The classrooms and school communities of the world aren’t getting any slower; in fact, everything has been elevated, volume cranked to what feels like its highest settings.
Self-care…oh boy, buzzword time.
SELF-care? I can’t even prioritize my laundry and grocery shopping.
Self-CARE? How can I help myself if I feel like I’m empty, and am not able to pour into others?
Self-care…it makes my anxiety level rise just thinking about the term. Everyone is using it, and now I have to try and meditate on working through feeling anxious, worried, fearful, and that makes me even more anxious.
Like I said before, not so unfamiliar is it?
“I can barely make it to a bathroom while trying to manage 30 students, teach a new curriculum, and keep them from falling apart.”
“If someone tells me to be mindful one more time, I’m going to lose my sh**.”
“I’d love to be able to find a time when I didn’t feel like I couldn’t breathe.”
Prioritizing self-care for most educators is often as easy as not using your lunch time for lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, or helping a student or colleague. The real deal is that it’s incredibly difficult to get zen or be mindful when you find yourself caught between policy and passion, and the eight hours that are on the timesheet usually look more like twelve to fourteen.
A January 2022, National Education Association (NEA) poll shared that, “90% of its members say that feeling burned out is a serious problem; 86% say they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the start of the pandemic (https://www.npr.org/2022/02/01/1076943883/teachers-quitting-burnout)
And it took a pandemic of international scale, the largest adaptive change in educational history, for the world to see how challenging it is to be a teacher?
I, like all of you, have found myself throughout the past two years managing a tremendous amount of trauma and social-emotional upheaval amongst staff, students, and parents. I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to balance my own needs in the middle of it all–for starters, the death of my youngest brother, my family’s covid struggles, leading a school, and trying to help my children make sense of it all in their grief and uncertainty–but none of us has emerged unscathed.
The world didn’t realize how much it relied on all of you until it had to, and the fate of children’s futures were set on your shoulders, even when you weren’t ready to carry it all. You showed up, and you did it regardless, but it has taken its toll. Now, taking care of yourself, giving yourself some space, finding time for you…well, I don’t have all the answers, but I love creating solutions, and here are five considerations that have been battle-tested with my teams over the years of teaching and leading.
Two last points, do the hard thing–pick something above for yourself and try it, and give yourself permission to be human, right? It means all the challenges, schoolwork, BS, will be there the next day, and you cannot expect yourself to deal with every single item in one day. Pick what you can handle, what you can manage, on any given day, strive to be good with that, do the best you can, and move on. You will bend, you will feel like breaking at times; it is okay to feel everything you are feeling and thinking. From another approach, Dr. Elaine Rinfrette (LCSW-R) in her Emergency Self Care Worksheet has identified three areas to consider in working on yourself: “what to do, what to think, and what to avoid.” Framing the work in this manner may be another option for some who enjoy to-do lists, itemizing, and/or organizing in categories.
The thing is, many students have academic and social-emotional needs, they present in different ways, and so do the needs of those who teach and lead them. I love solutions, and working with my teams to create them, but I have more questions than answers, and there is no one right way to do this critical work, but it is work we must all do less we end up in critical care–we have to be able to triage our needs and be loving, patient, and honest with our responsiveness. If students and their success are our why, the reason we are called to do all of this, then we must put ourselves first so we are the ones ready, fresh, accessible to them, waiting to engage them at the door when each new day begins.
Matthew J. Bowerman is a husband, father of six, school administrator and storyteller. Follow him at @MJBowerman and visit his website at www.matthewjbowerman.com