Tell Me How I Can Help

After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was. 

I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.  

But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.

I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by. 

Then something miraculous happened. 

There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.” 

And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is. 

Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”

Define For Me How Good Teachers Feel

If you are a good teacher, you are grateful for your job and you live for the first day back.

If you really cared about your students, you wouldn’t be dreading going into your room to get it ready for the beginning of the year.

The best teachers know not to count down to a break – ever – even in their head. We should be treasuring every minute of every day with students so they understand how important we believe their learning to be.

When I was a teacher, and even as an administrator, I was a swirling mix of emotions this time of year. I was excited for the first day of school, as excited-nervous to meet my students as they may have been to meet me and I couldn’t wait to open all the new school supplies. I loved getting my room ready because I counted on the physical space to support the emotional connection that I was anxiously waiting to make with the students. I had a couch. The kids loved it. They always sat on it right away when they came in the room to visit.

So, that made me an amazing teacher, right?

I also dreaded going back to in-service. I disliked the sweaty mess I became after putting all the desks and furniture back because the air conditioning wasn’t turned on during work days. As excited-nervous as I was to meet my students, I was also nervous-nervous that I wasn’t the teacher they were hoping to have that year. I’d imagine their disappointed faces when they figured out I was their teacher and cringe. I knew I’d desperately miss spending time with my own kids during the summer and my days of trying to regroup after the previous year were prematurely over.

What did that just say about what kind of teacher I was? Nothing, actually. I believe it just proved I was human.

There is so much power in being positive going into a new year. New year, new beginnings, new students who will become like family. But, the way we feel going into the year doesn’t dictate how good of a teacher we are. When we don’t recognize that some people struggle with the change while some relish in the day to day structure, some people are coming back to school sad after finding out a loved one is sick and some are coming back elated after a perfectly planned and executed summer, and some feel both grateful to be there yet exhausted still from the year before and all of this is okay it leaves people with the impression that they are wrong or defective. Our first inclination is to believe that all we should feel is positivity and gratitude and if we feel anything besides that then we should also feel guilty. But, there should always be a balance in everything we do and feel and a piece of self-care is understanding that feelings like this are normal and it certainly doesn’t make us bad at our jobs.

Awhile back my friend Amy Storer posted this image that really resonated with me:

We can feel all these things. We are educators but we are also still human. Our humanity is what makes us awesome and innovative and kind and nurturing and empathetic to our students. It is also sometimes what makes us yearn for the summer to stay and dread the inevitable get-to-know-you beginning-of-the-year activities. All of those things are okay. So, be excited to see your students. Also, be bummed that the summer is over. You are an amazing educator both ways.

Four Types of Self-care

Watch the video review of the Four Types of Self-Care here.

Self-care is becoming as much of a buzzword as social-emotional learning, yet we are really in the beginning stages of this new “initiative” where we use the buzzwords but really don’t have a good grasp on what they mean or how to put them into practice. So currently, we look at each other in staff meetings and when we find someone who is particularly exhausted we ask them what they are doing to practice self-care. Inevitably, they look at us with exhausted eyes and mentally scan their days for proof of anything that may resemble their ability to take care of themselves. When they come up empty they make a joke about drinking wine or emphatically say, “I DO practice self-care” *cue guilty look* probably trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else.

There are a few aspects of self-care that make it difficult to practice. First, self-care can’t be done for you and when you’re most exhausted you’d do just about anything for someone else to be able to help. Unfortunately, self-care at its core is about bringing you back to feeling like you and you are the only one who can do that. It’s that fleeting feeling you get when you’ve settled into a moment and it feels like home. Nobody can do that for you. Second, it’s difficult working in a profession where our entire efficacy is wrapped up in how someone else is doing yet we need to move from focusing on them to focusing on us. Third, we don’t know what to do. This is especially the case if it has been a significant amount of time since we have taken time for ourselves. We forget. Literally, we have no idea what to do.

Self-care needs a proactive approach. Figuring out what works for you and practicing those activities will keep you healthy on a daily basis. Knowing what works before a very stressful time will help you fall into these routines when it may seem like too much work to think about self-care. Also, understanding the different kinds of self-care can help to create a holistic self-care routine that hits multiple areas. Below are the four areas that I’ve identified:

Emotional
Emotional self-care includes things that help you feel balanced. This can be seeing a counselor (which is appropriate even when you’re not struggling), keeping a journal, spending time with friends who build you up and make you laugh, meditation, or focusing on the little things that bring you joy. It can also be practical activities like improving your organizational or budgeting skills which can help reduce stress. For this type of self-care, it’s important to reflect on what makes you happy. Sometimes we fall back on what other people tell us will make us happy instead of reflecting on what actually does.

Physical
Physical self-care is anything you do to support the way your body functions. The most common recommendations I hear for self-care are yoga or running. Exercise is so important and if you’ve never tried yoga or running, I highly recommend finding out if that is something that would work for you. However, there are so many other types of exercise and physical activities for self-care like walking the dog, dancing, swimming, horseback riding, gardening, hiking or water skiing for example. What type of activity you’re doing is less important than the way it makes you feel. I enjoy mowing the lawn with the push mower. It makes me feel accomplished and I enjoy the sound of the mower. While mowing the lawn might be work for others, for me the peace I have while I’m mowing is a type of self-care.

Physical self-care can also be taking care of your body in ways besides moving. Attending to dental needs, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and getting regular physicals are practical ways to attend to self-care.

Intellectual
If physical self-care is supporting your body and the way it functions, intellectual self-care is doing the same for your brain and thought processes. Examples of intellectual self-care are playing board games, reading a newspaper or the news online, doing a crossword, participating in a stimulating conversation with another person about something you find fascinating, or learning something new. When you feel like your mind is expanding and you are thinking deeper about a topic that you enjoy, that activity would probably fall under intellectual self-care.

Spiritual
I often think of spiritual self-care as the things I do that help me feel like I’m striving to be a better person. Usually, these are activities that center me and allow me reflection time to see my growth in any area over a period of time. I also think that self-care in this area can remind us of our purpose or guide us down the path to finding it. Some people may practice their religion as a part of spiritual self-care, but doing activities like taking a moment to feel gratitude, communing with nature, or volunteering for a cause you love can also fill your spiritual cup.

It helps to make lists of what definitely works for you and anything new you would like to try. When you’re feeling good try something new to see if you can add the activity to the “works for me” column. When you’re stressed, you’ll have the list of activities that you know will provide the self-care you need to get back on track. Some activities hit multiple areas of self-care. For example, if you’ve never been kayaking and you try it, you are supporting the way your body functions (physical), learning a new skill (intellectual), and if it makes you happy (emotional) it fulfills three types of self-care.

When we understand how to provide ourselves with what we need to be ourselves, we are more likely to do those things. Yet, there still has to be a high amount of intentionality to ensure we are fulfilling all areas. Creating lists and being prepared will help us continue the self-care when adversity strikes and we’re not sure how we’re going to fit it in. We must promise ourselves that we will take care of us, and it can no longer be acceptable that we are the first ones that we break our promises to. In any profession where other people are the focus, like education, we must be strong in order to provide the best care for the ones we work with.

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.

I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:

Will this matter in a year?
Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.

I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter in one year? Five years?

At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.

Grieve today, move on tomorrow
I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.

My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.

Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go
Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.

Learn to take time to respond
This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.

Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.

Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.

Self-Care That Goes Beyond Mindfulness

There is no doubt that I am terrible at taking care of my body physically, and lately I’ve been suffering the consequences of years of body-neglect. Usually, when we think of self-care in relation to our bodies we immediately go to yoga or exercise of some kind. While I am definitely not a natural runner, my body reacts favorably to the endorphins I get from running and I understand why exercise should be a part of our weekly routines. What I didn’t realize is how other aspects of what we do (or don’t do) that seem insignificant can affect us physically and even go as far as causing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Because I’m always trying to find strategies to deal with these two issues, I have found some ways to implement self-care that surprised me. This definitely doesn’t mean that all anxiety and depression are linked to these or that these are a cure-all. Goodness knows I’m neither a doctor nor a mental health professional, but because I learned about these in my own journey of healing and they’re somewhat easy ways to implement self-care, I felt it was worth mentioning.

Your body may be lacking essential vitamins
Several years ago I went through about a year where my depression was in full swing. My body hurt, my brain was foggy, and I felt out of sorts most of the time. When I couldn’t stand the pain in my legs anymore, I went to the doctor and found that I was severely deficient in Vitamin D (thank you, Wisconsin). At first I was actually angry at the doctor for “pretending” all my ailments could have been from something that seemed so innocuous, but I began to take Vitamin D and the anxiety, depression and pain started to feel better.

This Mayo Clinic article says, “The new findings appear in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The new findings “add depression to the spectrum of medical illnesses associated with low vitamin D, and people with depression probably should consider a blood test to see if their vitamin D is low and whether supplements may be needed,” says researcher E. Sherwood Brown, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.”

I have found this recently again when I was tested and found to be Vitamin C deficient (Psychology Today article on Vitamin C deficiency). Overall, when I am faithfully taking Vitamin C and D, the change I notice in my mental health is pretty significant. I’ve read that deficiencies in Iron, Magnesium, and B Vitamins can have similar affects. Either testing for vitamin deficiencies or taking a multivitamin may help.

Sleep: It’s more important than we think
I’ve been in a six week sleep challenge with my friend Sarah Thomas since January. The idea is that we would go six weeks straight with getting eight hours of sleep a night to see if it made a difference in how we feel. Neither of us have been successful for even a full week, which has done nothing but prove to me that we need to focus on sleeping more. I know many people that feel like sleep is nearly a luxury, and even more that don’t sleep well once they’ve gotten in bed. I know that for me, looking at my phone or the computer close to bedtime causes me to lay awake, so I’ve become accustomed to staying off from them prior to sleep. A lack of sleep, even the slightest dent in the number of hours you get, can cause everything from depression and anxiety to weight gain. Sleep is when our body recharges and it needs that time regardless if you’re referencing mental health issues or not.

As for depression and anxiety, this is what the National Sleep Foundation says, “If you’re feeling low, you may not realize that lack of sleep is the culprit. But even small levels of sleep deprivation over time can chip away at your happiness. You might see that you’re less enthusiastic, more irritable, or even have some of the symptoms of clinical depression, such as feeling persistently sad or empty. All these alterations to your mood can affect not only your individual mental health, but your relationships and family dynamics as well.

The link between sleep and mood has been seen over and over by researchers and doctors. For example, people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety. The more a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake at night as a result, the higher the chances of developing depression.”

While it may seem like a pain or even impossible to make time to go to bed earlier, in the long run the rest allows our bodies and brains to run more efficiently and therefore healthier.

You may be dehydrated
A few months ago my doctor told me I was dehydrated. I didn’t feel thirsty. But I know it’s a struggle for me to drink water and it was entirely possible. She told me I had trained my body not to tell me when I’m thirsty because it’s forgotten how. Since then, I’ve been reading about the effects of being even slightly dehydrated and I was surprised by what I read.

Drinking water helps your brain function. In this UConn Today article they discuss studies that were conducted where participants experienced fatigue, adverse changes in mood, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating at even a mild level of dehydration.

In reading the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John she recommended drinking a glass of water prior to and after each meal in order to get in a minimum of six glasses a day, which I thought was a great tip.

There is so much about self-care and mental health that comes from an awareness of certain things, and what makes it difficult is not only the time it takes but also that every single person is different. Our likes and dislikes vary. Our individual habits are different. The way we take care of (or don’t take care of) our bodies, what they are missing, and how it impacts our mental health can be a mystery to some of us. Educating ourselves in some of these areas can bring understanding and change, especially when sometimes it feels like there is so much to learn. Little habits, like these, and finding what works for you can make a difference.



The Self-Care Dilemma

As we begin to focus more on mental health, the advice to practice self-care is popping up more often. Articles and other resources give advice of practicing relaxing, yoga, and mindfulness or meditation. But the first step we miss is to find the thing that works for that individual person. It may or may not be meditation or yoga, but it should be the thing that makes a person feel like themselves and calms their soul. But what happens if you don’t know what that is?

Many educators I know have molded their entire identity around education. I know this because I have, too. I take care of my own kids and go to their activities and I work and that’s it. For years that’s what I’ve done. The most dreaded question that I get asked in a podcast interview is “What do you do for fun?” I have no idea. One time a podcaster asked me how I relax. I told them I take my work outside.

I. Take. My. Work. Outside. “In the sun,” I said. Like somehow that made the answer more viable.

Um, yeah.

While I do seriously enjoy working in education, I’ve also come to realize that just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean it won’t burn you out. Balance is key. Too much of a good thing is still too much. But even knowing this doesn’t mean that I know what to do to relax. By spending so much of my life going and moving and working I have trained my body to be unaccustomed to focusing on things that help me unwind. I have also forgotten what makes me feel like myself outside of education. I can tell you my core beliefs and what my passions are inside of education. Outside (beyond caring for my own kids)…no idea. I’d try to watch TV and quickly get bored and my mind would float back to all the things I had to do for work. I’d make it ten minutes before picking my computer up. I felt agitated and out of sorts when I tried to do anything else because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing more than working. Then the cycle would continue.

So this idea of self-care for me has not been fixed by learning yoga or practicing meditation. I don’t like yoga. My body doesn’t want to contort that way. And meditation is a work in progress. I’m still at the point where being completely inside my own head makes me uncomfortable, but because I believe it’s important, I’m trying to see if it’s for me. Discovery of who I am outside of education has been a journey of trying to remember who I was before I was a teacher and activities I would try that could be considered self-care. I first reflected on the things I used to do that I enjoyed when I had more balance in my life. Everything either didn’t fit into my current lifestyle (horseback riding, for example) or I didn’t enjoy it any longer (watching movies). I realized through this journey that I had lost what made my soul happy and needed to find it again. The question became: how do you practice self-care when you’ve forgotten what makes you feel like you?

While we quickly try to solve the self-care dilemma by telling people common areas to focus on…exercise or meditation being the most common, this is not the first step to self-care. If we believe that yoga and meditating are the only ways to practice self-care and that’s not what makes us happy, then we are less likely to take care of ourselves like we need to. These things may work for some people and that is awesome. But in order to enjoy them, it needs to be a part of that person and what they enjoy. The first part of the journey in developing self-care is rediscovering who you are and what you like which can require so much more reflection than it seems like it would. It can feel like a dark place when you realize that you may need to find yourself again. Giving yourself permission to recognize that what works for you may not be the same as what works for someone else and giving yourself grace as you search, fail, and search again will help you find the self-care activity that keeps you engaged, impassioned, and whole.

When You Feel You’ve Lost Your Voice

I am a firm believer in blogging to organize my thoughts and create brainspace when I have 1000 ideas and a million thoughts all crowded in that tiny space. It helps me reflect and makes me a better person both professionally and personally as it provides me with some sanity and mental relief.

Recently, in a bout of what I have decided may be the beginning of a little burnout, I’ve found my voice a little harder to find. I sit in front of my computer with my hands on the keys and try to find two coherent thoughts to put together and repeatedly fail. I’ve come to the conclusion that it may be burnout as one of the symptoms of this affliction is disengaging from the things you love most and I love to practice deep reflection. Right now, it’s completely eluding me. I desperately want to. It’s just not there.

I’m struggling with several situations that have created a feeling where I’m not sure my voice matters. I believe that when we know better we should do better…but what happens when people’s versions of “doing better” don’t align? If I preach moving forward and being a change agent and feel that I’m not creating change myself, does that make me a fraud? If I believe that being a change agent isn’t only about doing something different but about continuing to doing better even when things get really hard and then I quit when it seems impossible, am I a hypocrite? And when I can’t find answers to these reflective questions, is it better for me to just not say anything at all?

Sometimes as a consultant and speaker people say to me that one of the surprising realizations about me is that when they read The Fire Within or listen to my The Show Must Go On (mental health) presentations that I seem to have it all together and they wouldn’t have guessed that I was dealing with mental health issues myself. Well, even the people who seem to have it all together have struggles that may not be obvious. Sometimes I feel demoralized. I do stupid things. Two weeks ago I dropped my phone in a public toilet and hurt my foot in the rush to fish it out. A few days ago I made a terrible snap judgment about an Uber driver that turned out to be completely wrong and I felt like a terrible person. Today I struggled for a full three minutes to open the twist cap to a bottle of water only to figure out it pulled off. I don’t always reach my goals and sometimes I cry when I don’t. Apparently, I also get burnt out and question my efficacy. I’m human like everyone else.

The best way I know to deal with bouts of any kind is to develop strategies to help me get through. I’m a concrete thinker and because I’m not naturally organized (a terrible combination), strategies give me the guidance to break out of situations.

My Strategy #1: Find what’s reasonable

When I begin to believe that nothing I do matters, it’s important for me to stop and think about what is reasonable and what is not, and attempt to take the drama out of my thinking. I need to remind myself that I’m not a fraud I’m just struggling. I’m not perfect but that’s being human. For me, this helps convince my brain to just calm down and quit blowing things out of proportion.

My Strategy #2: Write down what I know to be true

For whatever reason, this strategy seems simple but really works for me. It helps me calm my overactive, overthinking brain. I know, for example, that I have worked really hard professionally to get where I am. I know that I am dedicated. I also know that sometimes I equate success with “getting my own way” which isn’t always right. Remembering that part of my personality helps me to see successes beyond any kind of short-sided scope I may have employed.

My Strategy #3: Allowing for grace and forgiveness

My desire to create change and do better/be better for others can cause me to internalize failures that happen in rapid-fire succession where I don’t have time to build myself back up and create a sharp downhill spiral into am I able to do anything right? Allowing for grace and forgiveness for both myself and the people around me (even when they don’t ask or seem to want it) helps me to get out of the funk. It’s not easy to forgive people who don’t seem to “do anything” to deserve it, but the internal fortitude it takes and subsequent success of the forgiveness and moving forward is worth it.

I think strategies for moving forward in any situation are always very personal. Just the act of finding what works can feel like an upward battle. The fact that we are all human and are subjected to negative thoughts, incorrect assumptions, and dropping our phones in the toilet makes it necessary to find ways to be proactive in dealing with times we struggle. It’s important to remember we all bring something to the table and our imperfections make us stronger and better.

The Search for Harmony (Balance) Between Work and Life

We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.

As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.

Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.

My realizations in balancing myself:

Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people
(and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too)
We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?

Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?

Realize that balance is an average
I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.

Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish
I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.

Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it
I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.

My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.

In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.

My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance

Allow others to set their own priorities
Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of less value because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.

Be okay with people saying no
This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.

The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.

Be an Upstander: When the effect we have collides with the choices we make

In my district, the district administrators (with the exception of the superintendent and the business administrator) are all housed in the buildings in which it makes the most sense for them to serve instead of residing in offices in the administration building. For example, the SPED director is in the elementary school, the curriculum director in the high school offices, and I am in an office suite that is outside our Genius Bar between our high school and middle school (one building). I have always loved this setup. I don’t miss out on the everyday interactions between myself and staff and students because I am right in the midst of the action. Do I have students coming randomly into my office more than a typical district administrator and they distract me and keep me from my work? Yep. It’s my favorite part.

But with this setup comes the lonely summer. We are not hunkered down in the administrative office together, we are spread out across the district. The buildings are quiet. The other day I was walking down the hall with one of my favorite custodians (they’re all my favorites) and this conversation transpired:

Me: “I can never get used to how quiet it is in here.”

Him: “I know. Kids and teachers will be back soon.”

Me: “I can’t wait. The halls are so lonely. It’s so strange to look down them and not see teachers chatting in the hall or students at their locker. I miss them.”

And he looked at me with the strangest look on his face and said, “Thank you for saying that. I think so, too.” Then he gave me the biggest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen.

It dawned on me right then he may have been expecting an array of snarky comments back from needing a longer vacation to how much easier our job would be without students. I, myself, have heard it all, so I can’t even imagine what the custodians have heard. In that moment I had the choice of saying something negative. I chose to say what I feel to be true, but he interpreted that as a positive. What made my heart sink was his surprise at my response. Have we really gotten in such a habit of complaining about the entire reason for our jobs that it has become the norm? What people expect? Are we trying to be funny? Because I am widely known for my sarcasm, but I don’t think that negativity against an entire group of people we serve is funny.

I started thinking about how many times I have fallen into this trap with others in conversation, and I was embarrassed that I had sometimes taken the negative road more commonly traveled. It is so much more difficult to be positive when everyone around you is negative, but it’s also so much more important to be so. But, this goes into the deeper conversation of how we really create change. Change, by its very nature, happens by someone doing something different. When we talk about anything that goes against the grain (being positive in a negative climate, building a robust, supportive culture, speaking about teacher mental health issues when some people don’t want to hear it) we will run into adversity. If changes were easy and happened without effort, we’d never need to speak of the hard work that goes into creating real, authentic, lasting change.

The other day I was being interviewed by Forbes for an article on the status of teacher mental health and the person interviewing me asked me what it takes to be an “upstander”. She said, “You know, someone who stands up for what they believe in.” I had to really think about this because my initial reaction was I have no idea. But, I do know that as cliche as it sounds, it often involves taking the road less traveled. I know that sometimes you need to do the things that go against what everyone else seems to be doing, thinking, and saying. People may get mad, they may even get mean (hello? Twitter anyone?), and you need to be able to accept that because those are the ones who need your change the most. Sometimes, those things are difficult and test our will and dedication because there will always be people who don’t agree with you, even on topics that would seem common sense. It takes an unwavering belief in what you believe, it takes resilience when people try to take you down,  and it takes a support system to remind you that you’re not wrong when things start to look grim. Many times, being an upstander involves taking the difficult road when everyone else seems to be taking the easy, more accepted one. That’s the difference between people who stand up for what they believe in and those that just don’t.

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When You Begin to Doubt the Power of Relationships

Quite a few people I know focus heavily on data and research. They’re all about if things have been tested out and if they can be replicated in their own classroom. I have no issue with this, but there are some concepts we talk about in education that are difficult to put a number to or maybe haven’t had a viable experiment published to look at. One of these concepts is the importance of relationships. I’ve written about the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Van Der Kolk before, and it is quickly moving up my favorite books list (even though it’s taking me forever to get through it, but that’s only because I somehow think I can read several professional books at the same time and I actually can’t). The book describes the psychological effects of trauma but also goes into some basics about psychology that, in our profession, explains so many things. Honestly, it’s almost uncanny.

In regards to the importance of relationships in general, Van Der Kolk says this:

The Polyvagal Theory “clarified why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm an safe, and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.”

“Our inner mirror neurons register (others) inner experience, and our own bodies make internal adjustments to whatever we notice…When the message we receive from another person is “You’re safe with me,” we relax. If we’re lucky in our relationships, we also feel nourished, supported, and restored as we look into the face and eyes of the other.”

“The critical issue (of social support) is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”

And in regards to trauma directly:

“Many traumatized people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them.”

If we are focusing on the importance of relationships in general, our brains are wired to do whatever we can to be a part of a group because even at a subconscious level we are trying to constantly maintain relationships. When you try to redirect that child who constantly says they don’t care, they actually do. When that teacher you work with is disengaged and doesn’t want to participate in the professional development, they actually do. The issue isn’t that the desire isn’t there, it’s that they don’t know how to make that connection or voice their feelings or their social fears are louder than their desire to make things right.

Whether we believe it’s a part of our “personality” to do so or not, our brains desire to be in sync with the people around us. And while I either haven’t gotten this far in the book or it’s not in there, I would imagine that a constant or consistent lack of being able to feel in sync with the people around us, whether it’s because of trauma or not, will lead to an attitude of “not caring” as a defense mechanism. Saying “I’m going to not care because it protects me from the disequilibrium I feel by trying to unsuccessfully have a safe relationship with you” protects ourselves and is easier than trying for the relationship in the first place.

One of my best and worst qualities is the fact that I wear my heart completely on my sleeve. In the past, it was worse than it is now because I have worked really hard to school my features when it comes to communicating with people, but let’s face it, I still stink at it. When I’m loving and caring people love this about me because they feel that connection coming through. But, when I disagree they see that as well. I’ve noticed that because of this when I disagree with something people immediately get defensive without me saying a word. For me, it is an involuntary reaction. However, I wonder how many times I have made people feel out of sync with me just from an involuntary reaction that to me just means I need more information, but for them is perceived as I believe you’re wrong?

I’ve believed for a long time that relationships are the foundation for everything we do. Apparently, our brains believe that, too. So the question is, how can we shift what we do to ensure the people (kids and adults) around us feel safe and loved in order to shift their attitude back to believing in the power of relationships as well? How do our actions and beliefs about certain people perpetuate the lack of a relationship (ie if there’s a child that you don’t care for their attitude, are you perpetuating your lack of being in sync with your own nonverbal communication)? As per usual, the answer to change begins with looking inside ourselves and beginning with us.

connection