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

Why Do Teachers Disengage?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece called The Rules of Teacher Engagement which discussed teacher engagement and what it means when teachers become disconnected from their profession like I did some years ago, and how I took control and turned it around. Educator disengagement is stronger than just not being interested in what your learning or teaching at the time. It’s the complete disconnection to the why behind teaching. It gives people’s minds the opportunity and permission to do things like incessantly complain about students’ laziness, roll their eyes at the teachers who are excited and still engaged, and either do anything they can to work against the administration or just do nothing exciting to fly under the radar. And sometimes the teachers who are the most disengaged expect the highest level of engagement out of their disengaged students, even though they don’t feel that connection themselves.

This came to my attention a few years ago when I disengaged. It was a terrible feeling. I hated my job, looked forward to the end of the day or end of the week, took only what I had home and rarely found interest in anything education-based. I like to tell myself that my students didn’t notice because, for me, it wasn’t the students but the politics of education that disengaged me, but that’s probably not true. They probably knew. And even though I had the sweetest, most hard-working class I had ever had my last year I was in the classroom, I couldn’t pull myself back into the groove to even really appreciate it. It’s seriously one of my biggest professional regrets. Because when the students don’t feel like we care even when they’re struggling (especially when they’re struggling) we have truly failed as educators.

I feel like many of us can think about someone who fits this description. And, like with everything, there’s a continuum of feeling this way. On one side, there is the completely engaged educator, and I feel like I am almost there today (some of the tactics I employed to get there can be found in The Rules of Teacher Engagement). So, the first question is: how do people get this way? I think there are a few possibilities to what brings this on, but part of the difficulty of “solving” the issue is that it’s so deeply personal to whoever is experiencing it. That’s why the best prevention is self-awareness and knowing if you’re beginning to fall into the trap.

Personal Hurt
Sometimes, I think what emotionally removes people from education has nothing to do with education at all. It is a personal trauma or adversity that needs a person’s full attention, and it is either so deep or takes so long that people don’t know how to get back into the education groove and find that happy place again.

Professional Hurt
One of the biggest takeaways I had from Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda‘s book Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank was that when we suffer adversity in the workplace, it emotionally hurts us. We become a little more disheartened with every time it happens. Sometimes, it’s simply about having more put on our plates than any one person can be expected to do. It could also be workplace bullying (which can come in the form of colleagues, parents, administration), an administrator or colleagues who are against risk-taking, or policies that are compliance-based and stifle creativity and innovation. Even a lack of trust for the people around you can cause hurt. And depending on their level of resilience, everyone will have a maximum that when they reach it, they may give up. Even the most resilient people have a breaking point, and reaching that point may cause them to become disengaged.

Burnout
Sometimes, we overuse the term burnout. We say things like, “I’m so burnt out after the tough week.” But, professional burnout is absolutely a real thing, and one of the feelings that true burnout can lead to is detachment. In 2016, Psychology Today posted the article The Teacher Burnout Epidemic (Parts 1 and 2) on teacher burnout which included data that said:

About half a million (15% of) U.S. teachers leave the profession every year (Seidel, 2014).

More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen significantly over the last two decades (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). This provides clarification to Ingersoll’s (2012) oft-cited estimate that 40%-50% of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.

TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) reported almost 66% of the nation’s best teachers continue to leave the profession for careers elsewhere (Chartock & Wiener, 2014).

It is clear our teachers are struggling, but we should refrain from placing the blame on them. Rather, consider the demands and unsustainability of the job.

…teachers are less likely to be able to deliver high quality instruction when they are not able to decompress (Neufeldnov, 2014). Stressed, overworked, frustrated teachers are less able to connect in positive ways with students and to offer students the best instruction. (Rankin, 2016)

Some of the symptoms of burnout include:

  • Consistently being emotionally and physically exhausted accompanied with dread of what might happen the next day
  • Impaired concentration that can get worse the longer it continues
  • Weakened immune system (ie you get sick easier)
  • Other mental health issues like anxiety or depression
  • In the beginning, constant irritability and later, angry outbursts

Many of the symptoms of burnout can affect both a person’s personal and professional life. I thought one of the most interesting ways to handle burnout was found in this article by Mayo Clinic. Among other suggestions to handle burnout like seeking support and identifying stressors, it said:

Adjust your attitude. If you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.

Burnout or not, something I think we could all remember this.

Secondary Traumatic Stress
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) (also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma), as discussed in my book The Fire Within, is when people who hear of other’s trauma and who work with others who have experienced a trauma and exhibit trauma behaviors begin to develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even if they have never suffered a trauma themselves. I included this chart in my book from the US Department of Human Services as the symptoms to look for:

Cognitive

Lowered Concentration
Apathy
Rigid thinking
Perfectionism
Preoccupation with trauma

Emotional

Guilt
Anger
Numbness
Sadness
Helplessness

Behavioral

Withdrawal
Sleep disturbance
Appetite change
Hyper-vigilance
Elevated startle response

Physical

Increased heart rate
Difficulty breathing
Muscle and joint pain
Impaired immune system
Increased severity of medical concerns

STS and burnout have both similar symptoms and ways to handle them. For both, it’s important to recognize when you need professional help.

Regardless of the reason for disengagement, the most important step to take is developing self-awareness and being mindful of how you feel in order to catch it in the early stages. I want people to understand that these feelings are real, and they are not weird or terrible teachers for having them, but there is an underlying cause to their disengagement. Many times I find that educators who are disengaged aren’t necessarily truly happy people, at least not in their profession. And I do believe that it is so much more rewarding to love your job and what you do, and in turn, the students you teach and love will be better people for it, and that’s really why we got into education in the first place.

engagement saying

#ItsTime

The world is finally beginning to wake up to the issues of mental illness and the far-reaching effects that it has on everyone’s life. Nobody is immune. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how “social” you appear to be, or how many times you smile. There are people out there who cannot control their thoughts and that’s not due to a personality flaw or a mental weakness. Mental illness is an illness. For some, it is one that never goes away. For many of us, it is something that we live with and find strategies to deal with in order to keep ourselves functioning, and in many cases, alive on a daily basis. We would change it if we could.

For people who don’t experience these things, please understand: it is not your job to judge if we “should” be feeling this way. We know we shouldn’t. That’s not a question. What we really want is your support and understanding. We want to be like you without these feelings. Show us your compassion and empathetic sides. We just want to know we are not alone and you don’t think we are weird. We want to know that when we get enough courage to tell you about our sickness that you don’t look at us with pity or distain but instead with an understanding and strategic side that will help us make it through our bouts.

I’ve written about this many times, trying so hard to destigmatize mental illness and to forget the look on the face of the one person who didn’t understand what I was going through; the catalyst for this mission. That face is ingrained in my head. When I saw this tweet from Emily Thomas

regarding beginning a #metoo campaign for mental health, I knew I was all in. I had been racking my brain to try to find another way to shed light on the topic but didn’t know how. It was a lightbulb moment, and I’m all in.

light (3)#ItsTime is going to be used for stories of how mental illness has affected lives: maybe it’s yours, maybe it was a family member, maybe your best friend, maybe your student or teacher; everyone has been affected. It’s to show support and offer true compassion and empathy should anyone need to talk. It’s taking it one step further from just posting the National Suicide Hotline number or offering condolences after the fact.

#ItsTime to remove the stigma.

#ItsTime to recognize the far-reaching effects mental illness has on people.

#ItsTime to do something more than nothing.

The more we talk about it, the less of a stigma it will have, and less of a control that it will have on all our lives. I don’t want myself or the people I love to feel like they need to keep it all inside because they are well respected in the community/profession and they don’t want to show that as a weakness. #ItsTime to take control and stop allowing these illnesses to control us.

I know that my blog is primarily education focused, and it will continue to be that way. I love the work I do, but I also am 100% positive that we are not immune to these issues. I will continue posting about issues in education once a week, as is my goal. However, I will also try to post a second time during the week regarding anything I’ve learned about mental illness from writing my book or just being me and living with it. But in the meantime, let’s get this going. #ItsTime.

changequotes7

Self-awareness & Advocacy for Educator Mental Health

Because of my upcoming book The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I am asked a lot about social-emotional learning and support for students. I’m not sure my answer ever goes where people expect it to go. While I believe that we need to focus on the students and their needs, I do believe that there is a place where teachers need to be emotionally healthy in order to help our students the best they can. By taking care of ourselves we are ultimately helping our students. By the district supporting teachers’ emotional and mental health, we are in turn supporting students. While students certainly are our main focus for everything we do, they cannot be our only focus. Mentally and emotionally strong teachers (even if that strength comes from working through their challenges) is necessary to really know and understand what our students need.

We are beginning to recognize the mental health challenges and issues that our students are experiencing. For the last few years, we have implemented brain breaks and mindfulness techniques. Lately, I’ve seen a rise in the recommendations for teachers to practice mindfulness as well. In general, I’ve found that districts recognize the need for mindfulness and balance, but because the workload never changes, many educators feel like the idea of mindfulness is just one more thing to do.

While I do believe that everyone should learn mindfulness techniques and choose strategies that work for them, I maintain that these strategies are not going to be enough for people who suffer from a mental health issues, nor is it going to give the co-workers of these people a support structure to help when those people are struggling. Sometimes, both knowing to ask for help and knowing how to give it are not inherent qualities. Sometimes, knowing these things needs to be taught and practiced.

Awareness and Advocacy
One of the most important steps to take when beginning the journey of being the best teacher you can be is growing your self-awareness and advocating for yourself and others (think destigmatizing mental health issues). Knowing how your feeling and monitoring your stress levels, especially if you do suffer from a mental illness, is going to be the difference between being able to be proactive and reactive to an increase in the intense feelings that can come on sometimes unexpectedly. Testing strategies of what works for you when you begin to feel overwhelmed and keeping those in your back pocket will allow you to take control of the stress. For example, I have anxiety and I suffer from panic attacks. When I feel one beginning, I know I need someone to talk to me about anything silly and innocuous because it helps calm me. That is my strategy number one. My second strategy is to read a book. Altogether, I have about five strategies that I can pull out at any given time to help me work through my anxiety, however, I needed to develop a deep self-awareness to know what I needed and when I might need to deploy them. Strategies are specific to the person. I have friends who prefer to be alone to process, and that’s okay too if that’s working for them.

I am a strong advocate for districts to implement programs to provide better support for teachers. Teaching how to balance life, work smarter not harder, deal with trauma in both their own lives and their students, are issues that districts need to address. However, realistically, we need to take control of our own stories and focus on what we can do for ourselves as well. We are the holders of our own feelings, and only we can be the ones to make the decision to grow from what we learn about ourselves. If we wait around for the support to come to us, we may be waiting too long. Also, it’s important that when I’m finally offered support, I know what it is that I need. I need to know what to ask for.

Secondary Traumatic Stress
In writing my book, I’ve learned about Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) which is another issue that, as educators, we need to be aware of. STS is when a professional works with people (in our case, students) who suffer from trauma. The professionals can develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including (taken from Secondary Trauma):

intrusive thoughts
chronic fatigue
sadness
anger
poor concentration
second guessing
detachment
emotional exhaustion
fearfulness
shame
physical illness
absenteeism

Secondary Traumatic Stress needs to be addressed and dealt with. Sometimes, it’s necessary to see a counselor to work through the feelings and have strategies going forward. This is another area where both teachers need to be self-aware and districts need to provide additional support. If you already suffer from PTSD, developing STS can exacerbate your own issues depending on where you are in your own healing process, which is just another reason to be reflective and self-aware enough to recognize when there are changes in your emotions.

Most importantly, the more we acknowledge these challenges and support each other instead of holding it in and feeling alone, the quicker we will destigmatize the mental health issues that everyone either has or know someone who has. Recently, my counselor (yes, I see one because sometimes I need help with my feelings and I’m not embarrassed by it) said to me, “Putting a voice to something that others keep in their heads is called bravery.” And when we are brave, we gift the others around us the courage to do the same.

courage