Things I Will Never Do As a Mental Health Advocate

Since the day I started speaking openly about my own mental health issues roughly seven years ago, I have owned my issues and my healing. I have been clear about what I will do. I will be brutally honest. I will make naysayers uncomfortable. I will put myself into positions of vulnerability in order to model it for other people. Even when it hurts. Even when I lose people. Even when the cost to do so seems so much greater than the return. I’ll do it anyway.

But, there are things I’ll won’t do as a mental health advocate.

I’ll never claim to be completely healed and perfect.

I have worked for years on my own healing. Sometimes, it feels like one step forward, two steps back. I will go for years without an issue, and then randomly I’ll have all the things happen – crying, shaking, anger and I’ll have to start all over again. I will never be perfect. I’ll never tell you that I am. I will never expect you to be. I truly believe that one of the reasons my healing process is so all-consuming sometimes is to remind me what others go through. Because of that, I’m okay with continuing to heal. I will take empathetic over perfect any day. I would take the ability to step into someone’s space with them – feeling what they feel – over looking down on them from my self-proclaimed perfectly transformed pedestal in a heartbeat. After all, how else will we heal if not with people who love and care for us? Who will take time to understand what we’re going through? Who have the ability to feel what we are feeling? How else can we transform emotion if we are not able to step into emotions of our own?

I’ll never try to be the boss of your emotions.

I will never tell you to get over your pain. I will never tell you that anxiety is all in your head. I will never assume that you have the power over any of your big emotions at any given moment. I will never ask you to transform, as that implies that emotion and trauma are nothing but a switch to be flipped. And anyone who knows anything about brain science knows that this isn’t possible. The most you’ll get from people who you ask to contain their emotions is guilt and then resentment. Eventually, that guilt and resentment shuts them down. And the last thing we need is people who are hurting who aren’t talking. Nothing good ever comes from minimalizing someone’s pain. I will never ask you to stop feeling to relieve my discomfort. Ever.

I’ll never abandon my search for understanding.

Understanding research, understanding new ideas and theories, but mostly, taking time to understand people. Listen to what they say. People will tell you who they are both in what they say and what they don’t say. Understanding triggers, strategies for healing, understanding what not to say. Even people who tell untruths, at the root, are lying because they’re struggling emotionally in some way. Understanding the root cause of why people do what they do is the first step to understanding mental health issues. Does this mean we need to accept toxic people? No. Does it mean that we need to allow someone else to suffocate us? Call us crazy? Tell us to stop our “bad behavior”? Hell to the no. But in understanding why they do what they do, we begin to accept that their mental health issues are more about them than they ever were about us. And that is another step in healing.

I will never imply that I have my stuff together. Are you taking advice from someone who has not fully healed? Yup. Are you reading about someone who screws up, who has big emotions, who is able to go to battle with the best of them? Unfortunately, yes. But you’re also healing alongside someone who will never make you feel less than you are. Whose passion for helping others feel like they are not crazy, unwanted, or broken far outweighs my own ego and portraying myself as a perfect human. Hopefully, that helps you love your imperfect human, too.

SEL Opportunities to Support Student Mental Health Post-Pandemic

I was recently asked why I have such a problem with the term “learning loss” (or any version of that term). It’s not that I don’t believe that there has been the potential that learning loss has happened. It’s not that I don’t believe that we need to address certain gaps. It’s that focusing on learning loss accomplishes only two tasks:

  1. To make hardworking educators feel like no matter what they did during the pandemic it wasn’t good enough. And there’s no space where I feel like perpetuating an idea like that is going to put people in the right mindset to return to school refreshed versus anxious. Excited versus exhausted.
  2. It may dilute the importance of addressing the emotional gaps and missed social growth that typically also happens in a year. If we continue to rest in the idea of learning gaps, I feel like we are going to hit the ground running – only to find ourselves running in place – or worse – backwards.

Why? We have healing to do before we have any hope of learning content. If we were EVER able to make students learn more than a years worth of growth, why weren’t we doing it consistently all this time? And now we hope to do it as they come back from a global pandemic? If we continue to look in the rearview mirror we are going to crash. Best we look forward and start the learning journey where we can.

Even if school already returned to session in-person prior to the end of the 20-21 school year, many schools moved back and transitioned right into learning content because school was already in session. Taking time to address even the typical beginning-of-the-year family-building, social adjustment seemed out of place. And as I’ve expressed before, whatever happened was the best that everyone could do at the time. It wasn’t wrong, necessarily, it just was. But, we have the opportunity to start fresh next school year.

One of the pathways for healing is to step into emotions. Find them, name them, and walk through them. Students (and most adults) don’t necessarily know how to do this. Here are some activities to help students find social-emotional gaps from the pandemic and identify feelings they may have had and help deal with stress and anxiety.

Collaborate With the Arts

We have had solid research for years now on the positive impact of the arts on social-emotional wellbeing and mental health issues. This research has recently been brought back as a way to support students post-pandemic and provide them an outlet for emotions and stress they may not have had the chance to address.

“The arts offer unique opportunities to support SEL skills such as emotional regulation, personal aspirations and compassion for others, which can effectively engage students facing higher levels of personal trauma or distress…In a child’s early years, participation in the arts can have positive impacts on their cognitive development. Music instruction can help youths improve their self-efficacy and self-esteem, and can provide opportunities to develop relationship-building skills and form new perceptions about themselves and their communities. The benefits of arts participation can also help educators strengthen their self-efficacy and support positive personal transformations.”

Supporting Student Wellness Through the Arts (Dell’Erba & Quillen, 2020)

Specifically, collaborate with the Art teacher (could also be graphic arts, industrial arts) and allow students to complete a piece that represents either their feelings during the pandemic or their feelings now after the pandemic. Allow them to recognize their sad emotions as well as their positive emotions. There are no negative emotions. All emotions are valid and need to be worked through. When finished, display them in an optional gallery (don’t force students to show their pieces as they may be intensely personal).

Another option would be to work with the music teacher to listen to other pandemic era specific songs, analyze them, and then write lyrics that would sound like and address our latest experience as music also has been shown to reduce mental health issues.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management

Maslow Level: Esteem Needs (feeling of accomplishing something), Love and Belonging (we all went through something together, I’m not alone)

Small Moment Narrative

When I was a teacher, one of my favorite literacy lessons was the small moment narrative. We would read multiple mentor texts and excerpts to really understand how important the senses and emotions of the moment brought life to the story.

Couple a small moment narrative with the research behind the power of writing to build resilience and work through emotional trauma, and this can become a healing activity.

“…people experience a positive effect from employing expressive writing to cope with difficult life experiences. Even though a traumatic or grievous experience comes crashing into one’s life unbidden, through writing, one can shape and explore the difficulty.”

Writing for Healing: Writing it down will help you work through difficult times (Hocker, 2018)

There is a powerful student video by Liv McNeill that illustrates what some of her peers were experiencing during the pandemic called Numb (secondary students only in my opinion) that could be used as an example of a visual of a small moment and how she communicated her frustration through the moment – although technically the video is meant to represent time passing.

It’s okay in this situation to ask students to reveal a moment that they were feeling OR that they imagine their peers to feel. This takes the pressure off and allows more vulnerability if they would like to work through that particular healing but do not want to take on the added pressure of the vulnerability. The therapy is in the writing, not in the display of their emotions.

Other options would be to allow students to create a video like Liv’s to express their emotions during the pandemic or instead of a small moment narrative, ask students to write letters to their pre-pandemic selves describing their experience and emotions.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Social-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision-Making

Maslow Level: Love and Belonging (we all went through something together, I’m not alone), Safety (I can experience psychological safety while being vulnerable)

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing has been shown to reset our brains and bring us to a more neutral place. If this activity needs to be connected to content (I don’t believe it does) it could properly fit into any science lesson on the brain and body or psychology unit on mindfulness.

“Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others…The research shows for the first time that breathing — a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices — directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”

The Yogi masters were right — meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind: New research explains link between breath-focused meditation and attention and brain health. (Trinity College Dublin, 2018)

There are multiple types of breathing exercises that can be tried, but keep in mind that not all breathing is considered mindful breathing, meditation, or deep breathing. Here is an activity that can be done quickly and is relatively simple. The recommended time is five minutes which would obviously need to be adjusted for small children.

2-1-4-1 Breathing

Get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes if it feels okay.

Breath in through your nose for a count of two. Pause for a count of one.

Release your breath slowly for a count of 4. Pause for a count of one.

Repeat.

If this becomes too easy or feels too short, change the time to 4-1-6-1 or any version that seems to work for you. Find more breathing and meditation exercises in my Building Resilience Through Mindfulness for Educators on Thinkific or Udemy.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management

Maslow Level: Psychological Needs

Social Games

I believe that games in the classroom are a fantastic way to engage students, and board games specifically help students develop social skills by working collaboratively with their peers. However, as I discuss social games here I’m specifically talking about partnering with the Physical Education teacher to plan additional time for students to interact in a physical way but also try to mind the gap of the social experiences that they may have had because of the pandemic. In tandem with this, I could quote the mountain of studies done to support additional recess time for students as a way of developing SEL skills as well.

“Physical activity has a small but significant effect on the mental health of children and adolescents ages 6 to 18, according to a review of 114 studies. On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Exercise may also protect children’s mental health over time: One study found that 6- to 8-year-olds who got more exercise had fewer symptoms of major depressive disorder two years later.”

How and why to get children moving now (American Psychological Association, 2020)

There are multiple ways to include physical activity in just about any content area. Reviews can be done in game situations where students need to run and grab a certain color ball or baton to answer a question. Students can collaborate to design their own physical games that the class can then play. Physical education educators are brilliant at developing movement activity and can be an ally when taking on this type of opportunity. Any type of activity that gets them moving (preferably outside or in an open space like the gym) and working together will allow them to build some of the social skills they may have missed during the pandemic.

CASEL SEL Core Competencies Addressed: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making, Social Awareness

Maslow Level: Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem

Taking time a the beginning of the year to work on the emotional gaps and social skills that students are lacking from the pandemic is going to be a key way to not only sooth their nervous systems but help them understand their emotions and work through them in a healthy way. It’s also how we will best get to the point of real learning. In this case, the idea of going slow to go fast is going to be key. Some districts might feel like dealing with students’ SEL needs should come second to the work that has to be done, but what they need to understand is that social-emotional support and growth IS the work that needs to be done. And when it’s done well, the rest of the learning will come.

Find more information on the CASEL SEL Core Competencies here.

Reach out to me to discover how I can support your district in professional learning on educator mental health, SEL, edtech, and professional learning books using CARES Act grant funding.

How Resilient Do We Want Districts To Be?

Resilience has become a buzzword throughout the pandemic. I’ve used it myself – admittedly we need to cultivate resilience in ourselves so when we are faced with adversity we are better able to work through the emotions that accompany hard things. But what about our school systems? Resilience is a good thing, right?

Is it?

Even though I’ve always had a separate definition for resilience as it relates to humans (read it here) resilience is typically defined as the ability to bounce back after an adversity or trauma. Organizational resilience is defined as, “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” So, obviously we want districts to have been successful over the pandemic in teaching our students, and I believe that we can safely say that teachers/administrators/school districts did what very few other professions could have accomplished in the way that they adjusted to what their students needed. But, do we really want them to go back to the way they were before?

In this way, in looking at the future plans of districts I’ve worked with, it appears that they have a resilient system. They are going back to exactly the way they were operating pre-pandemic. We had the option of disrupting education entirely and we are, systemically, focusing on bouncing back. Why? Because we have always done it this way. Even the online schools and programs I see people creating are based on the not necessarily best practices of pandemic learning. Proving that in some ways, even pieces of the pandemic will be resilient.

Instead, we need the systems version of post-traumatic growth. We need to take a hard look at the things we’ve learned, the strategies we’ve tried, and the change we were able to accomplish and lean into that. For example, we’ve learned that:

Hybrid learning should never be a thing. Hybrid learning (where the teacher is teaching synchronously to an in-class group and a group online simultaneously) does not work. It is the instructional pandemic strategy, bar none, that produced the most burnt out teachers and I’d venture to say, the most disengaged virtual students. It could be argued that it was necessary as a bandaid but should never be replicated as a real way to teach. BUT, we did learn that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous content with regular student checkins and engagement meant for online learners did work for some students. Many teachers saw the benefits of adding in voice, choice, and pacing options for learners. That could be something we bring forward.

We were reminded of how important relationships are with students and the struggles that they may be enduring at home because, in many cases, we could see those struggles first hand. We realized that our students did not have the capacity to learn when they were suffering from overwhelm and mental health issues, just like teachers may have struggled to teach when they were doing the same. In other words, we learned that discussing learning gaps is not only demoralizing to the teachers who worked overtime during the pandemic to help their students, but that learning can’t happen until the emotional gaps are filled. And we can bring this forward by focusing on social-emotional learning and trauma support as we start the new year (and every day after that).

We were shown how quickly money can be reallocated elsewhere for the greatest perceived need, how a massive change in scheduling can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, and how freaking awesome teachers are at their jobs and yet they are in need of emotional and mental health support as well (also a pre-pandemic issue).

In many cases, I’d say the districts that I’ve worked for and with are resilient. They are able to go back to exactly the way they were prior to the pandemic. But, is that what we want? We have a catalyst to stop doing things just because it’s the way we’ve always done them. How can we better use what we have learned to, at minimum, change the status quo? Or are systems going to lean into their resilience and stare in the rearview mirror until they crash? There are pieces of our system’s post traumatic growth that we can capitalize on to move forward and if not cause a disruption, at least shake things up a bit.

How Learning to Love Myself Impacts My Service to Others

Over the course of the Pandemic I’ve taken the opportunity to dive into reflection and learning more about emotions and how they control so much of what we do – everything from eating and sleeping to how we react in certain situations to certain people. I’ve really tried to get to the heart of what makes me tick. What the core emotion is that throws me into jealously mode when I feel like I’m working so hard and other people are more successful than I am. What ignites my overall frustration with some people when other people can do the same thing and I’m fine with it. Why I have such a difficult time feeling true joy that when I do it feels like an euphoric surprise. I want to be better – a better human. A happy human. And most days, I struggle with true happiness no matter how much I feel like I might be helping other people.

The last therapist I went to see was, to say the least, a little non-traditional. I was with him 15 minutes when he said, “You really need to learn to love yourself.” Now, had I heard this only one time, I might have blown it off, but the truth is that it is the one consistent message I’ve received from every therapist I’ve ever seen. Prior to this man, I had been in a therapy session with another counselor who put me in a meditative state and asked me to repeat the words, “I love myself” and I burst into tears and told her I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t. Like my subconscious was like, “Dude, no way. Not happening.” It’s an experience that has taken me a long time to process, and I’ve actually felt empathy for my little human inside that was so sad that they couldn’t say those words aloud.

I’m going to take a pause here and say that I don’t need anyone to message me and ask me if I’m okay and tell me all my good qualities – although I love that people are kind enough to do that for someone. In this case, I’m good. I’ve got me. This blog post is about reflection and potentially helping someone else who may feel like they see themselves in some of what I say. Don’t feel bad for me. I’m doing good work. Work that not everyone is always willing to do.

In my reflection over the course of the pandemic I’ve found that all roads lead back to the way that I feel about myself and boundaries I have or have not set. That my reactions, actions, and the way I treat others is a direct reflection of how I love myself – or don’t. And I have grown – although very slowly – over the course of time in working on this, and I’ve found that there are pieces of my life that have improved because I have found a friendship with myself. I am better able to relate to others because of this newfound relationship.

I’m better able to hold space for someone else.

If you’ve never heard the term “holding space” it means being present for someone as they work through their emotions. Indications of not holding space might be: saying things to try to make it better, relating their experience back to your own life, or being judgmental of their situation. Holding space is not always easy because it requires you to allow someone to process through their hurt without trying to necessarily fix it or give advice. But, what can make holding space even more difficult is if you’re still working through your own emotional baggage. Clearing your own personal baggage allows you to have the space to hold. So many of our judgments and desire to see people ok stem from our own triggered emotions and experiences that we have boxed up inside. By working through my own emotions and baggage I am now able to have the space to hold for others as they work through theirs. It also makes me feel more whole – more grounded, which makes me a more grounding presence to anyone who needs it.

I understand loving others better.

It’s difficult to know how to love other people if you don’t know how to love yourself. It’s also really difficult to know your value if you don’t love yourself as well. In the past, I could be so desperate for someone to care for me (using “love” synonymous with true friendship here) that I would allow people to walk all over me and I would use their “happiness” as my own because I didn’t know how to generate it within me. If they were asking me to do something for them, they must love me, even if I was giving more time and effort than I had available to give. I would allow toxic people to remain because the small doses of simulated caring was enough to get me through their negative behaviors. When I learned how to better love myself, I also learned that people will value me exactly how much I value myself. And if I don’t value myself, some people will value me that much as well, so the narrative needed to be changed. In learning to love myself I found the people who love me that much tended to stick around, and through that experience I learned to love others stronger as I was able to see what true love looked like.

I embrace the eccentricities of others.

Prior to taking the opportunity to do all this shadow work, my own self-loathing could often be found focusing on my personal “wishlist”. This wishlist included things I wished were different about myself. My weight. My inability to focus on anything for a long period of time. My irrational fear of sharks and heights. My nose. The list was long and I felt what made me different made me less than. This is the current area where I do the most amount of work. Accepting what has traditionally made you feel like you’re not good enough in the past can be a long process as disliking pieces of myself has been something I’ve practiced for many years. But, I’m getting better. The idea that I can both like where I am and still try to be better has been a concept that has helped me. Embracing things like my weight (while still trying to get healthier) and my crooked smile is helping me to love it all without judgment, and loving these things about myself has helped me to appreciate the eccentricities that others bring to the table with the same lack of judgment. And honestly, it feels good. Less judgment and more acceptance should always be the goal.

While some might think that one might take on narcissistic tendencies if they love themselves, I can say with certainty that moving into this space has humbled me unlike many other experiences I’ve had in my life. I’ve had to dig into and challenge my own emotional triggers and reroute the parts of my brain that have been taught to react in a negative way to me feeling good about myself. I’ve had to give myself pep talks in the mirror. I’ve had to literally tell myself “I love you”. But mostly I’ve had to work on myself because I’ve always believed that I’m on this Earth to be in the service of others, and I’m slowly learning that I can’t truly do that until I’ve learned to love, accept, and value who I am.

The Potential for Sensory Overload Post-Lockdown

I like warm hugs.

There, I said it. I’ve never considered myself much of a hugger, but since the pandemic, I have developed a new appreciation for another human enveloping me in a tight squeeze. Arms compressing my shoulders, lovingly signifying all the moments since the last time I had seen that person, is nearly all I can think about now. And maybe this realization could only have come about by the Universe saying, “Hey, you wanna look at screens instead of paying attention to the people in front of you? Well, here you go. Look at those screens all the time, then. You’ll see – you’ll miss your people.” And the Universe was right. I do.

That being said, I’m a little afraid of going back to “normal.”

When Wisconsin first opened back up, my daughters needed to go to the doctor for their yearly check-ups and immunizations. I was standing at the receptionist’s desk checking them in and a woman with twin boys, roughly eight-years-old, walked into the office. They began speaking loudly to the receptionist like 8-year-old boys do. They were not behaving poorly. They were doing nothing you wouldn’t expect from children. But for me, even being a mother of four, even being a former elementary teacher – it was beyond overwhelming. I had something like an anxiety attack mixed with overwhelm and sensory overload. The room started spinning. I wanted to put my hands rudely over my ears and ask them to stop talking. I needed out of there fast.

When I was finally able to leave the situation (and I use that term loosely, I mean, it really wasn’t a situation) I reflected on what the heck just happened. I was shocked. I’m not known to have sensory sensitivities. But, something definitely happened that day that made me almost afraid to go back into society for a while. I had become accustomed to being in front of my screen. Being with actual people in public who weren’t as quiet and reserved as my own kids tend to be, threw me for a loop.

I think about this when it comes to teachers and students returning to the classroom after being in virtual learning and how overwhelming it must be. I was speaking to a teacher about how quiet her high school students were and that they were struggling to interact with each other. This might be a result of being in a room at home, alone, working for nearly a year with little interaction, and now put into a classroom with other students. It may be something equivalent to sensory overload EVEN IF they are not known to have sensory sensitivities. And if this is the case with students who are not known to have them, imagine how it is with the ones who do.

So, what can we do about this?

First, just knowing that it could be an issue is the first step. Keep this possibility in mind whenever you see other educators or students just seem a little off. It might even get worse the further you get in the week as it becomes increasingly overwhelming. And it may feel to the person who is overwhelmed that this shouldn’t be happening because they should be glad to be back with people, which can be confusing. It’s usually confusing when how we feel and how we think we should feel are opposing.

Second, speak to students about it. Bringing it to their attention may help lessen their confusion if it happens. Ask how you can help them if it becomes overwhelming.

Third, give students and fellow educators the grace you’d want if you were having those same feelings. Read your students and colleagues and know when to force interaction and when to allow it to happen organically when people are ready.

We have been making adjustments all along and we are not ready to return to normal on so many levels. I miss my people as much as everyone else. I miss their nearness and hearing their actual laugh without the undertone of electronics humming. I miss their warm hugs. But we are going to need to slowly acclimate to whatever our future is. And honestly, the slower we take it and the more self-aware we are, the more we pay attention to others’ social-emotional needs, the more likely we are to come out of this mentally healthier than we would have otherwise.

Three Strategies for Fighting Educator Self-Abuse

I’m not smart enough to keep up with new technology.

I’m not cut out for this new way of teaching.

I’m not good enough to be able to keep up with my own kids and my students.

I’ve gained all this weight during the pandemic and I’m so fat.

The teachers on social media are brilliant. I don’t have the ability to do the things they do. I’m just not good enough.

I live with constant guilt that I can’t keep up.

I’m not resilient enough, brilliant enough, or tech-savvy enough to do anything well.

I suck.

When I first discovered the concept of self-abuse, the physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional abuse of oneself, I was a little skeptical. The addition of the term “abuse” made it feel dramatic…and yet, I wrestled with the questions of “Are we just adding abuse to everything now to make it sound terrible” or “Is self-abuse just not widely spoken about because, like many mental health issues, it’s stigmatized?”

In the processing of my thoughts I came to this conclusion: if someone else would say these things to us repeatedly, it would be considered abuse. Therefore, very much a thing.

Example: If I said to you, “My husband tells me every day that I’m fat and stupid.” You would probably tell me that’s emotional and verbal abuse. And yet, it’s so much more accepted for us to look in the mirror and say, “I’m fat and stupid.”

Example: If your boss came to you every day and said, “I don’t know why you can’t do anything right. If you would just try harder this would be better but you’re too lazy. You’re not doing what’s best for your kids” you would say it’s abuse…or at minimum harassment.

While it may not be your spouse, partner, significant other, or parent saying it, self-deprecation, constant guilt, self-esteem issues that result in negative self-talk are all pieces of self-abuse. Disregarding your own needs, ignoring self-care, failing to act on physical ailments or take care of your wellbeing are all self-abuse as well.

While self-abuse can literally impact anyone, educators are, in my opinion, more susceptible because of their very personal and emotional tie to their profession. Oftentimes, when they feel like a failure in their profession it can carry over to how they feel about themselves personally because they are so inextricably linked. If I ask you who you are, you will most likely name educator in the first five descriptors that you give. Many times, it may be in the first three. We go into the profession with a moral obligation to do better. To make the world a better place for kids. And there are very few things more personal than morality.

As with many struggles when dealing with mental health, self-abuse is built over time and eventually almost becomes a habit. Negative self-talk, for example, is something that our brain begins to default to when we do it enough. That means that in order to change, we need to rewire how we operate, which can take time and considerable effort.

Recognize your value

You are not going to be amazing at everything. However, I have literally never met an educator that didn’t bring something to the table that others needed. Some are fantastic at relationship building, and some know their content like nobody’s business. Some can read a children’s book so that all the kids and adults in the room are entranced by their story. YOU bring a greatness to the table that education needs. Figure out exactly what that is. We all need to continue to learn and grow in all areas, but we can also celebrate the uniqueness that we bring to our classrooms.

If it helps, write them down. Keep it on a slip of paper by your bedside. Every morning or night read them to yourself and take a moment to appreciate who you are. There is nothing wrong with understanding and appreciating your strengths. In fact, you make everyone else around you better because of it.

Practice positive thinking

Of course, one of the ways that we can take power away from negative thoughts is by combating them with positive ones. Rewiring our brains using gratitude (and feeling it from your toes to your nose), positive affirmations, and practicing positive body image are all ways that we can change our default to a more positive self-talk and attitude.

Also, keep people in your life who will care about how you speak to yourself and will model how you should be spoken to. If you detract from a compliment by rejecting its validity, surround yourself with people who will remind you to simply say, “Thank you.” Keep in mind, there is a very find line between being humble and being self-deprecating. One is healthy, the other is not.

Take care of yourself

It’s been a popular notion to say lately, “You can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.” But let’s take a look at that a little closer. I would also say, “You can’t be kind to yourself unless you take care of yourself.” It doesn’t need to even be about anyone else. Neglecting your health is just that – neglect – which is a form of self-abuse. Being physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally healthy is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It will allow you to put all of the self-limiting beliefs and self-abusive tendencies behind you because in taking care of yourself you are inherently making yourself a priority WHICH IS A GOOD THING. It’s difficult to think so little of something that you take care of and prioritize. Don’t have time? Create boundaries. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is possible and necessary.

When I realized all the ways that I was potentially denying myself happiness because I was participating in self-abuse it helped me begin to change behaviors that kept me feeling ashamed, guilty, and unhealthy. I feel like this type of behavior is more common right now during the pandemic when we are feeling like we can’t do what we do best – teach. In some cases, the very strengths that we have identified are unavailable for use because of what the pandemic has done to our jobs. However, find new strengths in what you’re doing now. So many times self-abuse happens to us inside our own heads. Our own thinking can be one of our worst enemies. Therefore, this has to be a change in which you take ownership. It has to be an intentional decision you make every day when you wake up. That’s the first step in beginning to change self-abusive behaviors.

Give Yourself the Grace & Time to Heal From Educator Burnout & Disengagement

One of my professional interests that I am most passionate about is the concept of how I came back from the strong desire I had to leave the education profession. Then, I called it burnout although it was probably a mixture of burnout, demoralization, and personal and professional adversities. Now, I call the overarching term for this as disengagement. I had no idea what had happened to me that I wanted to leave a profession that I had loved. Being so unhappy was draining and impacting other areas of my life as I was constantly overwhelmed. This experience is why I began talking about re-engagement and how one can come back from being disengaged because I believed that everyone has the right to be happy.

Many times on social media I see well-intentioned people asking about what people can do to come back from burnout. There are so many reasons people can actually become disengaged besides burnout, but what I believe they’re asking is that if we are tired as educators (which when aren’t we, really?) how can we remember why we love our jobs. People give tips that generally boil down to self-care and because social media relies on short and succinct messages, it can potentially make someone feel like the retrieval of our buried happy-teacher should be an easy task.

I’m not even sure that in my own work and research that I have made this part abundantly clear: becoming re-engaged is not quick. It is not easy. It often feels like two steps forward and one step back. It took me one year to begin to believe that I could stay in the profession. It took me another two to feel like I was completely re-engaged again. Some days, even though it’s been over six years, I feel like slipping back into that negativity would be so easy. Especially with how overwhelming the world is right now. Discussion of burnout or disengagement is never flippant. I believe everyone understands that it is a serious potential affliction for professionals who are so emotionally tied to their work. Sometimes, however, people underestimate the amount of energy that being engaged takes.

While reading this may feel negative and glass-half-full, why I bring it up is because I have spoken with people who have been trying to come back from disengagement and don’t feel normal after a few weeks or months. They want to give up and forget about trying because it feels like it’s never going to end. They often think that once they decide to re-engage that their minds, bodies, and thoughts should just follow suit. But, they’ve been unintentionally practicing being unhappy in their job for a long time, and like any habit, it will take time to break.

Plus, if you find yourself burnt out, or demoralized, or going through some sort of adversity, a teacher trauma, or whatever may be impacting your engagement and you’re trying to come back, it takes time to heal. You will need quite possibly a significant amount of time to heal from the emotional response that you have had to teaching for various reasons. Trying to re-engage isn’t about being lazy versus ambitious. It isn’t about being tired versus energized. It isn’t about not wanting to versus wanting to, even though engagement includes all these things. Working toward being an engaged teacher after being disengaged is about healing a part of you that has suffered hurt.

And I have always said this about resilience: resilience isn’t about bouncing back to the person you were before. You will not be the same person and that is okay. You will be smarter. More aware. Have more strategies in your tool belt so there’s less chance of it happening again. Resilience is about being happy with the person you’ve become. If you feel like you have to be the person you were before you will also feel like you are constantly failing because you are no longer that person. That is not only part of learning, that is part of healing.

Even now, all these years later, I am still trying new strategies to keep myself engaged. It is a constant process of reflection and evolving. A couple years ago this effort included learning how to meditate. I hated it. I read the research. I knew it was good for my brain, but I did not like it. Now, I can meditate for up to 15 minutes at a time and if I don’t do it for a few days I can feel that I need it. I would never have guessed that would have been the case a couple years ago. It took work and it took time, but it was part of the process of working to keep my engagement that I had fought so hard to get back in the first place. Meditation is only one of many strategies that I have, it just happens to be one of my newest ones.

If you’re working on re-engaging or just trying to stay engaged, know this: it will be a winding road. It is not an easy endeavor. It will take time and effort. Don’t give up or feel like a failure if it doesn’t seem to be working. Adjust your sails and keep going, keep plugging away even when you’re questioning if it’s just too much Like anything that is hard, the end game is worth it.

You can find more information on educator engagement and disengagement here. My last post on overwhelm here. Also, my books The Fire Within and Reignite the Flames address mental health awareness for educators and engagement and re-engagement respectively. Finally, find my free Educator Self-Care Course here.

Resilience quote

Just For Today: For Those Feeling Overwhelmed

I haven’t made it a secret on social media that I have been struggling to write blog posts lately. It seems like something that should be a task I could just let go, but the inability to bring myself to write is a symptom of deeper issues and causes me stress that I can’t let go. The stress comes from knowing that it is something I should be doing. From understanding that I committed to a task that I am not completing and it was a promise that I made to myself (which is the most important person I can make a promise to) and I am failing myself at my inability to complete said task. I also feel like I’m letting down mentors who have taught me to be strong in the face of being tired and feeling overwhelmed. I have a ball in my chest knowing that I am missing valuable reflection time and sharing with my fellow PLN, another commitment that I had made years ago. I can’t let it go that I am impacting my own thinking and learning as well as others. When I really start to spiral, I think, “What does my future hold when I can’t even write a simple blog post?” Then comes the “What is wrong with me” and the “Why can’t I be motivated like other people”. All this from a freaking blog post.

The deeper issue here is that I’m overwhelmed and I’m not going to go into all the things I have going on that are causing me to be overwhelmed because being busy is not a competition. Plus, I could have nothing going on and still feel it because the world is an overwhelming place right now. It should not be underestimated the toll that the pandemic has taken on people mentally, emotionally, and physically (hello, additional Covid 19lbs). Yesterday, I went to go into the post-office and nearly fell into tears as I realized I forgot my mask and Tom Hanks told me that only inconsiderate people don’t wear masks and the thought of being inconsiderate nearly pushed me over the edge.

The worst part is that for those of us who spiral about the future and everything we are not doing, we can’t even see the future right now. As in, we have no idea what the world will look like in two weeks. We use repetition, processes, and schedules as safety nets. Most of us don’t know how school is going to begin. We don’t know how our own kids are going back. We don’t know how our own schedules are going to look. And even if districts have a “plan”, most districts acknowledge that they may be back for two weeks before they need to go fully online. And if they’re not acknowledging that, well, then honestly they’re not planning well. Teachers are updating their wills to go back to school. Truly, we are living in unbelievable times. We have lost out safety nets and are crossing a tightrope 10 stores in the air. There is quite a bit of our overwhelm that we can contribute to our lack of feeling safe for multiple reasons, but a slippery grip on our future is definitely one of them.

Because I have been struggling with overwhelm lately, I have been emotional and I prefer to take on tasks that take little thinking. I have taken to playing a Cafe game on my phone. I have never been on to play games on my phone, but it is now a preferred activity. I feel exhausted. The other day I cried because “baby trees” were being taken out of my yard. I can’t stress the impact that true overwhelm can have. It is more than a passing feeling. More than a sudden temper tantrum, although those too can be a sign. I have written more about overwhelm and chronic stress here.

As part of my overwhelm I have taken to trying to meditate more, which I’m going to admit is an ongoing goal. I have improved so much at meditation that I can now mediate for up to 15 minutes. When I began, 30 seconds of sitting still was a struggle as I was bombarded with thoughts of all the things I could be accomplishing if I wasn’t just “sitting there.” As part of my study of meditation, I’ve found that there is an intention setting meditation that is called “Just For Today”. It is actually also one of the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous as well. The basic premise that you set intentions that begin with “Just for today…” By focusing on getting through one day, you may find yourself saying “Anyone could do this just for today, I can, too”. You may find yourself living more in the moment and taking focus away from what the future is going to hold. You may find the little accomplishments replenish your energy and fill your soul. One step to fighting overwhelm.

Just for today I will be patient with my children.
Just for today I will be kind to myself.
Just for today I will be considerate of my loved ones and of strangers.
Just for today I will smile even when I’m wearing a mask so people can see it in my eyes (something I learned from my daughter).

It’s not that you will only commit to doing these things for one day. It is that today you’re going to focus on doing these things. There is a difference. If you are like me and constantly future-think, this is going to be difficult. But, if you also understand that your constant future-focus with the state of the world right now is causing you anxiety, shifting your focus to the present may help you find that there is a welcome reprieve.

The second piece of this, however, is being okay with where you are and who you are in this day. It’s not enough to claim you’re going to do something just for today and then continue to live in the disappointment you may feel for what you’re doing or who you are. We all know that we have growing to do. We know that it’s possible that who we are right now in the midst of a pandemic and what feels like the world is falling apart may not be our best selves. However, wallowing in that isn’t going to help either and will only add to the chronic stress that we are feeling. So, be okay with who you are and what you are doing today. Whatever it is and whoever you are…trust that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at this moment. Take a deep breath. Let go of the imagined stress that you’ve created in regards to your version of a “blog post”. People may judge. They may try to compete with everything you have going on. Let them. They’re not the ones determining your self-worth anyway.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Asking Questions that May Lead to Better Mental Health Support for Black Students and Students of Color

This blog post, like many of my posts, is my version of processing my own thinking and emotions “out loud” with others so I can learn and grow best. Please excuse how disjointed it may read as I try to put all my thoughts coherently together. With this post, I was fortunate enough that my good friend, Desmond Hasty, was willing to collaborate and co-process with me as the concept for this post was due to a powerful conversation we had regarding mental health and beginning the next school year.

In the area where I live, we have a large population of people who have immigrated here from Mexico. Some of them are documented, some of them are not. Some students’ parents have become citizens, some students are the first to have been born here. When there have been heated political discussion about immigration laws and deportation (regardless of how anyone feels on the issue) teachers in our area watched our Latinx students’ fear and uncertainty rise up. They couldn’t tell anyone how they felt because they were either unsure they should feel it or they didn’t want to get their family in trouble. Some of them didn’t even know what questions to ask to begin a conversation. Some of them became quiet and reclusive. Some of them began to show behaviors consistent with trauma. When the pictures of children in cages being separated from their parents began to cross the airways, things got even worse. It didn’t matter whether they were technically able to get deported or not, many feared for their lives and those of their family members. Learning about square roots and how to conjugate a verb doesn’t seem that important when you’re facing possible deportation and being caged. In the midst of this kind of upheaval, I witnessed the mental health toll that the situation was taking on our students and their families. I have never forgotten the looks on their faces. The way their parents seemed to age 10 years in a few months. It was like watching trauma every day unfold before my eyes.

I feel this same way about what has been happening in our country as of late with the murder of unarmed Black people by police officers, but particularly with the murder of George Floyd because the actual act (as in the video of his death) was so highly publicized. We know that racism all by itself breeds its own traumatic impact whether it’s systemic or specific experiences. The constant fear and hypervigilance that it takes to be Black or a person of color has to mimic the feelings of constant and ongoing abuse. We have never done nearly enough to address racism in our schools even though we are willing to begin to discuss mental health. We often address mental health as a way to moderate behaviors instead of a way to keep kids healthy and happy. 

In this article titled 4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic author Courtney Connley writes,

“Racial trauma,” according to marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, “is the physical and psychological impact, and sometimes symptoms, on people of color who have experienced racism.” This includes seeing and hearing about the deaths of George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery and countless others. It also includes feeling and experiencing injustices in everyday life through the microaggressions black people face inside and outside of work.“An accumulation of all of this,”…“creates racial trauma.”

So, as we move into next school year, there are some questions that we (Desmond and I) have been thinking about in regard to our Black students and students of color hoping that in highlighting these realities we may be able to support students more effectively instead of backpedaling. We definitely do not have all the answers, but right now, we do have a lot of questions. We also know that we haven’t thought of them all and I encourage anyone reading to please add to the questions and/or comment with thoughts. We feel like if we don’t answer these questions, more trauma will ensue.

How can we support Black or students of color who may be too young to have the vocabulary/words to express the worries they have and the questions they want answered?

How do we support Black or students of color who don’t feel like their schools are safe places (if they did feel that way before) due to teachers being seen as authorities (as are police officers) and not knowing if they can feel safe/will be protected by White teachers (perception of not being protected or feeling safe)?

How do we emotionally support students when they find their White friends may not be the anti-racists they thought they were? How do we support and understand their grief and also address the issue of racism?

How can we be more understanding of the trauma behaviors we may see increasing as school returns? How can we provide additional support, whether that be counseling services or otherwise?

Whether school continues online or not, will we see an uptick in student truancy that is rooted in fear of systemic racism?

What impact is having guards and school liaison officers going to have particularly if they are stationed with uniforms and guns? With incidents of school shootings, how do we balance the trauma that may be present between watching a police officer murder a man with safety measures that have been put in place due to armed intruders?

How, as a community, do we move forward with an anti-racist message? How are we going to communicate that being actively anti-racist is the focus of the district? How is the district going to react when someone openly disagrees in order to best support our Black students/families and students of color and their families? How are we going to recognize and address the systemic racism in our own districts?

I never claim to have all the answers but I have addressed mental health long enough to understand that there needs to be additional support offered to everyone. I think this help should address concerns starting from mid-pandemic, to going back into our schools, and well beyond that. Many of our Black students and students of color are going to have feelings and traumas that are heightened even beyond the systemic racism they experience daily. Beginning to address these issues is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully will be the catalyst to real change in the view of mental health in schools and the specific support that our students need.

Additional Resources:

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators by NCTSN

Racism as Trauma: Clinical Perspectives from Social Work and Psychology by Donielle Prince (ACES Connection Staff)

4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic by Courtney Connley

Resources to Support Children’s Emotional Well-Being Amid Anti-Black Racism, Racial Violence, and Trauma by Dominique Parris, Victor St. John, Jessica Dym Bartlett

Three Ways Administrators Can Support the Social-Emotional Well-being of their Teachers (and One Please Don’t Do)

One of the most common questions I get in regards to the way that educators may disengage or the topics on educator mental health that I cover in Reignite the Flames and The Fire Within is “How, as an administrator, can I support my teachers who are disengaged?” (OR how can I keep them engaged). “How can I support their mental health?” I find that administrators really do care about their teacher’s mental health even though some of them fumble with how to be supportive. The issues with this support range from the more abstract I’m not sure how to talk about emotions to the practical when am I treading into privacy issue territory. Couple that with the fact that mental health is personal and must ultimately be addressed by the teacher and teachers don’t want to be burdened with convincing their administrators that they are emotionally stable, and it’s a recipe for how do I even know where to begin? Here are three suggestions I have for growing a culture of educator social-emotional support (all for FREE).

Education
The education in this area is two-fold: first, understanding the root causes of educator disengagement and second, teaching those causes as well as other opportunities for learning about mental health, self-care, and mindfulness.

The first, understanding the root causes, means to understand that there is more to educator disengagement than burnout. There is also demoralization, secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, personal and professional adversities, or teacher trauma. It’s understanding that sometimes the mental health issues of teachers are born from the very place that they are trying to work in, and then sometimes they are not. Learning about these areas and how they can be addressed as well as educating teachers so they know the signs to watch for can be a proactive way to give people the information they need to put a name to how they feel and subsequently, look for a solution.

The second part of education is providing teachers a way of learning some additional skills in the area of self-care such as meditation or mindfulness. It can also be taking a PD day and instead of learning (more) about literacy or math strategies, provide them with an opportunity to learn from a teacher who is fantastic at fixing all her meals for the week on Sunday night or the yoga instructor who knows special stretches for people who stand too much (or sit in the case of virtual learning). If finding elements of joy help support educator mental health and engagement and aid in building resilience, then help the people who would typically take care of everyone else but themselves find the time and energy to learn what brings them joy. These activities may not look like something you would typically provide for a professional development opportunity, but sometimes getting to the root of the issue doesn’t look like addressing the actual symptoms of the problem. Sometimes you need to go deeper.

Model the Behaviors You Wish To See
This, for me, is one of the most important aspects of a leader and definitely goes for self-care and self-reflection on one’s own engagement as well. After all, as I state in Reignite the Flames, educators include administration. If you are touting self-care and mindfulness as activities that would assist in defending oneself against the causes of disengagement, then learn about and find time for these activities. Reflect on your boundaries. How do you help your teachers create/maintain their boundaries? For example, by sending a non-emergency email at 8:30pm, even if you’ve told your teachers that they do not need to respond at night, you are still implying that it is acceptable to be working 12-14 hour days. In regards to self-care and mindfulness, if you hear an admin colleague say “I don’t want to” or “I’m too busy” or “I don’t know how” you may notice that their staff will feel the same way. Even if the teachers don’t acknowledge the administrator is practicing self-care, the vulnerability and commitment will be shown and the seed will be planted.

Insurance Deep Dive
This is probably one of the most practical and least addressed areas. Usually, when I ask districts or their employees if mental health services are covered, they know whether they are or not and that’s about it (unless they or a family member have had to use them). I highly recommend that several people go through the process right up to making an appointment with a mental health professional to see how the insurance company 1) updates it’s databases on whether doctors are covered and accepting patients and 2) how easy it is to find this information and make the calls if you do not work with the insurance all the time (in other words not your district insurance folks). When a reliable process can be determined, it is written down in a format that makes sense and put somewhere it can be easily found. I believe in seeing a counselor as a proactive approach even when you’re not struggling, but if you need to see one while you are and it is a struggle to figure out the process, it is difficult to have the wherewithal to want to follow through on a complicated, unclear process.

The ultimate support in this area would be to work with community mental health professionals to come into the schools for appointments not only for students but also for educators (teachers and administrators) who are unable or unwilling to use sick time for mental health sessions.

And the Please Don’t Do: Self-Care as Compliance
The activities that educators are participating in for self-care should not need to be reported on to an administrator. To me, there’s not much difference between that and asking a teacher every day if they took a shower before they came to work. Any kind of personal well-being should never be a compliance issue. In fact, demanding it could be a privacy issue. And just from the standpoint of understanding how humans work, the second it becomes compliance is the second that the joy and the life begins to get sucked out of whatever the activity is.

I know so many wonderful administrators who are looking for the best way to support their educators and understand the potential mental health risks they are taking by being in this rewarding but overwhelming profession but just don’t know where to start. I’d say the baseline is always knowing what you need to know, teaching others what you know, implementing what you know, and watching the results grow. If you understand educator engagement you understand how much of a part it can play in climate and culture, student achievement, and many other areas of the education ecosystem. And supporting all of those areas are, of course, extremely important. But I always prefer to bring it back to the standpoint of being a human and understanding that educators deserve to be happy in their jobs. Administrators deserve to be happy in their jobs. And there are steps we can take tomorrow to help develop the culture of understanding and support we all desire.