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.

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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.

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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

The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.

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.

Trying To Find the Words to Talk About My Role in Racism

There are not always words available to express the way that something feels. And sometimes, even when we try to use the words we know we can’t fully articulate the amount of emotion that needs to be attached to what is said. I’ve written this reflection several times. I’ve had friends read it. Still, it doesn’t fully capture what I want to say with the level of intensity that I want to say it. I feel inadequate to fully express what I’m trying to say, and for my inadequacy, I apologize.

I have very few words that can accurately express the emotions that I’ve been feeling over the last week and since the murder of George Floyd. I’ve been trying for days to put the right words together feeling like it’s an impossible task. At first, the hurt was for the world and how we can’t seem to get our shit together. The image of people protesting horrific injustices in pandemic masks and the violent videos on social media are something I can’t get out of my head. Then I began the grief of thinking about what the situation would have looked like if George was one of my friends. If that had been Desmond or Rodney or Sarah or anyone else who I deem as being family and whom I love like crazy – I would have lost my mind. Now, I have moved into a new grieving era. The one where I realize, upon further inspection, that maybe I haven’t always been the most awesome white friend.

In my mind I’ve advocated by being accepting and loving. I have tried to be what people call an anti-racist. I have asked questions and been thankful to have friends of color that would patiently explain things to me because I was admittedly stupid in my whiteness. Like admitting I was stupid excused all the questions I wasn’t asking. I’ve taught my children to appreciate others for exactly who they are regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, sexuality…that none of that matters because everyone has value. I realize now there is so much more to this than just accepting.

I have also been embarrassed at my lack of outright support. The things I knew I didn’t know and I was quietly, subconsciously accepting of my ignorance. I was incredibly proud of my son for going out and protesting and then immediately felt guilty that I didn’t do the same. Why didn’t I think of doing that? I struggled for days to say the right thing on social media and kept putting it off because I was fearful of offending the very people that I wanted to support. I understand how much of a coward that makes me seem. 

I have a brown daughter. I have watched racism touch our family. The intense anger that accompanies it is difficult to contain and difficult to put into words, and of course that doesn’t even begin to touch some of the experiences that others have had. When we adopted her all those years ago nobody prepared us for that. They said learn about her culture and teach her, but they never warned us about how truly hateful some people can be. We learned that on our own, but we didn’t know that because we had never experienced it. Because we are white.

And even those experiences didn’t push me to learn more. Probably because I was too comfortable in my whiteness. 

I want to say I’m sorry but I can’t imagine that matters much. A friend equated it to speaking with a grieving widow or mother. What do you say when you know nothing you say will make anything better but could potentially make it worse? I want to find the words but can’t. I’m speechless. I feel sad and dumb. Like I missed a mark that I conveniently didn’t know was there.

Mostly because I really believed my only job was to love my friends.

But I think now that I may not have been loving them in the right way. Loving them is maybe only 50% of what we are supposed to be doing. Advocating for them, teaching our children how to be better than we are, and calling out inequalities may be more of a start. I’m not exactly sure how to move forward, but I’m committed to figuring it out. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because I have friends of color who I couldn’t imagine not having in my life – those who enrich my life and make me a better person just for knowing them. Those who have shaped me into who I am. Those who I love with such conviction that I would gladly do anything to be better for them. Anything to be able to learn to love them in the right way. Because I would die inside if I ever knew I made them feel less than. In so many ways they are so much better of people than I could ever hope to be.

I’m committed being better. I’ll unlearn and relearn. 

Articles that say “this is how you teach it” are valuable, but to teach it we first need to be able to look at our own assumptions and biases. Two articles that were personally focused and that really resonated with me lately are How to Be a Better White Person (thanks Desmond Hasty) and EDITORIAL: What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege (thanks Jeff Kubiak). Another really fantastic resource I read was An Ongoing List of Ways to Join the Anti-Racist Fight which provides organizations, podcast, books and other resources to learn more. 

I’m sorry as a blog reader if this post seems all over the place. If it is, it’s an accurate representation of how I feel about the world right now. The best way I know how to reflect is through my writing. Thanks for allowing me to reflect with you.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

How Chronic Stress Impacts Our Physical & #MentalHealth (With Coping Strategies)

Stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. Stress isn’t inherently bad or negative, but when it becomes traumatic stress or overwhelming stress is when we encounter problems. Sustained overwhelming stress over a period of time can have a negative effect on the brain and body. In the brain, sustained stress will decrease dendrites in the hippocampus which are connected to memory. The brain can also experience dendritic retraction and synapse loss in the frontal cortex where our supercomputer is housed. These changes lead directly to attention loss and decision-making impairment. Sustained stress increases frontal motor connections and decreases hippocampus ones. Our brain is rewiring itself to fight off danger and run away or to collapse to make sure we don’t get too traumatized by remembering every possible moment should we get injured.

This worked well when we were hunters and gathers and needed to be aware of the dangers all around us. However, our brain doesn’t understand that we don’t always need that in today’s world. Stress is everywhere. These changes can undermine neuroplasticity and our ability for our brain to function properly. 

The body reacts to chronic stress in a similar way. Your nervous system can be thrown into a survival strategy (fight, flight/flee, freeze/collapse) which can increase your heartbeat which raises your blood pressure and prepare your body to run, hide, or fight. Because muscles can be taut from the preparation, injuries and joint pain are more likely from the tension.

Extra glucose production to provide a boost of energy can increase the chance for Type 2 Diabetes. “The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate” can also aggravate existing ulcers and cause a surge in acid production in your stomach (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018). The immune system, over time, begins to deteriorate, which not only leads to getting sick easier, but also lengthens the time to get better when we do get sick.

Our reproductive systems can be affected as well. Men may find that with chronic, sustained stress, their testosterone levels are affected, which can cause reproductive and desire issues, insomnia, and exhaustion. It can also cause emotional dysregulation including an increased risk of depression, reduced memory and concentration, and decreased motivation and self-confidence (Gotter, 2019). Women can also experience a loss of desire and their menstrual cycles may be affected, which can lead to reproductive issues. Chronic stress may exacerbate menopausal symptoms (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018).

One of the issues I’ve dealt with for years is the fact that I don’t feel stressed until it hits me with brute force. That is a result of my childhood trauma and the fact that my body handles stress differently because my body is more accustomed to the feeling of it. I don’t get the feeling of an “adrenaline rush” as easily as others, and that’s why many times you’ll find people who thrill seek to be trauma victims. But that adrenaline also doesn’t allow me to feel stress in the same way, so I don’t have the ability to try to react to it, and yet it still causes the same turmoil inside my body. Just something for trauma victims to be cognizant of as you need to be more aware of your body and sensations that indicate high or sustained stress levels.

And you’re thinking, “Awesome. So now what?

The above information is to try to make it clear how truly dangerous sustained stress can be. Especially now, when we are dealing with so many changes and stressors, the chronic stress that people may be experiencing needs to be recognized and dealt before it becomes overwhelming.

Strategies to help fight chronic stress

Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are a way for your brain to focus on what’s going on in the here and now. It helps with spiraling out of control with thoughts of things that need to be done or future events that haven’t even happened yet. There are a few apps that are free for educators that aid in meditation. The most common ones are Headspace and Calm.

Self-care
Self-care is a way of taking proactive steps against stress. Although nothing will mitigate stress completely (it is the body’s warning system that something is changing), it does help the body be ready. I have written about the four types of self-care that I believe to be important and have a free educator self-care course available for more information.

Set healthy boundaries
Boundary setting helps us let others know what is an acceptable way to treat us both physically and emotionally. When it comes to stress, having established healthy boundaries can help empower you to make decisions based off from those boundaries and what you consider to be okay or not okay. For example, if you set a boundary for the amount of time you are willing to work so you have enough time for your family, having a healthy work boundary will help you say no to extra things that people may try to put on your plate. Boundaries are important to respect when it comes to other people as well. When they are clear and understood, it can reduce frustration between people and even improve efficiency when everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not.

Figure out how you process and communicate during stressful times
I have known for awhile that I process out loud. Knowing this information has helped me in multiple ways both personally and professionally. I am able to tell people, “I need to talk through this” and it helps me tremendously because I am able to get immediate feedback on my thinking. That also means that the people I gravitate toward during times of stress are my friends that also either process out loud (because they understand what I need) or the ones who are great listeners. During times of stress we often don’t have the energy capacity to look around and try to figure out what we need. That’s why knowing this information is vital to alleviate the stress of just knowing what to do when we’re feeling stressed.

Pandemic specific
Unfortunately, the longer that the pandemic lingers, the more likely chronic stress is an issue as we continue to adjust to the new normal. Here are a few tips to help with chronic stress during the pandemic:

  • Set work hours and take sick days (boundaries) – As a Technology Director it was a common misconception that I was available all the time because I was “always on” technology. It was not uncommon for me to get texts or emails late at night expecting to be answered immediately. In some cases, I’ve seen teaching morph into this during the pandemic as well. Even though you can be online doesn’t mean you should be. Set working hours. Set your email to automatically respond that you will return the following day during your work hours. Also, find out what your district’s current policy is for sick days and if you would take a sick day during the year, you should be able to take a sick day during virtual work as well.
  • In cases of overwhelm, start small. When I recently became overwhelmed I started struggling to get anything done. I started making myself a small list, and at one point it was four things: Start drinking water at noon (versus the massive amounts of coffee I was drinking), eat one healthy meal, go for a walk, and one work piece that I had to get done. Did I fall a little behind? Yep. But some things also started to fall off my plate that didn’t need to be done and I had taken them on anyway. Eventually, I was able to build myself back up to a normal work day and I had also managed to implement new habits.

Chronic stress isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the first step in fighting it is understand ourselves and how we think and feel. Developing a high emotional intelligence and true reflective skills are a huge part of preparing ourselves for times of inevitable stress. Sometimes that means taking care of it ourselves, but that can also mean going and seeking out professional help. Either way, to know our limits are going to be the first step in dealing with chronic stress.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

I am not a doctor. Claims in this blog have been researched and double checked by a doctor, but please check with your own physician if you have specific concerns.

Another Reason to Pay Attention to Our Mental Health: The Kids Are Watching

One of the areas on my body that I am the most self-conscious of are my knees. I hate the way they look. I know, it’s weird. I have always called them my “fat” knees and have avoided shorts for as long as I can remember. One day when my daughter was a pre-teen, she came out of her bedroom with shorts on and said, “Mom, do these shorts make my knees look fat?” I looked at her size 2 body and said, “What?” She said, “My knees, do they look fat?” I was shocked. It wasn’t like the quintessential does-my-butt-look-big question that she could have picked up anywhere. She was specifically asking about her knees. She had been paying attention. I complained about my knees. She started to worry about hers.

There are many reasons to pay attention to our mental health: to keep our cup filled so we can be healthy for others, to be healthy for ourselves, and live our best life. Taking care of our mental health will help us reach a higher level of happiness and have less stress. However, if those are not good enough reasons, we should be taking care of our mental health because our younger generation, whether it’s our own children or our students, are watching. We have the opportunity to raise generations of kids that are gratuitous, mindful, and mentally healthy. We can influence their mindset about self-care and emotional intelligence and forgiveness, understand how kindness impacts both their brains and bodies and also the brains and bodies of others. We have the ability to impact how they feel about mental health and how accepting they are of mental health issues by educating them and de-stigmatizing the topic. If you think that learning about mental health or mental health issues aren’t for you, then do it for them.

When my eldest son reached college he reached out to me at one point because the generalized anxiety that he had in high school had morphed into what seemed to be a test/performance anxiety that was impacting his grades. A successful student in high school without much effort, he had gone to college with little to no study habits and it had shown, which resulted in him fearing tests and his anxiety convincing him he just couldn’t do it. He called me and said, “Mom, my anxiety has been so bad and this is what has been happening. What can I do?” He did this because in our house I spoke about my anxiety in the context of having strategies for coping and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I modeled being open, and although having anxiety is nothing to be proud of, the work that goes into healing (which can be ongoing) and the ability to find strategies that work and allow you to thrive in spite of the anxiety IS something to be proud of.

We know as teachers that students watch everything we do. If you’re a parent, you have most certainly seen your kids mimic you at some point. Usually, when they do it’s at the most inopportune times and potentially something you would not want them mimicking – like the disgust they feel about their knees. However, we also have the opportunity to model for them the behaviors and attitudes that will support their own mental health and de-stigmatize mental health for younger generations.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.