Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles | Oct 16, 2022
Creating change in education…without burning out
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
My guest today is Dr. Nadia Lopez. She is an award-winning educator who became a viral sensation after the popular blog Humans of New York featured her as one of their most influential people. Dr. Lopez founded Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a STEAM-focused middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, in 2010, and served as the principal for ten years. Her Ted Talk on the Education Revolution has garnered more than a million views. She also serves as a guest lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School for Education, teaching students on the subject matter of Transformative Justice and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
In 2020, Dr. Lopez ended her tenure as Mott Hall Bridges Academy’s principal as an act of self-preservation after developing a stress-related illness that threatened her life. You’ll be hearing more details about that in our conversation. The experience inspired her to develop a coaching program for women of color in educational leadership designed to build their capacity, with a focus on sustainability. You can learn more at TheLopezEffect.com.
I had the honor of spending time with Dr. Lopez, or Nadia as I’ll call her here, during a cultural immersion trip to Switzerland for educators this summer. She shared so many gems of information with me and with the group that I knew I wanted to invite her on TFT to share more with you all, too.
Summary of key ideas
What an education revolution looks like:
- In an education revolution, schools need to be centered on the students’ needs and interests, and not based on capitalism as it is now.
- Teachers should be teaching to the creativity and potential of children and not teaching to a test. This way, they can prepare children to exist in the world and interact with other cultures with confidence.
- The standards that prevent teachers from teaching authentically should change, and so should the evaluation process of teachers.
How to create change when the day-to-day grind of schools keeps us exhausted:
- As exhausting as it is, educators need to keep the conversation going. Parents also need to continue being allies to teachers and be vocal with their support.
- We need to start talking about schools as a part of the community. Communities should stand up and show up with empathy and compassion for educators.
How to gain educational allies:
- Firstly, teachers need to understand that we can’t get everybody on board of the education revolution.
- To make parents more engaged in school, we need to create a space that they don’t associate with their own unpleasant experiences as a student and now as a parent.
- Engage them in a way that they don’t always feel threatened. Reach out to them even when there are no problems with their children.
- Workshops are also a great way to engage parents. It communicates that the school is a place of learning for them, too.
On balancing self-preservation with change-making work:
- Give yourself grace and understand that you walked into the situation, not created it.
- Because you can’t change everything, you must know exactly what you want to do and focus on that.
- Really know your body and self, and set firm boundaries.
- Failing to set boundaries can send people the wrong message and can lead to them not showing you grace — people will keep asking if you never say no.
Using the mind-body connection to set boundaries:
- Listen to your body. Once your body sends signals that its not okay, your mental health will follow.
- Take your days off. Prioritize your health. Pain is not a signal to go harder, it’s a signal for you to stop and take a break.
How to honor your body as you recover from burnout:
- Do not be ashamed of your low moods or taking more time to recover.
- There is so much guilt that comes with the profession but don’t let this invalidate your bad experiences or prevent you from leaving when necessary.
- Quitting doesn’t always equate to failure. Your contributions as a teacher are seeds that can continue to bloom.
- This work isn’t easy and there’s never going to be an easy solution.
- Don’t feel guilty about prioritizing yourself because how you show up in your full self will be an example to children.
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What does the education revolution look like?
ANGELA WATSON: So Nadia, on your website you write, “The time is now for us to redefine how we teach in our classrooms, address the impact of educational inequities and how our schools can be a source of healing or trauma.” Tell me a little bit about your vision. What does the education revolution look like in your perspective?
DR. NADIA LOPEZ: Honestly, when I wrote that, I just thought from a place of what it required me to open up. My former school that I was able to create in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, I really felt like there has to be an audacity in centering children. The way our schools are designed right now is not in the interest of what their needs are and what is required for them to navigate. It’s really based off of capitalism. It’s based off of textbooks and assessments that have been created by individuals who are not in our classrooms, nor do they send their children to public schools.
For me it’s like, what was the essence of education when those of us who went through the public school system, what was that thing that allowed us to feel like we were important, we were being challenged, we were actually getting the information from teachers who cared?
Even though we know that there’s a lot that we don’t learn, but I know that the schools that my mother placed me in from elementary all the way through high school, those schools were specific in nurturing children of color, regardless of the types of households they came from, or the zip code that the school existed. It was centered on creating and cultivating young, Black and Brown children who understood who they were in reference to this world. We were taught how to really interact with other cultures and gave us the language so that we can show up and not feel like we would have to shrink in the world.
So for me, when I think about the education revolution, I think about those teachers who were empowered to take ownership and had the autonomy to teach without those types of restrictions that exist now.
So it sounds like what you’re saying is you believe that there are teachers who want to teach this way, but they’re just not able to in a way that was possible in the past.
Yeah. It’s coming down to we change what standards look like, we change the evaluation process of teachers, we’ve changed what the assessments look like for young people.
And so principals are now under the pressure of superintendents who are evaluating their schools and expect them to meet certain district mandates.
Teachers are under the pressure of a principal who’s coming into their classrooms and evaluating their practices because they need to ensure that the data is aligned to what the district wants. So it’s never about what the kids need, it’s not about the success and creating a cohesive process to ensure that this child is growing holistically. It’s about how do we reach these numbers so that we can appease, whether it’s on the district level or anywhere that education is being measured.
So teachers are teaching to a test and that’s the bottom line, and they’re not teaching to the creativity and potential of children.
Do you have a freedom dream, as Robin Kelley calls it? What would a better way look like to you?
Joy, joy in our classrooms and the fulfillment of what education should be. I think that that is important that we have to define it.
Let’s talk about what it really means to engage in a democratic process. Let’s talk about why history is not taught in its fullness. Let’s talk about what voices are not being heard and why are they being excluded? Let’s get into those types of conversations.
Regardless of what comes out of it, we can’t right or wrong children. We have to understand where they’re getting their ideals from, where they’re getting their understanding from. Then start to provide them with resources that helps them understand if whether what they’re thinking is hurtful or harmful to others, or whether or not it’s a benefit and it’s supportive of ideals that we should be engaging in terms of, should this be part of the fabric of our society and why is it not? That’s what freedom looks like to me and it’s something that I was able to create in my school, but I did it without permission.
I had to do it as kind of a rebel, and I preface by saying this because I had to fight against the very system that authorized me to open up a school, but once I started doing the things that would liberate children, it became problematic. Right? And so freedom always comes at a cost. What I would like to see that it’s not a cost that means that someone has to be sacrificed in the process or educators have to be persecuted, right?
Liberation in the classroom is giving teachers the autonomy and agency to really be able to impart knowledge to children and give them the space for them to critically challenge what they’re learning, but also add value to the conversation.
How do we create change when the day-to-day grind of schools keeps us exhausted?
Let’s talk a little bit about that cost of freedom, the cost of the revolution. Because one thing that I hear from teachers a lot, and then I know you’ve heard also, is people will say, “I believe in this vision, I want to be part of this change, but frankly I am exhausted. It’s all I can do just to get up each day and teach that consumes me.” And so fighting the system, navigating bureaucracy, working to create change, it feels like more than what I can handle when I’m so bogged down in the day to day stuff. What would you say to that?
Well, we heard that firsthand and I enjoyed our time together when we went to Switzerland and we were amongst a group of teachers and that was just part of Teach with Love, where we were hearing teachers talk about how they were exhausted and the revolution is exhausting. People who were in positions of leadership, they were actually assassinated through their character or just assassinated and died an early age because there were individuals who feared their existence and what that would mean if everyone started to realize, or have an awakening moment of saying, “Why are we doing things this way?” Right?
There are folks who feel like if you truly educate for the purpose of liberation, you lose control of the masses. And so we put this onus on teachers to do this revolutionary work without giving them the support that they need. That was something that I shared with you and with everyone in that space is that we keep having these conversations.
We know what the problem is, we talk about it until we’re blue in the face. But the reality is that this cannot exist without the allyship of individuals who are benefiting from children being in our schools, and that’s the parents, first and foremost, right? We recognize that they could not teach their children at home. They recognized that. Everyone started to praise teachers and say, “Pay them what they’re worth, they are godsends.” Because they didn’t realize what their children were learning, how they’re learning, the exhaustion that comes with it.
They couldn’t even manage their one child or two children in the household, let alone imagining what it looks like to have to support 30 kids, teaching them every single day, Monday through Friday, grading their papers, following up, all of the things that we take for granted. And so the parents needed to continue that energy of showing up on behalf of the teachers and ensuring that they get the support that they need, because we want children to get the very best, we want them to gain the knowledge so that they’re productive citizens and adults who can contribute to society.
But we’re not ensuring that the ones who have to do that work are actually being supported and are in a place of healing in the institutions that they’re working in. So I always put it on the parent like, “What role are you playing as an ally, as a partner and showing up for your children?”
And then you think about the elected officials. When we vote for you, every single elected official has a platform as it relates to education: what they will do, all the promises that they make. Then once they get into that position, all the things that they said that they would do, they don’t actually do it and that’s also because we the voters don’t hold them accountable. We show up at the polls, but we don’t show up at their offices, we’re not at the town halls.
So it’s a requirement for all of us to show up and stop putting the burden on the teachers and the principals and what it’s like to be in a school. Schools are representations of communities and so until we integrate it and start talking about it as part of our entire community, it will always exist in silo and we will see the continuation of teacher shortages because folks are tired beyond capacity, and we’re not showing empathy and compassion for what it requires to show up every single day.
What does it look like to get educational allies on board to support us in the revolution?
I think that when a lot of teachers think about this and think about needing these allies outside of people who are in the classroom, but to actually have parents, to actually have the community stand up for them, to stand up for children, to hold leaders accountable — I think there’s been so much in recent years in particular, where I feel like parents and teachers have been pitted against each other in ways that have really torn down the trust. When I think about how to change that… I’ll share what my opinion is and I want to hear what yours is.
When I think about changing sort of the reputation of teachers, of the certain segment of the general population who wants to frame teachers as being indoctrinators, as being lazy, uncaring, greedy, they make too much money and they only work whatever. I feel like the school year keeps getting shortened in their minds over and over, like they work like eight months out of the year and they work 30 hours a week.
I don’t think that we can change that perception and get… First of all, we don’t have to get everybody on board, we’re not going to get everybody on board. So the people who I think are pushing those narratives are maybe not the ones that we want to go after. I think there are people who are more persuadable and who are more likely to get on our side that are more worth focusing on than on those folks.
But I don’t think that we can change that perception or get folks on board just by working harder. Because as you pointed out early in the pandemic, teachers were heroes for a hot second, and then it was over. The more that you do that’s outside of your job description, the more you work for free, the more you spend your own money on the classroom, the more that the system depends upon that to prop it up.
I don’t think that we can play sort of respectability politics where we can try to say and do all the right things and please everybody and that’s the way forward. I think that a lot of this is going to have to do with the individual relationships, because there are so many incredible teachers and so many really good school leaders as well, who have really… You earned the trust of the community in a way that you did in your school, where they can see that this is a real person, this is not a caricature of a teacher. This is a genuine person who is here because they care about my kid and they want the best for my kid.
And I think those one on one connections, like it’s something happening locally in your own school, rather than trying to change the reputation nationally. What can you do in your own school to build that trust, to build that allyship and to get parents with you? But what do you have to say about that? What are your thoughts about the way that parents do not necessarily trust teachers and this overall reputation of teachers as maybe not having kids best interests in mind?
Well, I agree with you and I was in a community where that was problematic — the ways in which parents didn’t engage in schools — but this wasn’t new. And that’s why my approach to how I dealt with my parents came from my own experience as a student who went to public school and watching my mom participate in every PTA meeting and we were one of three other parents who were in the room. We would be in the auditorium and I want to say the elementary school that I went to had maybe 600-700 kids, and there would literally be 4 o 5 parents in this auditorium every single time.
My mother went to every PTA meeting when I was in elementary school, went to every one when I was in middle school and went to every one when I was in high school. I went to high school in Harlem. So from Brooklyn, we would travel to Harlem and I literally would be like, “Mom, I’m in high school.” She did not care. I would have to get on the train with her to Harlem and sit in these meetings. In high school, there was 1500 students. There were still only five parents in that room, at the most seven. So I don’t even know if we even made a quorum for half of these meetings.
And so I knew that, one, a lot of parents didn’t show up because they worked and that became, I respectfully say this, that became the excuse. “I work, I send them to school, let the school figure it out.” I also understood that there were a lot of parents who were taught in that very same community and they may not have had interactions that were positive as a child, or did not see their parents having positive interactions with school administrators or teachers.
So their perception of what it would look like to engage is one that’s negative, so they don’t show up. Then there are just parents who feel like they’re not invited because the school isn’t an inviting place. We don’t offer them opportunities in which they can engage, but we also are not providing opportunities for them to learn. So as much as it’s about the young scholar in the building, it’s also understanding that we also have to teach the parents.
So what do they need? Do they need financial literacy? Do they need parenting skills? Do they need resume writing? And so when I opened up my hall, I was just like, “I have to get to know my parents.” At first, I need to make them understand that I’m a parent first. So I come from a place of I’m a parent first and I recognize that all of the parents or large majority of them went to the school that my building was co-located in and it used to be known more as the… It was called Marcus Garvey, but it’s always been known as Old Garvey or Old Murder and it was just like, “What?” And they were like, “Yo, it’s so violent in the school that you’d be lucky if you didn’t get killed.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So their perception of just even walking into the building holds trauma.
So how do I create a space where they don’t associate what they’ve experienced in terms of survival to their own experience that now as a parent, and you would think like, “Oh, well, you have a child, you should show up differently. You should be protective.” No, trauma is trauma and if you never experienced that, you will send your kid but you don’t want to interface with it, right? And that’s something we had to address.
So did I get hundreds of parents to show up to my PTA meetings? Nope. They still weren’t going to engage in the process. But what I did tell my PTA folks was we need to have meetings, not just on the days where parents are working and after work, we need to have it twice. So it’s either during the week and on a Saturday, because I was at school anyway, or you’re going to have one in the morning and in the evening. So we developed that.
My parents really look forward to parent teacher conferences because my teachers were really, really hands on with communicating with parents and they had a good rapport. I was all about don’t call parents when the child is in trouble, call parents just to check in and say, “Hey, how you doing?” Backpack a letter just to let them know the updates of what the school is doing and what’s happening, but let’s engage them in a way where they don’t always feel threatened and that we’re always complaining or coming to them with a problem because they’re so used to that.
The other thing that was very important is that I had what’s called Dinner with Love. It was just a dinner for me to show love to my parents and to give them time and space with me and they could bring their kids or they didn’t have to bring their kids, but I just wanted to love on them.
I just wanted to be in a space where we would listen to music, we would turn the lunchroom, the cafeteria into this place that just honored parents. We would have games, I would have giveaways and they would just see me as not so much Principal Lopez or Dr. Lopez, but Nadia, the person who’s a parent who loves on us, who’s from around.
She knows what it means to be from around the way, even though I wasn’t from Brownsville, but I’m still in Brooklyn. But just give them this space to say school is a place where you’re also invited to be and I love seeing you here. Then I charged my support team, which was a shepherds program where we had an additional guidance counselor and social worker, and I charged them with finding agencies, and as well as my director of families who was the parent coordinator, to bring people in that could do workshops.
So we did one on buying your first home, we did one on social media and managing that with your children. I had a mental health provider that would do workshops for the parents and make himself available for them to do one on one support. So it was all about wrapping around the parent to make them feel like this isn’t just an institution for your children, it’s also a place of learning and growing for you.
By doing so, I could then educate them on how they needed to show up for as a parent, not just for my school, but for their children who may be in elementary and then when their children transition to high school. If this is what you get in middle school, this is what you should be getting in high school, and if you don’t get it, here’s the things you need to ask, here are the things that you need to be aware of. And so that fostered those relationships.
Now, what I’m going to say to you is that that takes time and every principal is not going to do that and they shouldn’t have to, but you should have people on your team who is going to do that work so you delegate that. And if you have a vision of what you want for your school and the success, you have to incorporate what’s the relationships you need to establish with parents and what do you need to provide them so that they can be actively engaging in the process of their children’s learning, but them also participating?
How do we balance self-perseveration with change-making work?
And that is a lot of work. That’s a lot of additional effort that I think is truly worth the impact and I think it can save you time later when you’re building those kinds of relationships. I think you spend less time in back and forth emails and maybe combative situations that can be avoided if you have that kind of trusting relationship. But I wonder how you balance this really going above and beyond, fostering these relationships, building that trust with the community, with caring for yourself. We’ve talked about how the revolution is exhausting, doing the right thing is exhausting, advocating for justice and equity can burn you out really easily. Talk to us about how we should know how much to give. When do we prioritize ourselves and when do we have an obligation to give more? What’s the right time to say yes and to say no? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Such a complicated question and so necessary because as I shared with you, when we had the opportunity to be in space together, is that I had to resign from my position because the reality is that I don’t think that there ever is an ability to have balance when you’re fighting systematic issues. I don’t believe that it’s possible. If it was then our society would be balanced, right? What I’m going to say is what I’ve learned from it is I’ve learned to have to listen to my body because all of the red flags have presented itself.
I have to know that I have to give myself grace because what is occurring in our education system, I didn’t create. I literally walked into it. It existed before me and even as I left the position of principal, it still exists. So the system is designed to do what the system does and it will continue to do so. So while you’re in the space, you have to say what is it that you want to accomplish and be able to recognize the times that you do, and when you don’t, who can you tap into that is a thought partner, that will help to balance you?
Because you need that person who’s understanding of what you’re going through to say, “So listen, you can’t do it all. Look at what you have accomplished. Let’s talk about some of the things you want to get done and how you can get it done.”
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And that comes with coaching and mentoring and oftentimes whether we serve in the capacity as teachers or leaders, we don’t often have those individuals in our lives because it’s just hard to find them. So you have to know your body, you have to have someone that you can tap into. But then the other thing that I would say is really, really important is to know your why of what you’re doing and to create non-negotiables and boundaries for yourself.
When you lay out what your boundaries are and you’re very clear on your non-negotiables and you have it up somewhere or in a place that it’s accessible, if you constantly see it or reference it, you can self check. You can say, “Oh no, no, no.”
I didn’t have that. I didn’t have the boundaries like not to stay at work past seven o’clock or six o’clock. I never established a boundary, so for me, I stayed at work till midnight and it’s no exaggeration. My custodian was with me every single night because he was there till midnight or 11 o’clock depending on what day it was. And so when he left and he was kicking me out, that’s when I was leaving. Had I established a boundary that said seven o’clock is my cutoff time, that’s when I have to leave, I would self check. “Oh, it’s 7:30, eight o’clock! I got to go.”
If I find that I’m starting to have the headaches, the panic attacks, all those things, my non-negotiable and my boundary should be like, “You need to take a mental health day.” I never took a day off unless I had to travel as it related to work. Or the one time I feel like I didn’t go to work is I got into a car accident and I still went to work, and then my superintendent had to call my mother, because I would not leave work.
The fact that I am an adult and they were all like, “The only person who would get her out of the building is her mother.” So they put my mother in a cab and I feel like this was before Ubers, because it was like early 2011, 2012, something like that. They called the cab, put her in the cab and she was walking down the hallway and I was like, “What are you doing here?” She was like, “You were in the car accident, why are you at work?” I was like, “Because I have work to do.” And she was just like, “What!? No.”
I didn’t create non-negotiables and boundaries for myself. So it’s very important for us to name the things that are unhealthy and we should not do because if we don’t, we’ll do it and it becomes part of how we show up and we also signal to other people that this is what we do. So people don’t give us grace, people don’t respect and honor our boundaries because we don’t have any. So when someone is asking you to do something or show up in a way that you’re like, “Why would they ask me? I’m so exhausted.” Well, when did you not show up?
You’ve never not shown up so they don’t know how to not ask you. And so you can’t get mad at them because you have presented yourself as that person. I recently was talking to a school leader and she lost a family member and she said to me, “You know I decided to put off my grief until August.” Right? She was like, “And now school is going to start.” And I heard her say, “I decided to put off my grief.” I said, “When did the person pass away?” And she said, “In March.” And she kept talking. Angela, I couldn’t hear pass what she was saying. I leaned in and I said, “I want you to hear what you just said.” You put off grief for a close relative! What are you telling your team?
What’s the message you’re telling your team because now your team thinks that your cold and callous? But if someone dies in their family and you as the leader didn’t take off, especially when it’s a parent or a grandparent and you showed up, and this person helped raise you, what are you telling your team when someone in their family dies? They’re going to feel guilty about wanting to take off. They’re going to be like, “I don’t know if I should tell her.” Like no. So we have to be mindful of those things and ask yourself how you want to be treated.
How do you want to be treated? How do you want to feel and what will be required of that? So if you don’t want to feel exhausted and you’re feeling exhausted now, what would help you not feel exhausted? And it kind of goes a lot to when you say fewer things better, right? What are the fewer things you can do, but still feel like you have a sense of accomplishment? The reality is that I don’t care who you are and what position you are in education, the work is never going to be done.
It’s never going to be done. I think about all those observations, the thousand and one pieces of paper that I couldn’t stand that was on my desk, all the files that I had. The day that I resigned, I want to tell folks like the next day I felt so good that I didn’t have to look at paper. And I thought to myself, “Who even cares where all those papers are at anyway? No one’s going to call me about not one of those pieces of paper.” Not to say you should go into work and be like, “I don’t care about these papers.” No, don’t do that.
What I’m saying is don’t put yourself in a position of your existence is I have to do this because if not, the thing can exist without me. It’ll exist without you. It will exist. But you have to name how you want to feel, you have to create your own boundaries and list your non-negotiables and stick to them because it will force you to start changing how you show up and how you treat yourself and also signal to people how they need to interact with you. Because you can’t get mad at folks for asking you to do things if you are constantly doing it on your own.
Right. And as you said, if you’re saying yes to everything, then people are just going to keep asking because you’ve never said no.
Why wouldn’t they keep asking if they’re always accommodated and get what they they wanted from you? I really like that answer because I feel like it’s a blend of sort of an intellectual mindset and also intuition and trusting your body and really tuning into those signals. To have these clear boundaries that you set where you know I’m only going to work so much, I’m going to focus my attention on these things, I’m not going to participate in these things or I’m going to give less in these areas. At the same time, not having to make everything this advanced plan.
How can the mind-body connection help us set boundaries and look after ourselves?
That’s a tendency that I tend to make, like I’m going to decide, okay, I will do this, I won’t do that and then I will try to stick with it. And I ignore my body signals saying, “This doesn’t feel right.” I committed to this thing and I’m just not liking where it’s going. It’s not feeling like a good use of my energy or I don’t know, it’s not right. Something in this is not right.
I want to interrupt you when you say that and hold you at because when you said your body signals. What folks don’t tend to understand is that your body sends signals and when you start to say, “I don’t feel good.” That starts to impact your mental health. Your mental health, when that’s not well, you don’t sleep, you have this anxiety, you have this depression, you have panic attacks, whatever it is, it starts to affect your physical body. Right?
We ignore those things. Half of us don’t go to the doctor, we don’t make time. We may go for our annual checkups, but we don’t go for those moments when we feel like something is wrong and so we go and we start taking the medications over the counter. Something for our stomach, something for our headaches, something… Those are all part of red flags. Your body is literally saying, “I cannot manage this level of stress.” Then we start taking medications to dull those signals, to still engage in the stress.
I want folks to understand that’s what ended up causing me to resign because I developed autoimmune diseases that was related to the stress and my body starting to fight back things in my organs. That attack on my body was based off of stress and I started to develop things that the doctors were like, “How do you have this? This is so rare. You don’t have a family line history of this.” But it was all because of stress and then taking these medications that are not sustainable. It’s never intended for long term. And the more you take these medications, they start to impact every parts of your body that causes a new disease or disorder.
So listen to your body and take time. Take your days off. Check in with your doctor. Take holistic approaches. Enroll in yoga. Do meditation. But if you find that it’s not sustainable, that’s not your fault, you do not have to kill yourself. Don’t become a martyr. Don’t do that to yourself because you will destroy yourself and you have to think about your family. You have to be around for them. You love your kids, the ones that you teach every single day, the ones that you lead. But when I got so sick, I thought about who’s going to eulogize me and it should not be my mother and it should not be my daughter.
I’m really glad that you made those points because I think listening to your body is something that a lot of folks don’t even know what that means. You know, in our hustle or grind, capitalistic, white patriarchal culture, we’re told that you just work hard and you suck it up. If you feel pain, you push through it. Pain is weakness leaving the body, you just go, and you make up your mind and you’re going to do it no matter how you feel.
And I think there’s also folks who — I shared with you a little bit previously about how I’m learning to unpack some of the religious trauma that I didn’t even know I carried from my upbringing — one of the things that I have been taught very specifically by many churches over the years is that you ignore your body because your body is fleshly, it’s sinful. You don’t follow your emotions. You don’t do what your heart is telling you, the heart is deceitful above all. You should just do what you know is right regardless of how it feels.
Years of having that reinforced in me caused me to tune out my body’s signals. I would get that pit in my stomach but I would ignore it because I’m like, “No, no, I have to do what I know is right no matter how bad it feels.” That pit in my stomach a lot of times was my intuition saying, “Your boundaries are being violated. This person is walking all over you and it doesn’t feel right. This is not a situation that you need to be in, you need to stand up for yourself.” But I felt like I needed to turn the other cheek, to obey to submit even though every cell in my body was saying NO. I didn’t think that sense was something that could be trusted.
Learning to trust my body and pay attention to those signals, to notice exhaustion, to notice when my energy levels are high, to notice when they’re low, to notice that I need certain days to just rest if they’ve been really intense, to learn how to balance out my needs and to pay attention to that and not to see that as a bad thing or a weak thing, that has been a huge unlearning for me, something that I’m still practicing doing.
But the more I do it, the easier it gets, like I can sense my body signals so much faster now. I don’t have to wait until it gets to this really bad point because I’ve learned that my body is a reliable signal, I can trust myself. If I listen to myself and I am still within myself, I can feel what’s right and what’s wrong based on what I can handle.
This kind of circles back to the point I was going to make earlier about how I don’t have to always decide everything in advance. I can trust that I’ll know the right thing to do when the moment comes. I can say, “Okay, I would like to do this and then if it starts to not feel right, or I start to notice I’m too tired, I’ve got other obligations, to back off of it, come back to it another time, give myself permission to have that rest and recovery time first.”
And that’s not a bad thing. The more that I’ve learned to do that, the easier it’s become and the more productive I’ve become because I’m not just constantly trying to push through the negativity or the stress or the fatigue or toxic situations. I’m actually trusting that I will be able to do what I need to do if I have clear boundaries and if I’m listening to my body.
That’s something that, as you said, is something we have to learn and we have to be taught. No one taught us that. No one taught me that at all. Right? We inherit that from our parents. We watch how they are. And when you talk about white patriarchal societies, I watch how as much as the system is designed and has been designed by white men and their privileges, they will take time. They will go play golf. They will have their escape time with friends. They ensure that they are okay. They’re not going to overwork themselves. It’s to benefit them and then when women, especially, you can’t act like you’re tired.
Women have been designed to either birth things or maintain the household, or then we’ve been pushed to. Teaching used to be a male-dominated profession, but then women wanted to go into doing education as well. We wanted to do something and then it just made sense like, okay, we start going into this profession because we can also have time with our kids and then all of a sudden it became a women-dominated profession. Same thing we see with nursing.
So anything that has to deal with caregiving, we see a dominance of women in it. But at the same time as caregivers, we can only do but so much with so many. When you’re giving yourself to hundreds at a time, 30 at a time, you’re literally tapping into your own personal space, your own energy, and we don’t even recognize that. Like I had to learn through my own illness the importance of breathing; breathing in and out oxygen, CO2.
But at the end of the day, it was like, “No, you have to exert energy intentionally out of your body.” So how you breathe in and the way you push things out, you’re removing toxins and I was like, “Oh my God.” So when you take those deep breaths and you fully exhale and you feel like this release, no, that’s you releasing energy that gets trapped into your system that affects your psyche.
And so when we think about education and all of these things, there is a level of toxicity that exists because we ourselves as the educators who impart so much knowledge, have been forced to live in a certain ignorance, the ignorance of not taking care of ourselves and prioritizing, the ignorance of believing that we can’t be in a position of having autonomy and being creative anymore.
How do we honor our bodies and personal limits while recovering from burnout?
We’ve been pushed and marginalized. We’ve been told what to do now and that’s the unfortunate part. Now we look at how our position or our profession has been made almost a mockery when you can say, “You can hire anybody to do this.” So why would anybody respect us or why would anybody think that you need time? And why are you so exhausted? Right? Anybody could do your job, literally anybody.
I don’t want people to feel like, “Oh my gosh, you’s speaking the truth. Why am I doing this?” Listen, the fight is real and before Angela and I got on this live conversation, I literally told her, “I’m exhausted. I don’t know about continuing the fight because I did it as a principal for so long, I did it as a teacher and now that I’m in a position of being a CEO of my own company and coaching folks and being a consultant, I will say this, I love coaching. I love it, but every day this week I’ve had to be the rock to leaders who feel so defeated and school hasn’t even really officially started for them.” Right?
And thinking about consulting and working with different districts who want to do the work. They’re so excited to work with Dr. Lopez but when they see what the cost is and they see what I have pointed out, folks get into their egos and I’m like, “You would rather pay a lot of money for technology that’s not going to move the bar for your kids, or buy into curriculum that in two years you’re not going to use, but you wouldn’t invest in your human capital. You wouldn’t invest in that.” Right? And so how much can I fight? How much am I going to allow this to affect me mentally because I’m a person of purpose? I want to have impact. I want to do good work. I’m not in it for how much money I can make, I’m in it for how many lives we can change with this.
And when I’m seeing that it’s not happening and people are okay with being mediocre and playing with my life and questioning my work, I’m not interested because it’s just not worth it to me anymore. My body has kept the score of the trauma of being in the education system, I feel like this has become another way of trauma and it doesn’t sit well with me.
So when I know it doesn’t sit well, I’m not willing to sacrifice myself. I like joy. I like being happy and I don’t want to conform. I did that for so long. I conformed in a way where I had to fight, right? You learn why you want me to conform and then I’m like, “Uh-uh, we’re not doing that.” No, I don’t have to do that anymore.
But I want folks to be encouraged. Hear what I’m saying, I want you to understand this is a place of where I am being reflective and being honest, because I’m always honest about where I am. But I want us to understand that we have to do it. Whatever you feel, be able to say it because I’m never ashamed. Right? I could feel ashamed and be like, “I don’t want to share this with Angela.” Why not? There’s someone who’s feeling the same way I’m feeling.
I have a community, so the same way I’m saying this now, I’m going to tap into my community. I’m going to have a conversation. They’re going to get me off the ledge. I’ll have a new idea by tomorrow and be working on that thing. But I know that’s where I am. Who’s your tribe? Who’s in your community? How do you use this podcast and the things that you learned, the books that you read to help you to envision something better? A way of changing, a way of adding value to your life because we don’t have to accept feeling less there. It’s not what we were designed to do. I don’t believe God created us to have to accept that.
I appreciate you sharing that you’re coming from sort of a low place right now because we all have those moments. You know, I’ve been really transparent with listeners of this podcast over the last really two and a half years when I experienced just so much burnout and actually took a break from the podcast for a while because I didn’t have anything to say. I literally had nothing inspiring to say. I felt like, “I do not care about anything happening in education, I am just not passionate about any of this right now. The whole system’s broken, burn it all down.” That was a phase that I had to go through and honor. I had to wait that out and I had to use my time and energy on other things for a while and take a break from it.
I’m so grateful that I had the privilege of being able to do that. Not everybody can step away or pull back, but I did pull back in the ways that I could and it made a big difference and I feel more energized now than I have in many years, many, many years. I feel much more re-energized but the recovery time was longer than what I thought. I remember when I took my first sabbatical, which was in December 2020. My plan was just to do it for a month and someone messaged me and said, “I’ve done a sabbatical before. Don’t be surprised if it takes longer than you think.”
She was so right, because I thought I would come back after that month ready to go and I was not. I cried the day before my sabbatical ended, because I was not ready to have to come up with, again, something to say. How do I inspire and support teachers in this pandemic when everything was a dumpster fire?
While I was able to keep working, my energy level, my enthusiasm, my focus and my creativity took much longer than I thought to come back because the burnout had already started before the pandemic and then the pandemic really pushed it over the edge because I couldn’t see a path forward. I’d lost my vision basically and I just couldn’t figure out what I had to contribute to the field anymore.
And that took a while to come back but it came back through working, which I think is the good thing for people who can’t step away. We all have to keep earning a living. I kept doing the things that I knew how to do and didn’t expect a whole lot of myself. I had tried to pick simpler topics for the podcast. I did not pick anything particularly inspirational. I had guests on that talked about classroom practices and what was working in their classrooms and that sort of thing, so it wasn’t me having to come up with the ideas.
And slowly over time, I felt like that passion and enthusiasm came back. But I just think it’s so important for teachers to hear other educators who are clearly knowledgeable like yourself, experienced, who have done amazing things in education, will continue to do many amazing things in education, go through these low moods and these places where they’re like, “I just don’t know how much more I have in me.” I think that’s very, very normal. Anyone who’s listening to this who’s feeling like they’re the only ones, don’t look around at the people who are still doing awesome stuff and assuming that they’re doing great because these low moods definitely come.
They happen and you don’t have to feel ashamed about it. I think… I keep saying “I think.” Let me be own this. Hey, our profession has been anchored in guilt and so if we decide that we want to leave, we get to a place where I can’t do this anymore. We are riddled with guilt because what will happen to the children? What will people say? Am I a failure? I quit. I all these things. Instead of standing in your truth of saying, “I have done all that I can in this particular space.” It is not to say you’re no longer an educator, it’s not to say that you can’t impact lives. It’s not to say that what you’ve done in terms of your contribution will not continue to bloom through the seeds you have planted.
It is to say that your assignment here, what you have done, it’s over. And because you have been gifted with skills, because everyone cannot be an educator. Whether that’s teacher, whether that’s school leader, guidance counselor, social worker, in whatever capacity you are in a school, everyone is not gifted to do that because if you ask friends and family, “Would you like to come to the school and help me teach?” They will say no. And when people hear what you do for a living, the first thing they say to you is “God bless you”, right? Because they don’t want your job.
So know that you can take your skills and your talents and you can go somewhere else. You can start your own company of something, whether it’s a tutoring service, whether it’s an intervention program, whether it’s curriculum writing, whether it’s mentoring and coaching, you can decide. The problem is half of the times we don’t know what we can do beyond the four walls of a school building or a classroom, because all we know is what we’ve been inspired to do at that time. So we have to recognize that there is more and not be guilted. We also cannot be guilted and shamed by our experiences. I find that so many people are not willing to share because there’s a certain embarrassment, because we are teachers and teachers don’t go through this or that’s not possible.
Or you get the folks who are like, “Well, if it’s so bad, just leave.” It’s not that easy. Right? There’s plan and preparation for me to leave, but I’m explaining this to you because I’m telling you my truth. The only ones who know that are other educators but if they themselves haven’t been liberated from the situations that they’re in, what you end up doing is just engaging yourself in this place of toxicity because you both are exchanging the negative and you don’t have a way of saying what’s the solution of us getting out of this. So we have to be mindful of the guilt associated with the profession.
Don’t tie yourself to, you have to stay here; you’re not in slavery, you’re not in and you are not to be anyone’s martyr. Don’t feel like your story is not valid. I share my story, my full truth because I am not ashamed. I am no one’s victim.
I know what it is, though, to be bullied in the workplace in education. I know what it’s like to be targeted because I wouldn’t conform. I know what it’s like to be spoken to with microaggressions and passive aggressiveness and to be threatened. I know all of those things. I share them, but I also have shared how I’ve had to clap back. I’ve had to stand up for myself and what I did with that energy is I took that and I taught the children, this is how people are going to treat you, through my experience. And I was very transparent about things I was going through. People don’t want to see me doing this work.
These are the experiences that I had to share with my staff because I wanted them to know how you have to navigate through this convoluted system that is often very suppressive when you’re trying to speak up and speak out to do what’s right for children. But in no way, shape or form was I going to allow myself to be guilted? No, I felt the guilt when I left though, I’ll be honest because everything that people would say like, “When you leave, what’s going to happen to the school? What’s going to happen to the kids?”
Unfortunately the school did not continue to thrive. That wasn’t my fault. You know? You play somebody who doesn’t understand the vision into a school scenario and they don’t get coaching and they’re not supported, then the vision no longer lives out because that person doesn’t have a focus.
So the only guilt that I have is the impact that it would have, but I also am so connected to my graduates and I literally spoke to one yesterday and she said, she was like, “You know I love you, right?” And I said, “Yes, I know that.” She said, “But one thing I want you to always remember is that you created something good and if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be in college today.” Right? And I was like, “That was perfect timing.”
Because she is in her senior year, she had to extend a year, but this is a young person who lost her mother while she was one of my students and basically it was a turning point for her. She struggled throughout the college process because coming from Brownsville, you’re not prepared for all the things that come at you when you go to college. It’s a culture shock. And so literally throughout her entire time of college, I have mothered her through that.
I have literally told her how to engage with a professor, how to write the craft, the email, all of these things. There were times when she was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I just feel like I should just drop out. I’m just going to end it. I’m not going to go back.” I was like, “Girl, I wouldn’t have all the degrees that I have if I did what you did. Stop it. It’s not that hard.” She stuck with it and she’s like in her last leg and she said, “You know, I could have dropped out and you pushed me and I’m almost at the finish line.” She will be the first of her family to graduate with the college degree. That’s the work. That’s the legacy.
So when you’re tired and you think about, “Hmm”… That’s why I said I get into my moments, but I have to tap into my tribe and my village is because if I hadn’t been at that point in time in that appointed space, what would her life be like right now? And so for the other scholars who will come through my hall and it is what it is now, unfortunately, all I can know is that the ones that I was in front of, the ones I poured into, I continue to watch those seeds bloom into beautiful flowers, into strong oak trees and they are my spring when I’m going through the storms.
That’s beautiful. I want to wrap up with something for folks to think about in the week ahead. What’s the most important thing that you wish every educator listening to this understood about what you shared today.
This work isn’t easy and there’s never going to be an easy solution at all. I always say you have to know who you are and whose you are in this work, because it takes faith. It requires faith and a relentless pursuit of knowing you want to make change, but not killing yourself to do it.
And so give yourself the grace, but as I said, outline and create the boundaries and the non-negotiables that you need. Because some of it sometimes, looking back, I have had to ask myself, how could I have done things differently? And some of the onus was on me, right? As much as I’m like, the Department of Education didn’t support me. They did. But the hours that I put in, when did I intentionally say I wasn’t going to put in all those hours and know that I have a child at home? I have a life that I have to live as well. As much as I prioritize work, I had to prioritize me.
So don’t feel guilty about that. Don’t feel guilty about prioritizing you because how you show up in your full self, it’s still an example to children. So when you don’t take time for you, you are showing them they shouldn’t take time for themselves. And know that you’re on assignment. Know that you are on an assignment and you have been called to fulfill the assignment and when it’s time to say I’m ready to transition, that’s okay.
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