I remember the day I was sitting at my desk in my classroom, my head in my hands. One of our vice principals was sitting opposite me in one of my student desks, and she asked what was wrong.
“I’m just so stressed out,” I said, rubbing my hands over my face. “There always seems so much to do. And I never feel like I’m getting the support I need.”
After a little more conversation, she thought for a moment, leaned toward me, and in a semi-whisper said, “You know we have an EAP program, right?”
The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) was the mental health arm of our insurance plan.
I was furious. Not furious at her specifically — she was a lovely person and was just trying to help. I was also not furious because I have anything against therapy. I have had many therapists. In fact, I have even been known to refer to the therapist’s office as “the emotional gym.” Hell, I think everyone should be in therapy.
The reason I was furious was because the message was that if I, as a teacher, was stressed out, then clearly, I was the one who was broken. While I certainly have my issues and baggage (don’t we all?), I already knew that it was really the system that was broken, not me. As educators, we have pledged allegiance to a profession that doesn’t pay us enough, doesn’t require or expect us to receive the same respect as other professions with commensurate training and experience, that keeps heaping obligations and responsibilities on our plates (but takes nothing off), that pays lip service to self-care and mental health, but never officially puts anything in place to take care of us. This model is unsustainable — as the recent mass exodus of teachers from the profession and dearth of candidates signing up for teacher preparation programs so heartbreakingly proves.
It’s true that, as I sat there with my head in my hands, I didn’t know that I was okay.
But I was about to figure it out.
I have been showing teachers how to reduce stress and improve their self-care for over half a decade now. The entire process, as it turns out, was clearly a result of my own issues and challenges. After over twenty-five years of teaching, I was facing an overwhelming sense of stress and a grinding feeling of daily burnout. I had ten years before retirement, and I was wondering how I was going to make it
I have loved every minute of the three decades I’ve been teaching students to think, read, and write. But I knew something had to change. As I once told a friend: I love the job, I just hate the profession. But the ugly truth was that if I didn’t find some way to cope, I wasn’t going to make it. Writing has always been great therapy for me, so that was about the time I started The Zen Teacher blog. I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth to change the entire system, but I did have the energy to change me.
Somehow, I managed to take my overwhelming, negative experience and turn it into something positive and uplifting, not only for myself, but for others. I was able to pay it forward and the only thing better than helping my own students, I’ve learned, is helping other teachers — which, in turn (ironically enough) — helps their students. The ripple effect is incalculable. It’s a humbling proposition and I’m happy to do it.
So when I launched my podcast, The Zen Professional Moment, I spent a great deal of time deciding on a proper sign off. As a youngster, I remember Walter Cronkite closing the CBS Evening News every night by saying “And that’s the way it is” and on America’s Top 40, Casey Kasem always reminding us to, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I wanted something like that. Something that left the listener inspired, uplifted, and with an understanding that things were going to be okay.
I was looking for what we now might call a “mic drop” moment.
So my first question was, “What do teachers need to hear? What would I want to hear as someone who has spent my professional life in education facing the day-to-day challenges of being in the classroom? What do teachers not hear nearly enough that might help them every time they listen to my podcast?
I finally settled on two ideas:
1) You’re okay exactly the way you are
2) You have more power than you think.
You are okay exactly the way you are
When I was a kid, I would see Mr. Rogers on my local PBS station and I would immediately change the channel.
“Dude moves too slow,” I thought. “Booooooring.” I was probably 8 or 9, slightly older than his intended demographic. And then I would wait patiently for The Electric Company, which was on the same PBS station, and featured blackout sketches, loud music, and comedy — not to mention Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman.
But now, decades later, I can’t think of anything more important than what Mr. Rogers was trying to say.
His basic message was that you — you right there, the person who is watching this — are okay exactly how you are and I love you just like that.
You don’t have to change.
You don’t have to do anything other than what you’re doing.
You don’t have to do anything but be the most you you can be.
This, I thought, was something teachers needed to hear.
In education, it’s so incredibly easy for us to feel as if we’re not doing enough, that we need to do things differently, that we need to be something different, or that we must jump on to every last circus train that is rolls into Educationville.
But we don’t.
And so that’s why I decided to make that one of the closing thoughts of my podcast.
I’ll never be Mr. Rogers, of course, but if any teachers listen to my podcast (or read this blog post) and are able to internalize that message — that you are okay exactly how you are — then I will feel that I’ve done something meaningful. And I would like to think that Fred Rogers would be proud.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have goals or objectives or try to make things better or learn new skills. In the Zen tradition, there is a concept known as “Kaizen,” which means “constant improvement.” We should all be on that path, but that doesn’t negate the fact that where you are and who you are right now, is totally, 100% okay. Jettison the stress that comes with you thinking you need to be someone other than who you are right now.
Simply be where you are.
You have more power than you think
I have often felt weak and powerless as a teacher, unable to fight back against the bullies, the naysayers, and even my own administration or district when they were not treating educators well. What I learned, though, is that there are a great many things under my influence, things I can control, change, and use to make my experience a more positive one.
The same is true for you as well.
Let’s look at a few things that are within your power and control:
- Your rest, exercise, and diet (which will, undoubtedly, impact and affect your work life in the classroom)
- Your internal narrative and self-talk
- Your lesson plans
- Your response to whatever is going on
- Your classroom policies
- The arrangement of the desks/tables in your classroom
- Your bulletin boards
- How you treat your students
- What you do in your free time to recharge
- How you schedule (or DON’T schedule) things on your personal calendar
- The resources you use to become a better teacher (aside from required PD at your school, that is…)
- How you connect with teachers on social media (I’m looking at YOU, Twitter…) and what you learn from them
- How you spend your free period, recess, lunch
- The list is pretty much endless
Even though it can often feel that we are powerless to impact the constant edicts and directives coming from on high (and let’s be real — we are powerless over those), when you really think about it, teaching offers more autonomy overall than almost any other profession imaginable. The objective, then, is two-fold: 1) Recognize that we have that power and then 2) Use it to increase our equanimity and longevity in the profession.
It can be done.
You are in charge of the narrative.
You are in charge of your Self Talk.
You are in charge of the choices you make.
You are in charge of you.
As I share in my book Sanctuaries: Self-Care Secrets for Stressed Out Teachers, I once did a workshop where I had the attendees participate in a choral response to the following affirmation: “I don’t have to do it all.” I figured if they heard themselves say out loud that they didn’t have to do all the things and that sometimes they could say no to new obligations and responsibilities when they felt they were overwhelmed, there might be a better chance they would internalize it.
After the workshop, I was mingling with the group and an administrator approached me.
“Great presentation,” he said. “But it makes me nervous when you tell them they don’t have to do everything and that they can say no. If everyone did that, nothing would get done.”
I told him that I understood his concern, but that we had to operate on faith that everything would get done. Or, we may need to realize, if there’s so much to be done that it’s not getting done, maybe we needed to restructure the system or eliminate the things we only think are essential. It all comes down to knowing your value system and your personal limits and making choices that are in alignment with both.
That’s where the true power lies.
I also shared this analogy:
In a choir, everyone is singing, but every now and then people need to take a breath. And when some of singers are taking a breath, the others are still singing. And when it’s their turn to take a breath, the previous singers are singing and doing their part. And that’s how you get through the whole song and everyone gets to take a breath when they need one.
As educators, our self-talk often makes us believe that we can never take that breath. Our internal monologue makes us believe that if pause, even for a moment, the whole house of cards will collapse. Not only is that false, but what we fail to realize is that we are the ones who control the self-talk that makes us feel that way, when the bottom line is that we are, in fact, the only ones in charge of our own self-care.
That we have more power than we think is something of a radical idea, it seems. Yet in the face of the constant abuse and gaslighting that teachers face from their district, their administration, their community, and all of the other forces who do not under our profession and day-to-day challenges and obstacles we face, we can rise up and take control of what we do and what we think. And no one can take that away from us.
We don’t have to do it all.
And though it is often dormant and used, we have tremendous power.
The good news is that, after spending more than six years practicing the tools, strategies, and approaches I espouse in my book The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom — I try to walk the talk, after all — I am so much happier now and I know I’m going to make it to retirement.
And it all came down to these two ideas that I began to tell myself.
Ideas that are true for you as well:
You are okay exactly the way you are.
And you have more power than you think.
Once you start acting on those two philosophies, anything is possible.
High School ELA
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