Self-Care Checklist

It’s so easy to ignore personal health as a teacher. It’s so easy to feel too tired, or too busy, to take care of yourself. Considering that, I’ve made a “self-care checklist.” I try to do one thing for myself from each category, daily, to take care of myself.

Mental Health

  • Meditate. I try to meditate daily, in the mornings. There isn’t a ton of research about meditation (at least, not credited research the way we think of it in the West), but the research that is there suggests you’ll benefit the most from it if you meditate between 5-10 minutes a day.
  • Write in a journal. Vent, reflect, do whatever you’ve got to do.
  • Laugh. Watch a stand-up comedy, listen to a funny podcast, laugh with your friends.

Emotional Health

  • Call a friend. Real communication helps with stress immensely.
  • Go all out on a “personal night.” face mask, wine, favorite movie, whatever it is. Spend the night relaxing.
  • Go out. Get out of the house. Seriously. Depending on what you need, it may not be a night at home alone, but a night with friends.

Physical Health

  • Take a walk outside. Sometimes, I’m so stressed after work that I need a physical separation between my hours at work and my hours at home. Walking for 15-20 minutes helps with that.
  • Exercise. Anything, really, helps you when you’re stressed. I love running, biking, lifting weights, and yoga. (Generally, my rule is that when I really don’t feel like working out, I have to work out that day.)
  • Spend time in nature. A growing amount of research suggests that spending time in nature – even an hour or two a week – helps lower anxiety, stress, and depression.  Take a hike.
  • Eat healthy. This is one I struggle with frequently, but it is incredibly important. The food you eat can drastically impact your mentality, and the healthier you eat, the healthier your mind and body become.

 

One of the habits that improved my mental health, generally, during my first year of teaching was when I began giving myself regular “check-ups.” I started to become more conscious of my behaviors and thought patterns as they related to my health. I began paying attention to the signals my body sent me, trying to figure out what I needed most on different days. I tried as many different ways to be healthy and to lower my stress level, but I focused heavily on physical health because I knew how much it could affect my mental health.

Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

October: the month that lasts two years

Year: 2

It’s six in the morning, and as I’m making lunch for today, I’m listening to a Spanish playlist and wishing I were back in Chile. This week, I’m teaching an argumentative essay for the second time. I feel as though I’m moving through mud. It’s October, and I am feeling this month in every part of my day.

Writing anything about teaching during October, November, or December runs the risk of just being a string of tired (very tired) complaints. It is a very particularly difficult time of the school year because, as students get more comfortable and begin to act out, teachers are just wearing down their energy. We’re entering a part of the year when I have to become much more strict (I am already very strict) and I enjoy this job much less because of it.

My school’s fall break ended yesterday, and rather than feeling refreshed and ready to teach, I felt as though I were dragging myself through each class. After this week, the quarter should be much easier to get through, as writing lessons are typically less enjoyable for me than other lessons. The days following any break, but especially a break in the fall, are rough, and it will get better as I get back into the routine of teaching.  I’m trying to focus on that as I go into today. I probably sound like a broken record, having said this so many times, but self care is going to be even more important for me this week: to all the other teachers out there, I hope you’re taking care of yourselves, too.

The Tough Stuff

Year: 2

Sometimes, short weeks can be worse weeks, just because even one new factor can drastically shift students’ behavior. As we get farther into the school year, and kids get more comfortable in the classroom, I saw that happen this week.

Monday: I taught my students how to use the school’s “kind notes,” where students write nice notes to other students to raise the atmosphere of positivity in our school. This student wrote to his friend, “Thanks for hooking me up with that good stuff.” A clear drug reference from a student (who had just come back from his suspension that day) who was too careless to realize that I’d read the note. (Kid, really? Don’t be so dumb that you think adults don’t recognize clear drug references. We’re not robots.)

Monday: My friend, a first-year teacher, broke up her first fight. One of the boys was her student, and after she broke up the fight, she spent time defending the student and trying to keep him from being suspended.

Tuesday: One of my students walked slowly past my classroom to the nurse. Later, I found out some kid had shoved him into a metal pole during lunch. He spent the first half of class trying to hold back tears.

Wednesday:  Today, one of my favorite students (yeah, yeah, teachers don’t have favorites, whatever) turned to his friend and started goofing off during the test we were taking. I kicked him out of my classroom for about ten minutes as a consequence. Before letting him back into the classroom, I lectured him a bit about behavior and expectations, and he was so upset. Let me tell you: this is not the worst thing I have to deal with as a teacher. But looking into the face of a student who you care about, lecturing them on proper behavior – especially a student who is usually the sweetest in your class – and who is really upset by how disappointed his teacher is… That’s not a fun way to end the week.

Today’s New Pressure

It’s a generational issue that’s existed since the dawn of civilization, but I have some issues with how older generations criticize the younger generations.

I’m not necessarily talking about my generation, the millennials (although it is pretty ridiculous you are blaming people my age for the loss of Applebee’s – and, really, is that a loss in the end?). I’m focused more on how people criticize the generation younger than mine, the young ones. There’s an overwhelming rise of anxiety, stress, and depression among the students in my classes today. I understand why. In even the few short years since I attended classes in middle and high school, there has been an incredible shift in how we treat students.

We put an incredible amount of pressure on students early on. This post is largely one for people who are unaware or misinformed about the structure of the education system and how it’s changed over the last ten years or so. Kids are under a ton of pressure, and it’s everywhere.

On testing: I don’t know if you remember your first standardized test as a child, but I remember mine being at least middle school or beyond. Granted, I moved a lot – in and out of the country – so my experience may be a little unreliable, but certainly I did not have high-stakes, anxiety-inducing tests in third grade. And that’s when standardized tests begin in Arizona now. Third frickin’ grade. That’s what you think is going to help student growth? That’s what you think is going to help students learn, and think critically, and enjoy education? Making kids hate school at the third grade level is not, notNOT helpful.

On bell to bell teaching: Nonstop, continuous work, for seven hours a day, with only five minute breaks in between? You’re joking. They’re kids. Even adults get more break time than that, and even when they don’t, those adults make their own break time by not focusing. Because the human brain does not function that way, without rest, for hours on end. (Seriously, when is the education profession going to get neurologists and psychologists running education theory?)

Social media’s influence: While students are pressured to perfection in every aspect of their academic lives, students now have to deal with the influence of social media and the anxieties which arise with them. For people who have grown up without social media sites, this may be difficult to understand, but for kids who are introduced to the world with a cell phone in hand, their lives are inextricably linked with an online ecosystem. Their social lives in this online world are just as critical as their social lives in the physical world, and to make that even more intense, nobody teaches them how to navigate that world. Adults aren’t having conversations with kids about the online world, or, if they are, they don’t understand how to transfer the implications of your actions online. This is a very different coming-of-age experience than what others have dealt with in the past, and it can be much more intense than what adults may understand.

Technology’s influence: I separate this from social media because technology can be related to anything digital – the ability to google, youtube videos, video games, apps, etc. – and not just social media sites like Facebook. There is such a decreased attention span among kids who have grown up under technology’s influence. There is a sense of immediacy that kids are given when they use technology from a very early age, and that sense of immediacy makes traditional school much more difficult.

Let’s not forget the traditional pressures. How families’ issues affect kids in their personal and academic lives. How bullying is ever present, and increasing, among students. How difficult, painful, and awkward, even interactions with friends can be. How emotionally exhausting it can feel on an average day. How the intense, insane level of hormones can affect daily behavior and interactions. How confusing and difficult it can feel to grow into yourself and learn the type of person you are and want to be.

 

Again, again, again…. They’re just kids. Shouldn’t our greater focus be on creating good, critically thinking people, not better data?

On Being Mean

Year: 2

Some weeks in teaching seem to have themes of a sort. This week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of how mean kids can be to each other.

One of my students has been suspended for getting in a fight, and when I saw him in the front office, he told me that he was defending himself. Another kid limped past my classroom because someone shoved him into a basketball pole during lunch. Another student said something so terribly mean about one of his classmates that I had no choice but to send him up to the front office; and this kid, I’ve already had a very recent conversation about respect and being kind to others.

I heard once that everything a person does is an echo. If a person is behaving kindly, they are echoing the kindness that has been shown to them in the past. If a person is behaving unkindly, that person is echoing the pain that has been shown to them. I’ve always thought this to be a powerful analogy to explain general behavior: you react to the people around you, often unconsciously, and it is often a mirrored behavior.

Kids can be mean. It’s so easy to forget until you come into contact with that kind of malevolence. It feels like a kick to the gut, to me, when I see viciousness, like in the behavior I’ve seen done to my kids this week.  I’m never not bothered by it. Kids echo the behavior they see around them, and when they are shown pain, they throw pain back. It’s really difficult to be a witness to that process. As someone who spends their life trying to teach children, and care about them, you just want to protect them as best as you can, but there won’t always be an opportunity to do that.

I wonder if we’re doing something wrong, something that we could be teaching our young ones and aren’t, or if this is a natural part of human behavior that can’t be rerouted. We could teach kids to think about their actions and emotions more, teach kids to reflect more. I don’t really have an answer or opinion. I just can’t help but ask that question when I see a week like this.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the teaching of things, because that’s our job description, that it’s easy to forget that kids have so much to deal with only a daily basis. It is that same lesson I have learned, and will learn, again and again, in teaching: kids are just kids, and you should have compassion above all else.

 

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.