I’ve worked in education for over 20 years, but I didn’t start paying attention to my need for self care until around 2013, even though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. In 2013 I had been working in higher education for my entire career, and I was ready, desperate actually, for a change in my job, in my life; but I didn’t understand why. I enjoyed the work I did, and I enjoyed the people I worked with. I loved my students, and my writing center was a good place to be. Yet I knew deep down in my bones and soul that I needed something different – a break, some peace. A colleague advised me “a change is as good as a rest,” so I worked on changing my situation. I eventually got promoted, but that didn’t help; it only exacerbated my problems. So I decided to try another change and left higher ed to teach high school.
I earned my certification, I did some informal apprentice teaching in my mom’s high school classroom, and I applied for high school English teacher jobs. I got one for the 2015-2016 school year. It was in this great teaching position in a good school district that I learned the importance of self care for educators.
I was stressed out.
In higher ed, I dealt with student trauma regularly. I once stopped a riot, I’ve sat with students who had overdosed, and I was even on suicide/danger watch with a student who threatened to hurt himself or someone else during finals week. What took me over the edge, I think, was the relentless pace of teaching high school. And the bells.
I hated the bells. Ring. Time for first period. Ring. Time for shared planning. Ring. Time to eat. Ring. Time to grade. Ring. Time for an IEP meeting. Ring. Time to discuss student progress with the Special School District coordinator. Ring. Time for class presentations. Ring. Time to go to the bathroom (Finally! I’ve needed to go for several hours now!) Ring. Ring. Ring. I felt like I worked in a factory with every part of my day predetermined by the malevolent bells. Is this how Rosie the Riveter felt? (She could do it; surely I could too.) Every bell, every day, physically and mentally jarred me. I never got used to the bells. They made me jittery – like I had downed shots of espresso – not just when they rang, but before they rang in anticipation of them. I watched the clock almost as much as my students, watching the minute hand mark the arrival of the dreaded bells.
Student trauma, frenetic pace, misunderstood expectations, and a host of other factors got me so stressed out that I almost drove into a tree on the way home from work one day. I didn’t want to die; I just wanted a break. I wanted a good reason to not have to go to work the next day, and sadly, preserving my mental health didn’t seem like a good enough reason – only extreme physical brokenness seemed adequate. I made it home safely, however, went inside, completely ignored my family, and filled up my bathtub, with a generous amount of Epsom salts for good measure. I took my Kindle into the tub with me and cried, prayed, and read for over an hour. The warm saltwater, fellowship with God, and reading soothed my weary soul.
That’s when I began contemplating self care for educators.
Learning is hard, really hard. The act of learning is so intensely personal and transformative for students that the act of educating necessarily involves mental and emotional fortitude to guide learners through the difficult work of learning while also helping them navigate through their own trauma. Educators play myriad roles – teacher, confidante, counselor, protector, champion, mandatory reporter, mediator, role model, innovator, intercessor, caregiver, friend, colleague, judge, jury, security – and in today’s COVID-19 world, educators also take on responsibilities with life and death consequences. To maintain a healthy trajectory in work and in life, educators must build self care into their daily praxis.
Educators are exhausted, but we must resist the norm of exhaustion as the hallmark of our profession. We must learn to make time to care for ourselves. Not doing so not only hurts us, but makes us ineffective in the work we love.
I am doing a 31-day series on reading and journaling as self care for educators. Each day of the series has a bonus worksheet. To access the worksheets, click to sign up to stay connected to LELA House and Roshaunda. When you subscribe, you’ll gain exclusive access to the worksheets for this series. You only need to subscribe once. I will add a new worksheet each day to the access link.
Roshaunda D. Cade, Ph.D. is an educator, writer, and creator. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and teenage children and enjoys reading, writing, dancing, and pushing her creative boundaries. You can follow her at roshaundacade.com, lela-house.com, and on Teachable, Medium, Youtube, and Instagram.