The Importance of
Betsy O’Neill-Sheehan, LCSW
Throughout my 17 years in education, there have been certain buzzwords that have been hot at different times. Did you notice that we don’t say “rigor” so much anymore? Now it’s “robust.” That’s cool. We should stay on top of current trends. But I cringe when certain great ideologies become trendy, because with “trending” comes overuse…and then there’s overuse’s evil cousin:backlash (when the term becomes so overused its meaning is tarnished.)
“It’s the teaching-through-a-pandemic equivalent to telling a new parent to “sleep when the baby sleeps.”
So here’s a current term I worry about: self-care. It’s right up there in the ranks with the protective mama bear reaction I have when the term “social emotional learning” is tossed around for the sake of supporting arguments and not the actual well-being of students. Here’s why: self-care is important. It’s vital for our mental health. We should absolutely protect and promote educator self-care. But the reality is the term is often used to deflect from what is actually needed. It is the teaching-through-a-pandemic equivalent to telling a new parent to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Educators are legitimately stressed by the amount of change, “unknown”, & responsibility is on their plates. If we think of their ability to manage and self-care as the sturdiness of their plate, of course we want them to feel solid. But even the sturdiest of plates will break if too much is piled on. So instead of advocating for educator self-care at this “time of uncertainty” (forgive my buzzwords) I advocate for educator care. A care that acknowledges that they will put their students and their learning before their own personal needs. If we want to support the mental health needs of educators, here’s where we can start:
1. Listen: Following and connecting with educators all over the country (and other countries), I am awed by the innovative, creative, sharing (have you seen the way folks are sharing knowledge and lesson plans?!) and gritty spirit we bring to love and teach our students. Teachers within my own district floored me with their quick adaptation to all the programs, APPs and extensions, and their ability to model them in professional development for each other. (Take that teacher evaluation!) And while we have our ups and highs of “we’re making it work!”, we also have a right to advocate when we need time or answers to questions no one has ever had to consider before. When a teacher is tired or frustrated by this rare 2020 situation, the way they are taking care of themselves is appropriately advocating for their needs and the needs of their students. In a crisis, you need a strategic plan to add some clarity to your thoughts before that yoga class will do you much good.
2. Limit: There are some amazing administrators in my district. While meeting for our MTSS team, a newer, go-getting, super-admirable teacher mentioned that she was on this team and that team. The administrator at our table very politely encouraged her, “If you get asked for too many commitments, it’s ok to say ‘no’.” Now the new teacher didn’t necessarily need permission to say ‘no’ per say, but this administrator communicated the value of the time that this teacher already spends on her classroom and other commitments. Coming from a district leader, it modeled the healthy boundaries and expectations that we do not have to do all the things all the time.
3. Give Permission to Feel: Feelings are natural human responses to our environments. The education environment, no matter where you are on the globe, has shifted. To truly care for educator wellness, there has to be an acknowledgement of the range of feelings that these changes can stir. Uncomfortable feelings can be a signal that something systematically has to change (not necessarily that the individual experiencing the feeling has something to care for in themself.) For more on this topic, check out Dr. Marc Brackett’s book: PERMISSION TO FEEL.
4. Honor Boundaries: Did you know that countries around the world have laws protecting workers’ rights to disconnect? The reasons include reducing stress and anxiety by compartmentalizing at-work and out-of-work time. Technology has advanced our efficacy and availability in so much as I know I get more than twice the amount of things done in an average day now than I was able to 15 years ago (and I was a mighty fine educator even then!) But if the work day doesn’t ever seem to end, and requests keep rolling in, where is the time for… self-care?!
Brackett, M. A. (2019). Permission to feel: Unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society thrive. New York: Celadon Books.