How many times have you been told to practice self care this school year? I have a feeling it’s been so many that it’s begun to feel a bit cliche.
I bet if you had a nickel for every time someone ended an email or message on social media about self care this year, you could buy stock in Ticongeroga pencils. You’re probably in the homestretch to Spring Break, if you aren’t having it already, and we’re all a little worse for wear at this point. The self care reminders have been coming in hot, usually without any definition about what self care actually is.
What if I told you that self care alone isn’t what you need to make it to the end of this school year and through the next? Read on or listen to the podcast episode below.
Let’s talk about what self care is - and why that’s not the problem. Self care is taking action to preserve or improve your health - be it physical, mental, or emotional. I could get into the six types of self care, but I’d rather just let you Google that and get to the truth you may not find on any search engine.
And that truth is: you are already an expert on self care. You don’t need an email reminder or an unnecessary gadget some Instagram influencer is getting paid to promote to make it happen. Yes, I am calling out the people trying to make a buck off of your distress. Self care is not the affiliate links for face steamers and essential oils - you heard it here first.
Let’s be real: you are already a care aficionado. As teachers and a profession dominated by women, we understand nurturing like no other. No doubt in my mind you can ID when someone needs rest, interaction, space, food, love - we see it all the time in our students and colleagues.
The problem is prioritizing those needs in yourself and not denying yourself the same things you would give to someone else - with no judgment - in a blink. It’s been ingrained in us to care, and unfortunately that also means we’ve been conditioned to put ourselves last. Now, there are certainly times when we aren’t the number one priority. But too often than not, especially this year, your needs and possibly your family’s needs have taken a backseat because of the demands of your job.
It comes down to that martyr mentality. And if I bring it up too much, it’s because I want you to see it for the devil reincarnate that it truly is. We’ve been conditioned in education to accept that it’s okay - actually, it may very well be expected - to run ourselves into the ground for the sake of our classrooms. Because, after all, aren’t we here for the kids?
At some point this year or in years prior, you have probably been made to feel - either by others or yourself - that if you don’t give every last drop, you are failing your students. That. Is. Garbage. It is impossible to practice self care at any level with this mentality living in the back of your head. And the brutality of the expectations this school year, the callousness directed at teachers regarding their well beings, is your wake up call to be a part of changing the narrative.
If you're going to be there for the kids, you have to be there for yourself - first.
A question I have for school leaders, mostly those who aren’t at the schools in the trenches, is if they really want teachers to practice self care, or if they are saying that because it "sounds good." Do they realize the contradiction in telling teachers to take care of themself while in the next sentence to get back into the classroom, regardless of if they’ll get a vaccine to protect them? I'm hearing something to the effect of, "Make sure you take care of yourself, now teach kids online and in person at the same time - and get them ready for that big test in the spring."
To me, the contradiction is glaringly obvious. And they risk losing a generation of teachers and the education of thousands of students because of it. When it comes to leadership, communication matters - right up there with conscience. Many leaders right now need to take a look at the disconnect between their words and actions.
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Here are the brass tacks. What you need is deeper than the traditional view of self care. Let’s talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - you know, the pyramid we learned about in college, what kids need before they can be successful? At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs (survival), then safety, love and belonging, esteem, and at the very top self actualization. Adults need those same things as well - and self care should reflect that.
I’d like to share with you my Inverted Pyramid of Self Care. You can push it right up next to Maslow’s Pyramid and make a perfect square, how’s that for geometry?
I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up. At the bottom tip of the inverted pyramid is Self Indulgence. Netflix marathons, chocolate, wine, shopping - all the guilty pleasures that get the dopamine flowing! But it’s at the bottom, a very small part of what self care involves, because any of those things in excess isn’t good for you. You’re either blowing money, calories, time, or all of the above. Letting loose is essential, but it’s not all there is.
Next level up is Self Maintenance. This is everything you need to keep your body going inside and our. Doctors visits, hair appointments, exercise, balancing your checkbook. In contrast to indulging, this is keeping all the gears in your life moving so to speak, so you feel and look in a way that makes you happy and gives you peace.
The next level is Self Control. This is a big one for teachers, especially if the martyr mentality has its teeth in you. I guess another name for this would be self regulation. Can you turn off, stick to your boundaries, choose where to expend your energy? It’s a work in progress for me for sure. But too much or too little of anything isn’t good. Getting control and taking responsibility for our actions isn’t a level of self care that looks good in pictures on Instagram, but it can have some of the greatest impact on your health.
After that, is Self Awareness. What do you need to feel fulfilled? What would make you feel better about life? Are you an extrovert or an introvert, and how can you honor that in your life choices? What are your triggers that impact your self control? Knowing what you are about and how you function huge in improving your physical and emotional state. When you are self aware, you are better able to help your students become that way as well.
At the top, the broadest category of what self care should entail, is Self Empowerment. You deserve better than to feel stuck. To feel demoralized. This is taking action and finding the resources to be the person you want to be. Empowerment looks different for everyone. It can be going back to school to get the knowledge you need to change jobs. It may be just using your confidence to not let others make you feel bad about your decisions. It can be having the courage to be a voice in a profession that needs realness and compassion if it’s going to retain and attract quality people.
Most of all, self empowerment is feeling strong and whole enough to let your story, your perspective be the lens for others to see someone they can relate to, a reason to not give up and to practice…you guessed it - a redefined version of self care. It’s coming full circle, coming to peace with what has been and what can be.
To review - self care is about nurturing who you are and attending to your own needs - so you have the wholeness to reach those who need you most. You know how to do it - you just need to feel that you are allowed to prioritize yourself when the education world is sending you mixed messages. In a redefined, inverted pyramid of self care, we work our way up the inverted pyramid:
It’s maybe not the message every one in charge wants you to hear, but it’s the one you need the most. There’s a great opportunity on the other side of this pandemic to reimagine how we do things in education, starting with how teachers view themselves. You can’t be all you need to be for anyone when you don’t feel like you can or should be prioritizing the needs of your family and yourself.
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