Mental health maintenance

I am fortunate enough to be spending the last week of my winter break in Phoenix, Arizona with my family and great friends. The husbands work together, the wives are both teachers and our children are similar in ages. When we get together, conversation is easy, outings are relatively stress-free and we naturally just get along. On Sunday, we boarded our flight and went through the motions of airplane safety and security. When the overhead recording came on, we listened attentively and watched the flight attendants in action while I was reminded, in case of an emergency, to put my oxygen mask on first before those of my children. It’s an analogy I’ve referred to countless times to my dad when he had his heart attack and wanted to shovel the snow, to my mom who has been overworked and to my dearest friends when they needed the affirmation that their needs matter.

On that flight, I was reminded of the importance of taking time for me and want to remind you of doing the same for you as the new year begins. It’s far too easy to get caught up in work, meetings, emails and apps and tell yourself you’ll set time aside for you in your already over-scheduled agenda, knowing far too well that you will probably put it off because there’s one more detail to take care of for your next learning experience, collaborative assignment or project.

Before having a family, my husband and I had all the time in the world to follow our passions and interests. We often laugh at the thought of sleeping in well into the afternoon like we used to do before having kids. The mere thought of being able to do anything you choose at any given moment is hysterical because being part of a family, you know you’re not the only puzzle piece that counts. Although I have always been able to make time to nurture my relationship as a couple, once I had children, my self time sat on the sidelines. Being a teacher is much of the same. You have 20 something students and their families to respond to, which you do with great pleasure, because as a parent you would want the same in return. Not only do you have this group of students who you are directly responsible for, but you may have past students come in your classroom at lunch to share with you their latest news, clubs to supervise, emails to send or meetings to attend. You have deadlines and expectations to meet and in order to do so you sacrifice your “me” time before and after school because you wouldn’t ever allow yourself to not meet the needs of your students/children.

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To be able to have it all and do it all, you have to be on top of your game. To me, that means you are a team player who not only makes goals but sets goals. You step in when a teammate needs help. It’s being able to realize when you need a break yourself and returning to the field after taking a moment to hydrate and catch your breath. It takes an understanding family, supportive friends and a work environment that thrives on collaboration. I work and have worked with excellent teachers who put forth their lives and all of their personal time for their students, who never put themselves first and forget to take the time to nourish and replenish themselves. It’s no surprise that almost half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching.

Mental health plays a big part in education. We are constantly tuned into the social and emotional well being of our students and make sure every need is met to the very best of our ability. We ensure that they feel important, valued and know they matter. We make sure they are comfortable in their learning environment to take risks and confident to try again when their first attempt failed. We work tirelessly into building significant relationships with our students that we (sometimes or too often) neglect taking care of ourselves.

With that said, set a goal. One that allows you to pencil yourself in and stick to it. No matter what life throws at you, where you live or what you do there will be some great days to fall back on and others that will challenge you beyond belief. When I feel I’m running on empty, I breathe. I know that perfection doesn’t exist and that the small details are just that, details. I surround myself with people who lift me up. Even on the most difficult days, I always take time to reflect on the positive points and the highlights of my day. They are there, you just have to open your mind to see them. What went well? How did my students contribute to their learning? How did I pay it forward?  When we take care of ourselves as teachers, we are better fit to take care of our students. We can better support them, guide them, inspire them and ignite those sparks of curiosity and compassion to foster learning and i.d.e.a.s.

So regardless of the field you are in, when you’re running on empty and your fuel light is on – fill yourself up. The distance you’ll travel will be far greater, and the time it took to do so will be insignificant in comparison to the amount of time you’ve spent running around in circles, stressed, and unfocused. You’ll be able to move forward efficiently and accomplish much more on your never-ending to do lists. Running on overdrive is too hard for your soul. As I sit here in my pyjamas in the crisp cool desert night with my feet up and a steaming cup of tea at my side, I remember… You can’t pour from an empty cup. My puzzle piece matters to making the big picture come together and so does yours. You’ll be able to return the favor and your team will thank you for it.

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