I am feeling…uncertain, anxious, lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed. These are the responses I’ve received from all levels of educators over the past nine months. We are experiencing a collective erosion of our mental and physical health and a toll on personal relationships in a way we’ve never experienced.
Poor mental health among educators was not born of COVID, yet is certainly exacerbated by this relentless stress. A recent EAB report (2020) shared the following statistics of mental health issues before and after the onset of COVID:
- 58% (yes, more than half) of teachers indicated experiencing poor mental health within the month preceding the survey (pre-COVID)
- 78% responded feelings of mental and physical exhaustion at the end of each day (pre-COVID)
- 80% of teachers described feeling anxious, worried, depressed, or exhausted (post-onset of COVID)
The most prominent means of staving off physical and mental health issues require devoted attention to self-care, yet I feel the message of self-care getting lost in the ether of competing demands and wonder how to change the trajectory.
Even as a strong proponent of self-care, I recently found myself ceasing practices in place for years. I became more sensitive and began doubting my efficacy. The experience highlighted how quickly and easily we can veer toward an unhealthy path. Years of practice in self-awareness enabled me to recognize these subtle changes, find compassion and forgiveness, and begin again. I am lucky to be fully invested in this work as part of my career, to learn self-awareness and other strategies to re-adjust. Most are not as fortunate.
We simply cannot afford to ignore mental health as a basic need. As described in the EAB report (2020), we must have a consistent commitment to our collective mental health. We need to give permission to take care of ourselves, yet we cannot merely ask individuals to lift themselves. We must provide the opportunities, time, and support to enable this work.
If leaders send a message around the importance of mental health, they will vastly improve the culture of compassion. Leaders can do so by incorporating opportunities to build relationships, express emotions (both joyful and challenging) within a safe environment, and model transparency. A mental health counselor recently shared that when he guided a feelings activity with a group of principals in the state, they said it was the first time anyone had asked them about their feelings since the onset of COVID months before. Hopefully, they paid his small gift forward to their employees.
The cultivation of compassion requires activities to heighten self-awareness (e.g., mindfulness) so we can interrupt internal toxic messages and embrace opportunities for fortification. I recently heard mindfulness described as a way to tune your instrument. Just think about that one. An un-tuned instrument is not functional and actually unpleasant. Mindfulness is simple and accessible and can include many different activities, and I’d like you to consider a few to try:
- Notice how your body feels during different parts of the day.
- Use breathing exercises to disengage stress (inhale to count of 4, hold to count of 7, exhale to count of 8, and repeat at least twice).
Through self-compassion, we recognize the small but impactful moments of life. We see moments of our goodness and greatness. We seize opportunities of whimsy and joy. We take time to connect. We include ourselves on the list of things we love. These moments may seem trivial, but they create resilience and, ultimately, the foundation of our mental health.
For me, compassion involves a daily message. You and I are worthy. We are good enough. We are even great enough (for the over-achiever). I know and forgive my limitations and create boundaries. I am not better or worse than anyone else because I have unique skills and experiences.
Take the first step – go look in the mirror and celebrate the essence of you. Tell yourself that you are worthy of a moment to feel healthy, cared for and loved.
“Love turned inwards allows our light to shine bright on others.”
Teachers, this blog is a platform designed for you to share your tips for maintaining a sense of purpose and wellbeing in and out of the classroom.
We’re always calling for blog submissions. February’s theme is Inspiring Courage and Equity. What are some ways we can combat fear, empower others, and show up to teaching with courage and love?