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5 Tips for Mental Health and Wellness in Our Work As Educators

John Stoneburner (Los Angeles '06) has compiled a few tips to help you stay healthy and well as you teach throughout the year.

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Friday, June 2, 2017

“This work isn’t about you—it’s about our kids.”

If you’re a teacher, chances are you’ve heard this phrase echoed in professional developments, or maybe even shared directly to you. Don’t get me wrong—our work with students and families is absolutely crucial to our work as educators. But with this heartfelt statement can come the unintended, unspoken message that we don’t matter quite as much as our students.

And yet, the struggle is real for educators. Regardless if you're a corps member or teaching through a more traditional route, we’re often underpaid, overworked, over-committed, and sometimes subject to critique from the general public and policymakers. The need for wellness and access to mental health resources is clear in our community, but certain barriers can make it harder for us to embrace the happiness and wholeness we deserve and need. Luckily, we’ve compiled a few tips to help you stay healthy and well as you teach throughout the year.

Tip #1: Accept That It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint 

Educators are humans, not heroes. As humans, we not only exist in a world that is chock-full of oppressive structures and systems that weigh down on us in different ways, but we teach and lead others who are exposed to those structures and systems.

Like with any job, if you move through our work and world without awareness of the challenges that impact our hearts, bodies, and minds, then you can possibly set yourself up for fatigue and burnout. We are stronger when we recognize we thrive in periods of deep exertion coupled with moments of deep rejuvenation and restoration.

In other words, it’s a long school year; take the personal time to rest and recuperate when necessary. Tony Schwartz reminds us, "We aren’t meant to run like computers at high speeds for long periods of time."

Tip #2: The Real Bottom Line—We Matter

In addition to meeting our physical needs of rest and recuperation, we must address our self-worth as teachers. Reforms in education have put such a premium on student outcomes that as educators, sometimes we can be perceived as or made to feel like cogs in a machine.

Take your pick of these two phrases: “I want you to be happy and healthy so you can do your job,” or “I want you to be happy and healthy because I care about you and your wellness.” The latter is a bit more appealing, right?

This language devalues the necessity for holistic health within our community, and can lead folks to feeling dispensable and unworthy. As teachers, we care about our students’ well-being because we care about them as people, so why should it be different how stakeholders see you as an educator? 

Know that you matter; you are a valued leader and human being. As Brene Brown says, “If you think dealing with issues like worthiness, authenticity, and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.”

Tip #3: Create Inclusive Spaces to Talk About Wellness

Our society’s obsession with normalcy and constant undertones of ableism can often create conditions of silence in our workplace regarding mental health and wellness. As a result of not speaking up at the first sign of a problem out of fear for rocking the boat, we exacerbate the stigma associated with mental health issues and care.

Don’t mistake your right to keep your personal health issues private with being quiet regarding personal health altogether. Look, talking beforehand about the prevalence of mental health issues and the available options for care is important for any community as a preemptive measure. But when it happens in real-time, we must act quickly, and that requires having inclusive spaces in place help to reduce stress and vulnerability.

Tip #4: Build Your Feelings and Needs Vocabulary 

Staying on the topic of spaces, when we’re in there supporting our colleagues, how do we help them make the transition from guardedness and vulnerability to feeling seen, soothed, secure, and safe?

Sometimes it helps to build our own feelings and needs vocabulary so we can model vulnerability and attunement with those in our community. Such a list can act as a starting place to pinpoint our exact mindsets and facilitate greater self-discovery.

Tip #5: Share Wellness Successes & Resources with Others 

Mental health and wellness care is personal and needs to be responsive to an individual’s current needs, previous lived experiences, and personal identity markers like age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and spoken language. We need someone who will see us, understand our context, and support the conditions to have trusting relationships.

With the mental health professional field not wholly representative of women of color, only 55 percent of therapists accepting insurance at all, and clunky, outdated insurance directories for behavioral services, often times some demographics in need are finding it difficult to access and receive services.

Organizations and communities can respond to these barriers by identifying mental health and wellness stewards. These are individuals who have found access to services and can help guide colleagues through the process while also serving as meaningful “accountabilibuddies” in actually receiving care.

We want to hear from you about what you have thought about our teacher wellness focus during Mental Health Awareness Month and ideas for other ways we can promote a community of wellness. Teachers—share your thoughts with us in this survey and be entered to win a wellness giveaway.

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