Building Bridges

This past week I helped to host Michigan’s inaugural statewide Social Emotional Learning (SEL) conference, titled Building Bridges-Breaking Silos. There were over 250 in person and virtual participants. It was a time of sharing, connecting, learning, laughing and even shedding a few tears. Overall, it was a huge success. People left feeling loved, taken care of, and inspired to continue this great work. All the things I’d hoped people would experience at the event and then some.

I’ve been on numerous conference planning committees before but never as the chair. I compared it to planning a wedding. So many details to work out. However, all along I was determined to not allow any of that to stress me out or overwhelm me. Throughout the process of pulling this conference together I was also in the throes of “back to school” season which brings with it a whirlwind of travel and professional development opportunities (this year there were 30 to be exact in about an 8-week period). And being the “self-proclaimed self-care” promoter, I knew I needed to practice what I preach and try to model what I hope others will do for themselves. I was committed to going SLOW and building in self-care. I delegated various sessions and responsibilities to other team members and then stepped back and trusted them to man their part of the show. I did my part and let them do theirs. We would check in and support one another as needed but it didn’t all fall on me. And it didn’t need to, we were all in it together. That was a good lesson for me a “control freak” in recovery to stay in my lane, not micro-manage and let things work themselves out. In general, I think I did pretty well and so do the plan. I tried to stay self-aware and mindful of my warning signs (when I get prickly) and also intentionally attempted to communicate my needs and establish boundaries. The more I practice and verbalize my intentions the easier it gets. And we had a successful event.An hour before it started, I found myself sitting quietly with my colleague, reflecting, and preparing for a great day ahead. We weren’t running around frazzled and harried. We were at peace and brimming with anticipation of a great day ahead.  Now are there things to improve upon for next time? Yes, of course. There always is something that could be done differently. But working collectively with others helps to share the load.

Ironically, the other take away for me from this experience is the importance of building bridges. I’ve always been a relationship person. I love people (well most people if I’m going to be completely honest). I know that in the field of education and mental health we cannot go it alone. We all need each other. We are much more effective when we collaborate and support one another. I think this has become even more essential in the last 18+months. The level of exhaustion with educators (and others in care-giving professional roles) is at an all-time high and morale at an all-time low. Between COVID fatigue, unmet/unrealistic expectations for this school year, the political discord in our nation and other challenges we face, it is an unprecedented time. All the more reason for us to build bridges. If we all help carry the load it doesn’t feel as heavy, which hopefully allows for self-pacing and thus self-care.

It was amazing to see the way people came together, united in purpose to help support each other, students and their development of life skills that will enable them to be the best version of themselves. The energy and passion in the room as people swapped stories and experiences was dynamic. There was a buzz that was palatable. Building bridges between early childhood educators to those in k-12 arena to after-school settings through higher education and coming together to collaborate and exchange ideas was such a timely theme.

Even though the sessions were beneficial, thought-provoking, and engaging, I believe the greatest success of the conference was that we were all together. Developing new connections, rekindling old ones, forging paths, going forward together in a united effort, that’s what truly makes a difference. Let’s commit to building bridges with one another, and amazingly, self-care and wellness will become easier.

Hard But Not Impossible

I’ve spent the last several weeks conducting professional development sessions with educators (and even front-line workers at a local health department) on self-care and social, emotional and mental health. Some sessions have been in person and others virtual.   Regardless, the level of stress and exhaustion people are feeling now is palatable. (I’ve felt it myself as my travel schedule has been unrelenting recently-I definitely lost my “travel sea legs” during the last year and a half). Things can feel overwhelming and suffocating for those working in this field. “There is never enough time” is a consistent message I hear (and again, feel myself at various times). Time to focus on self is easily deferred for later. There are numerous other tasks that can seem to take priority over any wellness activity (including just saying “no”). It can be hard to stop the fast pace, concentrate on yourself and what you need, vs what everyone else needs. It is hard but not impossible.

I’m convinced that opportunities to SLOW down and attend to yourself exist. It may not be an extended vacation to the Bahamas or whatever your idea of a “break” looks like (some of you may be saying, “gosh just a day not crammed with back-to-back meetings would be delightful” I hear ya!). But during my own person whirlwind of travel, I have been intentional about watching for and capitalizing on any opportunity that presents itself to me to just go SLOW. Sometimes it may just be a couple of minutes before a presentation to sit quietly, connect with myself and breathe. Or maybe a meeting ends early and I can get outside for a quick break and some fresh air. I have to be mindful to look for those chances to take a brief self-care moment. I’ve also learned recently that how I decide to interpret or perceive the moment can make a difference in my self-care. What story am I telling myself about the current situation?

To elaborate on that, take this example. On one of my recent trips, a colleague and I had a 3.5-hour drive to a conference. I was scheduled to give a presentation immediately upon our arrival. We planned our departure based on those factors. However, she had a meeting run late so therefore was late to meet me, at our departure location. As I sat quietly waiting for her, determined I was not going to freak out. It was all going to be just fine. We finally got underway and had JUST enough time to make it there with very little wiggle room. Yet, within our first few minutes on the road, we were caught in traffic. There was an accident. We were stopped, not moving for about 15 minutes. Historically, I would be a nervous wreck. However, this time, (and probably for one of the first times in my LIFE), I was at peace. I was grateful we were healthy and safe. I sent up prayers for those in the accident and re-determined I was going to stay at peace regardless. There was nothing I could do about it. So, I surrendered, told myself the story that all would be well. That is a much better place to be than one of panic. I reserved my energy for my session. And as is usually the case, the universe worked it out and I walked in with time to spare (20 mins!). How validating!

This year I celebrated a milestone birthday. Therefore, several of my childhood friends are also celebrating with a planned weekend event. Unfortunately, I live two plane rides away from the festivities. The travel schedule plus my work commitments would only permit me to attend the weekend for about 36 hours. I wrestled for weeks, trying to decide what to do. Push through and attend? Stay home and rest? Miss out on a time of love, laughter and memories or take a much-needed reprieve and regroup? It weighed heavy. But again, I had to choose the story I was going to tell myself. Instead of all I may miss out on, I am prioritizing my wellness. And as many of us have done over the last 18 months, I will zoom or FaceTime in for some of the frivolity without adding wear and tear to myself. Like I said, self-care can be hard but not impossible.

What difficult situations are you facing? As I’ve spent time with hundreds of professionals over the last several weeks, the stories and experiences recounted to me feel heavy and difficult. There is so much hurt, concern and discomfort occurring in the lives of students and those who work with them or on their behalf. Times are hard, but they are not impossible. Self-care is possible. Look for ways to take care of you. They are there if you look for them!

Ignorance is Bliss

I just returned from a week away, in the Upper Peninsula (aka UP) of Michigan, where I was able to spend time discussing self-care practices with teachers and administrators from various districts as they prepare for back to school. I also had the opportunity to expand my circle and share some self-care tips with employees of a county health department down state in Michigan. Even though the job responsibilities of those professionals differ, the level of stress experienced is quite similar. Anyone who is in a field where caretaking of others is involved, knows it can be draining. Then you add in a pandemic and things are magnified. It’s obvious how much everyone is carrying. People are tired and tense but are also resilient and seem to be fighting for hope.

Even though I had an amazing time running from small town to small town in the UP and then with my new friends down state, it is hard to be away from the “office”. Work life doesn’t stop just because you are out in the field. It is unbelievable how quickly emails pile up isn’t it? Additionally, I was responsible for a training kick-off that took place the first day I was traveling. Fortunately, I had a couple colleagues graciously agree to stand in the gap for that event and also while I was unable to attend to email requests and meetings. I tried to check in as often as time and inconsistent Wi-Fi would allow but knew I would not be “on top of it” as usual. Being a “control freak” in recovery, I frequently have a difficult time, letting things go. It is hard to me to be ok with not being in the fray and allowing others to take over. This week was a good opportunity for me to practice. Some days I did better than others.

I could either choose to buy into the lies of “you are burdening someone else by not being available” or “you should handle your own responsibilities” or “no one can do this as good as you” or “it’s the end of the world if a ball gets dropped”. Anyone else out there relate to those myths? I had to realize it was my ego talking, none of those things are based in reality, especially in this particular situation. Yes, I do need to own my responsibilities, but I was responsible in asking someone else who is fully capable to pitch-hit. Why second guess or criticize my own selection (or their proven professionalism)?

Instead, I can choose to trust and to let things work themselves out. On good days, I had to intentionally decide that it was ok to just focus on what I had on tap for the day and not think about the rest. There is something to be said for staying out of the know, sometimes. In some cases, the less I know the better. I’ve often said that to and about my adult children. There are some things I’d rather not know about, at least until after the fact (especially once I know they are safe).

Now, granted I am a social worker, so I definitely care about people and their well-being. However, I also often joke that I became a social worker so I could be in everyone’s business and get paid for it. Historically, I’ve been very nosey and didn’t want to miss out on anything. However, I’m learning as I get older that I don’t necessarily need to always be in the mix (minimal case of FOMO here?!) I’ve determined it’s ok for me to not know all the scoop with so and so, or to be concerned with whoever’s drama, or to hear the latest on such and such (although I do still LOVE my weekend People Magazine reads, in all fairness). There can be a benefit to limiting my intake of information. Being selective about what I pay or give my attention to, can have its advantages. I can choose to reserve my energy and brain capacity for things that are important, that actually need my focus. Do I really need to be involved in this situation? Am I a decision-maker here? Is someone else better suited for this circumstance? Is there a legitimate reason I need to insert myself?  In many of these cases the answer is no, I don’t need to be included or involved. In those situations (& arguably others) my ignorance is bliss.

As I spent HOURS with educators and other health care professionals over the last week, I know there is a tendency to want to know everything especially about particular students or families with whom we work. My encouragement is to go slow…check in with yourself. Do you really need to know? Will it help you help them, or will it cause you to expend energy you could be using elsewhere, like on your own well-being? Sometimes the world does need you to be in it ALL and other times all will be well if you are away.

Problem Solving

During the onset of the pandemic and throughout our ensuing “lockdown”, puzzle making was “all the rage”. I found myself engaging in the craze, challenging myself to 1000-piece puzzles (vs the easier 500 pieces and 300-piece ones that I love). I even set up a Puzzles During COVID Facebook page. It was fun to seeing people locally and from other states post their completed works of art. I also enjoyed swapping puzzles with friends, (via leaving them on each other’s doorsteps since we couldn’t see each other). I like the challenge of “puzzling”, figuring out where each piece goes (in the spirit of honesty, I do sometimes get frustrated and have to walk away). On occasion I can talk my family into helping me. Sometimes they “leave it to me” but other times they will contribute. Regardless who’s contributed, I especially love the feeling of solving the puzzle, putting in that final piece, and admiring the finished product. My habit is to let the completed puzzle sit on the table overnight and into the next day before I break it up and place it back in the box. I like to savor it.

I have begun to notice that the same “puzzle solving” skill is similar to the “problem solving” skill. It seems to require the same ability to put “pieces” together. Some problems can be as small as finding a mutual meeting time for a small group of people. Other times, they can be larger, like how to fix the education system. And then of course there are a million other ones in between and all along the continuum. What I’ve also realized is that even if the problems are small ones, if there are a lot of them, they pile up and begin to feel very heavy. It can become overwhelming. But with just like dumping out a new 1000-piece puzzle, it’s all possible when we take it piece by piece.

Word on the street is there is no shortage of problems. They are everywhere, nationally, statewide, local communities, and more than likely even in our own homes within our family structures and among our friend circles. If you stop too long and take it all in, it can feel daunting. And as often as I (we?) try, it’s typically ineffective to wish them away.

I imagine some of you reading this blog have a reputation of being a “fixer”. You have proven to be someone who can resolve missteps, stand in the gap, sort through the muck, and come out with solutions. That conjures up the image of that shell game. Moving all the different pieces around, trying to find the one that holds the nut (or whatever is hidden underneath).

Like all of you, problems find their way to my email inbox too. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been tempted and started to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, tired, irritated whenever someone would bring a problem to me. I don’t like feeling any of those things. Plus, there are times that I don’t necessarily have an answer or solution. So, here’s what I’ve started doing in an effort to avoid those unwanted feelings. For the last several weeks when problems are brought to my attention, I’ve begun to communicate something like this. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I see the issue you are raising. Can we work together to figure out how to problem solve this?” Or even “Hmm. That is a problem, lets see if we can problem solve this together.” That has seemed to work! Not only does it validate the problem, but it also encourages collegiality and collaboration to work it out. It has helped to alleviate some of the stress I was feeling to have to be the “fixer”. Carrying the “weight” all by myself. This way it isn’t all on me to resolve, others can contribute, and it builds a sense of community when we all work together. In one particular case, as I am mentoring a young, new employee, it also helps this person to build their confidence, learn to assert themselves more and grow professionally. I like helping others develop their potential.

My encouragement for this next month as we begin preparing for a new school year, attending professional development sessions, and thinking through schedules, and plans for back to school, that as problems arise, and they will, that we don’t let them take us down. Let’s take them piece by piece, working together with those around you to solve the puzzle. Think about how beautiful it can be as it all comes together.  

Making Lemonade

As a young child I frequently got earaches. Often during the summer months, it was swimmer’s ear since I lived in the pool in our neighborhood. I vividly remember one day sitting on the back patio after a day of swimming, drinking lemonade. Each time I would swallow my ear would pop and ached. In my young mind, I equated lemonade with earaches. For YEARS, after that when people would ask me if I wanted lemonade, I would tell them “no” saying I was allergic to it and that it gave me ear infections. People would give me a strange look, but it didn’t really register to me because I was convinced lemonade=earaches. As embarrassing as it is to admit this, it wasn’t until much later, like into my young adulthood, that I realized the ridiculousness of that belief and have enjoyed lemonade since pain free. And in fact, its’s one of my favorite drinks, I crave it, especially on warm summer days (and with or without blueberry flavored vodka depending on my venue and company).

Perhaps because of my love of lemonade, I find myself frequently using the saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” (in all honesty, I actually just use the simplified version saying “make lemonade”). There have been numerous opportunities in the last year for us to “make lemonade”. Obviously, the pandemic comes to mind first. Especially those of us working in and around the field of education have had to be flexible, roll with the punches and make the most of each situation as it presents itself.

To say we have had to make lemonade over the last year plus is an understatement. I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t had some type of challenge to overcome during these unprecedented times. It could have presented itself professionally, adapting to remote learning, addressing the increasing mental health and academic needs of students, and/or attending to their own emotional needs. Or perhaps there were personal life needs; physical health challenges or fears, financial difficulties, and uncertainty and/or social isolation. Or like most of us, it was some of both!

On that note, I’ve had plenty of chances to make lemonade in various situations. Recently, I planned a once in a lifetime experience that ended up completely different than what I had initially intended. When I first realized things were playing out differently, I felt irritated and grumpy. I had a mini internal temper tantrum (which means I just get quiet). After several walks, some journaling, shedding tears and processing with my tribe, I was able to come to a place of acceptance and resolve. I allowed myself to feel my feelings and then remembered my commitment to Living S.L.O.W. and that the “W” is about waiting and watching. Which for me means, trusting the universe has everything under control and works things out for the good. So, I changed my expectations and decided I was going to make lemonade. Ultimately, the end result was great! Things did work out the way they were supposed to and looking back it was better! Funny how that goes, right?

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a project recently that provided school administrators a space to talk about their resilience through these times. My colleagues and I convened several focus groups of school leaders across the state asking them to identify the things that went well since the pandemic and social justice occurrences. It would be so easy (almost default mode) to only talk about all the difficulties and challenges, but we intentionally wanted to look at the bright side and ways they were proactive. It was uplifting and inspiring to hear and learn from them, their humility, intentionality, and determination. I’m excited to share the reoccurring themes publicly. It was impressive.

As we revel in some down time during the summer break, my hope is that we continue to build the resilience muscle we’ve been conditioning for the last 16+ months. That we hold onto the good that we’ve created, remember there are silver linings, look for them and celebrate them. Even in hard times, there is good. It may not be immediately obvious but in time it will become clear, and chances are we will be better off! So, kick back friends, and enjoy your fresh made lemonade this summer (with or without vodka)! 

Reflections

June is one of my favorite months of the year for a couple of reasons. First of all, to me, it represents the first month of summer. I remember as a young child relishing the end of the school year. I loved waking up excited for no homework and for freedom to be outside, playing, swimming, and staying up late. I still cherish the longer days this season brings, as well as being out in the sunshine (free from bundling up in coats, gloves, hats) and the slower pace that typically comes with summer.

Secondly, June is a favorite because it’s my birthday month. I love birthdays! I love acknowledging others’ birthdays (I think I talked about that in a previous blog) and I love celebrating mine. Not because of potential gifts; that’s not necessarily my “thing”. I don’t need pomp and circumstance from others (simple acknowledgments suffice for me), but I like knowing I’m progressing in my life, growing in wisdom and experience. I look forward to the days ahead knowing good things lie in wait (and also know challenges will come too). This year happens to be a milestone birthday for me. I start a new decade and am so excited about what the future holds.

Typically, the weeks leading up to my birthday are reflective for me. This year that has been even more of the case as there are circumstances impacting my immediate family and my extended family that provide even more fodder to ponder (oh?! I like those words together!?) During this time, I think about where I’ve been and where I’m going. What are lessons learned? Who and what are the influencers in my life?  I think this time of year can also be reflective for educators as they wind down a school year. It can be a great opportunity to consider what went well and where there are opportunities for growth. With each new year there are changes to be better versions of ourselves. Isn’t that exciting?!

I thought it may be beneficial to share some of the realizations I’ve been contemplating recently. Perhaps some of them with resonate with you. Here are some of my reflections.

  1. Relationships serve a purpose. Sometimes connections with others can be for just a season or a reason. Not all relationships are life-long and that’s ok. I am fortunate to have several life-long friendships, ones I have chosen to maintain. There is a history and comradery there that is invaluable. They bring stability, familiarity, and longevity (kind of like a base camp). There are other relationships that come and go. Perhaps they were temporary to teach a brief lesson or to bring reprieve or an awareness of a need and then they depart after they’ve done their job. And then of course there are relationships that fall in between and are on a continuum. Each of these contribute to who we are and who we become. Even if there is pain involved as they come to an end, it can all be for good. Acknowledge them, celebrate them, embrace the good in them, learn from them and keep on giving your heart.
  2. Pick your battles. As I get older, I’m becoming more discerning about how to spend my energy. In my younger years, especially as a social worker I wanted to fight every fight (maybe I should even say win every fight?)  I also inserted myself in situations around me even if it only involved me indirectly. I got into “everyone’s business”, invited or not. That can be welcomed by some, who perhaps are happy to defer to others to intercede (it can also be annoying too). But either way it was exhausting. I’m learning now to stay in my lane and let others handle their business (see previous blogs on that too).  I’m happy to help as needed and as I am able. I’m wondering if there are boundaries you can set too to save your energy. It’s hard to do at times, but the payoff is worth it.
  3. Kindness matters. Remember the saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” I’m seeing that over and over, in our society. Social media, media in general, conversations overheard in public places, things are negative. It can be demoralizing. I’m intentionally trying to find good in situations. Sending “thinking of you” texts when people cross my mind. Putting positive energy out into the world is needed now more than ever before. AND I am convinced it comes back to serve you/me when we do that. I’m also realizing that being nice pays off in the long run. Over the years I’ve been careful in many situations to not burn bridges and several recent interactions have benefited me professionally and personally as a result. Who can’t use that?

I look forward to celebrating life with friends and family in the coming weeks. Embarking on a new journey in a new decade with uncharted territory ahead. I hope, whether you celebrate a birthday in one of the best months (June) or not, that this is a time off away from school and all its pressures that you can also reflect on life’s lessons and all your future has to offer as well. Enjoy!

It’s Not Your Job

Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I was able to finally go and visit my father. It was great to talk with him in person vs behind a screen or window and to actually touch and hug him. It did my heart so good. He told me a story about a woman he’s befriended at the residence where he lives. This particular lady is currently in a wheelchair. My dad took it upon himself to help wheel her down to dinner over the last couple of weeks (now that they can leave their rooms and gather in the dining room in a scaled back manner). He said that he thought it was the nice thing to do, go to her room before dinner and help her make her way. He was going out of his way to be friendly and assist. However, he shared that he was told by the medical staff that although they appreciated his gesture, that his assistance was preventing the woman from building up her strength and ability to manage on her own. Her need for a wheelchair was intended to be temporary and they wanted her to push herself (literally and physically) to help her progress and get back on her feet. Dad said “I had no idea that my helping her was actually potentially hurting her. So, I’m walking with her but not pushing her.” His story resonated with me.

How many times do we see a need and jump right in to help meet it? I know I’m guilty of that. My daughter just said to me this week, “I don’t need you to try to fix the situation, mom. Just agree with me that it’s hard.” Friends, she was right. It is in my nature, especially with my children (who are adults) to want to find the solution and protect them. I think many of us can relate, especially those of us who are educators or work in some type of helping profession. We can establish a reputation that we are “on call” and at the ready to lend a helping hand, even if one isn’t needed or beneficial to the recipient.

Please hear me correctly, that I’m not saying we don’t ever volunteer to help someone in need, especially a younger someone who depends on us. I’m also not saying that we don’t offer a supportive shoulder or a listening ear. We can be there for others without taking on their circumstance. What I am saying is for us to be more deliberate and discerning before making that move. In my Living S.L.O.W. professional development sessions, I talk about being intentional in our offers to help others. I call it the Caregivers Curse and have blogged on that subject before. If we are too quick to jump in to rescue or save, we may be unintentionally preventing that person (or persons) the opportunity to learn and grow from their situation. I’ll use a simple example to illustrate this point. Consider, if I always did my children’s laundry as they matured, they would never learn to do it themselves. And then they would continue to depend on me to do it, and/or eventually their life partners, should they find them and/or find ones who are willing to do their laundry for them. Laundry is a necessary (but evil) reality of life. A skill they need to (and for the record, do) possess. Plus, if they do their own laundry, that means I don’t have to, and I can use that time doing something else. It saves me time and energy to focus elsewhere.

It can be the same thing with our students, or coworkers, or even our own friends and family. As hard as it may be to see those we care about struggling, sometimes, it is just what they may need to learn and grow to become their own best self. Reflect on your own experiences with difficult times. Think about ways they made you stronger, more resilient, more self-assured in the end. You came through those challenges, perhaps a little bruised and battered, but you are arguably better off. We should want to provide those same learning opportunities for others. Maybe we offer our lessons learned to help people avoid some of the same mistakes. And we can provide words of reassurance, comfort, or encouragement, but it’s impossible to protect everyone from every hurtful scenario. And it’s not our job. We each have our own responsibility to “fix”, care, and nurture ourselves. Use your energy to fill your cup, to ensure you are healthy and well. Walk along side of your friend but don’t push them, especially if they need to learn to walk on their own again. Give them the time and space to get back on their feet, while you work to stay on yours. In time, with kindness, patience and support we can all walk together again in strength.

You Are Not Alone

I struggled with what to write about for this month’s blog. I had several different ideas swarming around in my head, do I talk about the importance of taking things step by step and not getting too ahead of ourselves? Or perhaps I share about new beginnings considering the start of spring? I even had a zooming thought at one point that maybe I would just skip this month and claim a need for “self-care” and not write one, HA! BUT then I saw this quote on social media, “The cure for burnout isn’t and can’t be self-care. It has to be all of us caring for each other” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski and I knew what I was going to write about. Truthfully, at first pass I did not like the quote. And I’m not sure I completely agree with it, although I don’t know the context in which it was used, but in my opinion, I would modify it a little to say that “the cure for burnout isn’t and can’t ONLY be about self-care. It has to include all of us caring for each other”. In this last month, I’ve recognized even more the importance of “my village”. Not only has this past month reinforced my commitment to self-care it also highlighted that I can’t do it on my own. I need the love, involvement, assistance, and care of my support system.

I have begun to notice patterns of ebbs and flows with my work schedule over the last couple of years. October and March typically tend to be unusually busy months for me for whatever reason. Historically, I’ve traveled a lot in those months, presenting at conferences and conducting professional development sessions. This past month was no different, minus the travel. I zoomed presentations and trainings on mental health and self-care, facilitated meetings and even helped launch a statewide Social Emotional Learning (SEL) campaign, among other professional responsibilities. It was a busy month. And like I frequently say, “meanwhile back at the ranch” there were things brewing on the home front as well. Isn’t that often the case, when things pile up, they really pile up? You would like to think that if work life is busy then home life relaxes, and maybe that does happen periodically, but not this past March.

Additionally, behind the scenes, my family experienced a traumatic situation, that I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say it took (is taking) a toll on us, emotionally and physically. Like the saying goes, “when it rains, it pours.” We are continuing to work our way through the storm here, step by step, but it re-emphasized for me the importance of “my village.” As intentional as I was throughout the last several weeks to build in time for self-care (walks, naps, funny movies, a massage, time out with friends) I realized, like Emily and Amelia stated, that I also needed care from others. I had to humble myself and say “I need help. I can’t do this alone.” It was hard to admit that, as someone who by nature, likes to have everything under (my) control. But it was also freeing, to not feel the pressure to do it all by myself AND to have the reassurance that when I call in the cavalry, they come. They show up! How amazing is that! And ya know what, the opposite is also true. I would show up for them! (and have and will again in the future, I’m sure). That’s what we do for one another. We have each other’s backs. I imagine you can immediately think of a handful of folks that are in your village, who would do the same for you and vice versa. That my friends, is self-care. Knowing when you need the support, and then asking for it! That is taking care of you!

I have a couple self-care presentations on the horizon for April (and then some in May and June-the need is so great for these sessions, especially right now!) As I met with my clients to plan and prepare for these events, we talked about possible accommodations in light of doing them virtually. When I do these trainings in person (man do I miss those!) I do a “pair/share” activity where people practice saying what they need to their shoulder neighbor. One idea was to randomly pair attendees up and have them meet in a virtual breakout room to do that activity. Interestingly enough however, the feedback was that people would not feel comfortable with that set up. They would not be ok to just meet up with any random coworker/staff member from their building to share a personal need. I understand the hesitation to be vulnerable like that, so we scratched that plan. But it made me think, it shouldn’t be that way. Expressing your needs shouldn’t feel that vulnerable. We should feel safe to communicate that to anyone, it should be the norm. Self-care is about all of us doing our part to take care of ourselves AND one another.

Find those who are part of your village, who show up for you. Remember you are not alone!

Good For You

I recently attended a True Colors© workshop. I believe that was my third time hearing about True Colors©. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a workshop that looks at different personality types, based on colors. Similar to a Meyers Briggs. I love the conversations and realizations that come with figuring out “your color(s)”. It opens up dialogue and increases understanding about why you, or any particular person responds the way they do, based on their color scheme. Without going into it too much, there are four colors; Gold, Green, Blue and Orange. Each color represents how someone thinks and responds in certain situations. I am very clearly a Gold, especially at work. In short, Golds are structured. We like everything to be in order, notoriously make lists and are focused on checking things off those lists. As a Gold, I am drawn to other Golds. We find value in comparing notes on all of our accomplishments. It would go something like “I was able to get 8 of the 10 things checked off my list today, plus order groceries, start laundry, make dinner,….” To me, how much I’ve been able to do in a day has historically boosted my self-esteem and validated my self-worth. It has also historically made me exhausted, short-tempered, grumpy and no fun!

Recently, several of my co-workers (a couple of whom also happen to be Golds) experienced some challenging life situations (a COVID diagnosis along with their whole family, a negative reaction to the COVID vaccine, significant family health issues, etc). With each circumstance we were able to support one another. We covered for one another, stood in the work gap. We freely gave permission to miss meetings/extend deadlines so they could focus on family or their own well-being. We encouraged stepping away and reprioritizing. There was grace and flexibility. There was no judgment or condemnation or devaluing them as a person or colleague. It made me wonder then why I (we?) can be so quick to do that to ourselves. It seems so natural to give grace to others but then neglect to extend that same quality to ourselves.

The same can be said for taking time off work. I’ve noticed how congratulatory we are for others who go on vacation. We can be quick to say, “Good for you!” “You deserve that time away!” “Enjoy your break!” but then hesitate to allow ourselves a hard-earned reprieve. (Although in all fairness, it is difficult to take time away during the school year, with a shortage of substitutes and with some already established built-in breaks.) However, my point is we often show support and flexibility to others more than we give that to ourselves.

The unstated yet expected work culture across the country in many fields, including education, seems to be one of “don’t stop till you drop”. How many extra hours you stayed after school, or didn’t sleep, or worked on the weekend to grade papers and prepare for the next day’s lessons becomes a status symbol. There is almost a competitive edge to it. “I only slept 4 hours last night getting ready for this new math unit, what about you?” “I worked all weekend to get the finals graded, I couldn’t even spend time with my family.” The fact that this is accepted, celebrated (and in some cases required?!) is not ok. And like I shared above, I’ve been there myself.

My hope is that we can begin to shift our mindsets around our priorities, not just individually but within the educational system and perhaps even eventually as a culture, and learn to stick to our values,(which is the “S” is S.L.O.W.) In every self-care training I conduct (and I’ve been doing quite a few of them lately, for obvious reasons), we talk about values and without fail, every.single.time. “health” and “family” are some of the first ones shared. Granted for the Golds of the world, hard-work and the sense of accomplishment are also highly valued, but so are our health and family. If we could collectively attempt to start reinforcing decisions with one another and personally, to not stay late at work, to enjoy downtime over the weekend, to praise full nights of sleep, perhaps we can move towards genuine expressions of “Good for You” not just for others but for ourselves. (which is arguably more important).  

Shouldn’t Have To Be Like This

I was able to attend (read: stream) a two-day Teacher Self-Care conference in mid-January. Communications from the conference planner indicated that hundreds of educators had registered. In some of the breakout sessions I attended, there was representation from around the world, like India, Canada, Germany, and then of course others from all across the United States. The various presenters shared openly and honestly from their lives, offering their classroom experience over many years. It was inspiring to hear their stories of how they’ve overcome the stress and exhaustion associated with the education profession. Many of them have started blogs or podcasts to impart their “lessons learned” or “tips and tricks” to those like them. You could sense the camaraderie and desire to support themselves and one another, while also being dedicated to their chosen career of educating future generations.

However, throughout the presentations, I was acutely aware that as several speakers shared their stories there was a recurring theme. These few educators had to go through extremely challenging health complications before they began to really focus on their own self-care. Two of them mentioned being required to take doctor ordered medical leaves. A couple others talked about having no other choice but to leave the profession they LOVED, in order to protect their health and well-being.

As the conference concluded, I logged off feeling many different emotions. Besides feeling inspired and impressed by the focus on self-care, I was further motivated to continue my endeavor to support educators and their well-being. I walked away contemplative, thinking “Why does it have to be so hard? Why does being a teacher have to be so stressful? It shouldn’t be like this”. Someone shouldn’t have to have a near-death experience or require a leave of absence to feel the freedom to focus on their health. I can understand someone who is on a battlefield every day, but classrooms and schools shouldn’t be war zones. They should be safe havens, places of support, inclusion and positivity.

I am aware that these monthly blogs won’t change the education system (wouldn’t it be nice if that was all it took?!). I am clear that there is much work and reform to be done to ensure our learning environments are all they need to be for staff and students alike. But I have hope that my blogs and dedication to elevate this issue, along with many other peoples’ work around this topic too, can at least begin to create a small shift.

We have to realize our worth, not just what we contribute in a classroom or work setting but who we are as people. There may be occasions when those around us attempt to undermine our values, question our integrity, overstep our boundaries, and/or misinterpret our intentions. That can be painful and distracting from the good we seek to enact. Perhaps an administrator doesn’t recognize the extra effort required teaching virtually or in a hybrid setting. (I imagine that administrator is overworked as well). That weighs heavily. Furthermore, chances are high that you have some students who are not as engaged this school year and you worry about them. That weighs heavily too. Then, if you are anything like me, you may be holding yourself to an extremely high expectation of performance that is probably not realistic for our current circumstances (or even during “normal” times). That’s an extra burden! It is important to resist the negative effect any one or combination of those things can have, remembering who you are, that you matter, your health matters.

How can we continue to rise above the fray and prioritize ourselves? I think it’s three quick things; know your truth, stick to it and surround yourself with supporters. Remember who you are and what you stand for. Hold on to those values. Be empowered to protect and provide for yourself. Then identify who in your life are the truth tellers, but also your cheerleaders? These are the people that not only have your back, but they have your heart. They can be honest with you while also encouraging you simultaneously. We all need people who can offer us both things, opportunities to better ourselves along with the recognition of the good we bring to the world.  I’m not sure if the conference presenters had people in their lives asking them to step back, to take care of themselves and they just didn’t heed the warnings. But what I am sure about is I am asking that of you (and me). Let’s remember our value and take care of ourselves. Like a dear colleague of mine says, “We are doing our pandemic best”.