Dear educator, you are not a martyr. Martyrs die. We need you alive, so knock it off.
I used to be a martyr. I was secretly prideful whenever my car was the last one in the teacher parking lot. I sighed whenever I “had to” go to another meeting of a committee that I had volunteered to join, but I kept volunteering anyway. I took pictures of the piles of essays I had to grade and posted them online, gloat-complaining the whole time. I see you, friends. I love you. There’s another way.
In my heart, I was glad to have found such a noble profession to drown in. Yes, I was sleep deprived, malnourished and perpetually running on fumes, but it was my identity. My students were everything. When I went out on weekends (and some weekdays), it was to blow off nervous energy. I either bored my friends with teacher stories or I didn’t talk about myself at all. I was a little lost.
Halfway through my fourth year, I fainted in a movie theater. It was the climax of a vampire movie and I saw some blood and the next thing I knew, I was waking up, drenched in a cold sweat and the movie was ending. I was an otherwise healthy 30-year-old, which I verified the next week with a doctor. The other two times I had fainted in the past were at the end of my second week of college and at the end of my semester of full-time student teaching. This was a habit, it seemed. I deduced that this was a stress faint, not a vampire faint.
I went home, lay on my couch, had some deep conversations with my inner-sanctum friends, and assessed my life. My habits were not sustainable.
Many pieces have been written about educators and self-care. Drink water, get enough sleep, find a meditation practice, exercise, eat your veggies, etc. What these lists lack is this: You have to WANT to be relaxed and healthy. Our society, especially the part of society that most of us hang out in, values going above and beyond. Working two jobs to support your teaching habit. Doing “whatever it takes” to help students graduate, at the expense of your family and health. Don’t believe the hype.
A relaxed teacher can take a step back from student drama and be proactive instead of reactive. A healthy librarian’s mind is more nimble and creative. A balanced counselor uses energy efficiently. A centered administrator focuses the whole school.
Fainting during that vampire movie helped me hit reset. I started going to acupuncture, instituted a much stricter TBT (Teacher Bedtime, before there were hashtags) regime, stopped sitting down before dinner (because it always led to naps, which ruined me for TBT) and started exercising instead, and started choosing quiet nights with books over loud nights in bars, at least every once in a while. My New Year’s resolution that year was to stop working more than 50 hours per week. I actually started counting my hours, which taught me to work more efficiently.
Basically, I began believing that self-care is not just a nice optional extra-curricular diversion. It’s a pre-requisite for becoming a better teacher.
It’s not like you can choose to be relaxed and then BAM! Zen forevs. I still get really stressed out. I worked 60-hour-weeks for most of last year (because I was in a new school teaching 1.5 new AP courses, and everything just took too long, but that’s another story). My car was the last one in the teacher parking lot on several occasions, but this just pissed me off. There was no pride involved. Every time it happened, I thought, “Next year will be better.”
Stressing out about finding balance is counter-productive, though, which is another seemingly obvious thing I had to learn. The point is not to Be The Best At Balancing, the point is to be the best teacher you can be, full stop. If skipping that protest or street vigil so you can sit on your couch under a blanket while sipping tea is going to make you a better teacher, please skip the protest or street vigil (while keeping in mind that sometimes going to the protest or street vigil WILL make you a better teacher). Get real quiet and listen to yourself before you make that decision. You’ll know what you need to do.
My motivation is different than it used to be. I used to want to save the world. I never would have said that out loud, but it’s the truth. “Saving the world” is too vague, though, and too full of self-grandeur. My goals are more pedestrian and immediate now.
I want to stick with this career. I want to spark joy and curiosity and to cultivate confidence and critical thinking. I want to have the energy to be as compassionate and empathetic as my students deserve. I want to ask them questions that will roll around in their heads forever. As a world history teacher, I want to show my young historians how to hunt down all kinds of answers, concrete and metaphysical, to thoughtfully evaluate the information they find, and then to keep on hunting. I want my lessons to feel fresh and authentic, and I want to keep learning, because learning is awesome. You know that. That’s why you and I are educators. I can’t do any of these things very well when my mind and body are in survival mode, and neither can you.
Valuing your own relaxation feels selfish in a land of martyrs that’s in the middle of a world on fire. I know. But educator, we need you. Please don’t throw yourself on that fire.