Featured image by Paru Ramesh
Tomorrow is World Mental Health Day. As I reflect today on what this day means to me, professionally and personally, I am reminded of the old adage “do as I say, not as I do.” I teach second grade, so my students are generally seven- or eight-years-old. Schooling has never looked more different than it does right now. We went from cautioning against too much screen time to educators and students spending hours a day on devices.
Many parents are working from home while also trying to monitor their child’s engagement with their school work. Some parents–disproportionately women–have outright dropped out of the workforce to assume the role of family caregiver. Worries abound about assuring kids don’t “fall behind” academically. There are also loud cries for educators to assign work to keep kids busy when they are not in their virtual classrooms so that adults can focus on work and/or tend to other crucial responsibilities. As a result, children have been thrust into a dimension demanding from them a great deal of self-management, academic rigor, and work productivity. Kids are keenly aware of this and are feeling this pressure. I see it and hear about it from my students every day.
Of course, kids are expected to take ownership over their responsibilities at school and to achieve to high standards under “normal” conditions. But even then, recess and other play opportunities are built into their days. And when they are working, it is usually in an environment where their friends are too, which benefits them socially. Right now they can’t be with their friends and unless play breaks fit into their caregivers’ schedules, that time is not guaranteed either.
I too find myself having to work more and harder, expending energy at rates much higher than ever before. When I am not teaching virtually, I am constantly in meetings about virtual learning or meetings about the prospects of hybrid and in-person learning. I have very little time for deep work or high-level planning. Thank goodness I am in my tenth year of teaching and have a decade’s worth of work experience to tap into! When I am not teaching or in a meeting, I am raising my own children and paying mind to the responsibilities required to maintain a household.
I found myself this week telling my students about the importance of self-care, while I was in fact doing the exact opposite. I was aware of my hypocrisy, but I felt comfortable hiding behind the teacher facade. I rationalized the discrepancy by thinking, well…they can’t see that I am secretly starting my work days earlier and earlier before class starts, working through my lunch times, and sometimes returning to work in the evenings because that all takes place off-screen.
Last night, I hit a bottom. I realized that only dregs were left in my “cup,” and the week wasn’t even at a close. Whether my students could see it or not, I was coming up short and desperately needed to take my own advice. It felt disingenuous to promote values that I had lost touch with. And I wasn’t exactly in the best position to judge whether my stress and overwhelm had been showing up on screen or not. All signs point towards yes, they likely were even if in subtle or small ways. They deserve better. My family deserves better. I deserve better.
So with the undying support of my wife, I scrapped the work I told myself I was going to resume at 8pm and instead practiced radical self-care by way of a hot shower, aromatherapy, a relaxing back rub, and a good book. This morning, I kicked the school day off with a classroom dance party (as Fridays in my classroom always do), and assigned a creative “maker” challenge.
I later talked with my class about the significance of World Mental Health Day. After our discussion, I dismissed them for 30 minutes with the assignment to practice self-care. I suggested having their own personal dance parties, laying down, making art, playing with toys or outside if possible, reading, or doing anything that felt joyful. I told them that if their parents asked what they were doing, to respond “my assignment right now is self-care.” I assured them they could tell their parents to email me if they were at all skeptical and I’d back them up. They returned rejuvenated and engaged. One student reported, “I want to do that more. I want to take care of myself. I ate blueberries outside for my self-care and I loved that.” I promised to build more self-care assignments into our weekly schedule and to continue to help them develop healthy work habits.
I am, right now, doing something I enjoy: writing. I am sitting outside on my porch with the late-summer sun blanketing me to a temperature that is just right. Every so often, I close my eyes as an early-fall breeze brushes my face. I feel calm, relaxed, and honest. Sometimes self-care is easier to practice than other times. I accept that. And I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”