Concluding the Teacher Wellness Series: Moving Forward with Wellness

Last week I introduced the tenth practice in our Spring 2020 Teacher Wellness Blog Series. As we wrap up this series, let’s take a look at the benefits of continuing to prioritize your wellness, ways to do so, and keys to success.

Filling the Wellness Tank

You may already have the healthy habit of carving out time for wellness. If so, I applaud you. But if – like so many of us educators – your well-being takes the back seat to others’ needs, please take note: We face a long road ahead, filled with blind curves and confusing signage. To safely drive your busload of students and other assorted humans down that road, you need to be at your best – alert and resourceful, friendly and compassionate, limit-setting yet flexible. And that requires filling your own wellness tank.

That may seem out of reach, given what’s already facing you: continuing to process and respond wisely to tumultuous times, getting to all the tasks you didn’t have the bandwidth for this crazy spring, planning for the uncertain fall, and, for many, serving as camp counselor for offspring at loose ends.

But remember (if you’ve memorized the tune, feel free to sing along): attending to your well-being isn’t only in the service of others. It is also in the service of you, living this, your one short chance at life on this planet.

So it’s important – no, it’s imperative – that you continue to prioritize your own well-being.

Choosing a Destination

You can support your wellness and personal growth in meaningful ways without a major time investment. As you know from teaching, a little up-front planning can leverage a lot of learning. How far ahead do you want to set your sights?

One reasonable way to frame your wellness journey might be to think about what you want to do this summer to be ready to teach in the fall––ready not just logistically but also in terms of established self-care habits. You might take a few minutes to journal or reflect on questions such as the following. These are intended as different (and in some cases overlapping) pathways to setting a meaningful and engaging goal, so I encourage you to look them over and pick the ones that appeal to you.

And for every answer you give, it’s worth following up by asking and answering that vital question we regularly pose to our students: Why?

  • Which of the ten practices featured in this wellness series did you connect with the most and suspect you’d benefit from continuing to do? Or maybe there were some you didn’t have time to try but would like to, or perhaps you’ve read or heard about other practices that strike a chord.
  • What is an area that, if you were to get even a little traction with it, would be a big step for you? Sleep, exercise, eating habits, organization, perfectionism … we all have trouble spots that seem to get more intractable the more we shy away from them. Tackling an area that’s been stagnant, if done wisely (see “Remembering Your Keys to Success” below) can have enormous benefit.
  • What is a natural strength of yours that you want to do even more of? Finding humor in dark corners? Connecting with strangers? Creative expression? By celebrating and amplifying your true nature, you’ll enjoy yourself more and that will make everything feel more manageable. Your joy and skill will also work its way into the rest of your life in mysterious ways. Continuing to engage in and develop what you truly love will ensure that you contribute your own irreplaceable essence to the rest of us humans, rather than living in a stuffy box of shoulds. We need you to be you, full out!
  • Who inspires you? Malala Yousafzei? Father Greg Boyle? Ta-Nehisi Coates? Tig Notaro? Your team colleague? Your mom? What is one thing about that person that you’d like to embody more?
  • Think back to a time when you felt especially alive and in tune with yourself and the world. Were you 5 years old? 25? Visualize what you were doing and the setting. Maybe you were in a beautiful place feeling a sense of wonder, or dancing your heart out, or holding a newborn. Can you picture a bite-sized practice that would bring the flavor of that experience into your life now?
  • What is something you want to practice saying no to? Overwork? Cleaning up after people? Tolerating insensitive comments from others, directed at you or at a societal group?
  • What is something you want to practice saying yes to? More time simply sitting with a cup of tea? More phone calls with friends while walking in the neighborhood? More social justice engagement?

Once you’ve identified a goal, it’s important to make a plan that’s realistic.

Remembering Your Keys to Success

A lesson study on this wellness series would quickly reveal that embedded in the blogs are keys to success when developing and/or using a self-development practice. Here, I’d like to foreground those and add a couple other tried-and-true tips.

Set modest goals. If small is beautiful, tiny is downright gorgeous. That’s why the ten practices are designed to be done in a few minutes a day. One of the biggest ways we get in the way of our own wellness path is to expect too much out of ourselves too soon. Then, just like our students when pushed too fast too soon, we give up or find ways to sabotage our own worthy goals. Conversely, starting modest helps ensure you’ll be able to stick with your goal. As you do so – again, just like our students – you’ll develop your capacity and find that over time you’re eager and able to do more.

In some cases, it’s possible to meaningfully engage in a practice while doing something else on your list, like turning a simple household task into a mindfulness practice. The benefit is that it adds zero time to your day. But be careful here. Most forms of multitasking actually deplete us and water down the effectiveness of our efforts, so if you plan to layer, do so thoughtfully.

Routines work well. Our students do their best learning when they can rely on stable routines and reliable structures. Just so with adult learning. Doing a short practice at the same time each day helps ensure that you’ll stick to it. If you’re inventing your own practice, you might want to jot down the materials, preparation, and steps involved, post this guidance in a convenient place, and review it the first few times you do the activity. (See the practices featured in the wellness series to refresh yourself on variables to consider.)

Stay true to your highest self. Sometimes it can be hard to determine what counts as wellness and what doesn’t. Is more online shopping or binge watching or snacking at 3am really a wellness activity? On the other hand, engaging in a concrete antiracism activity is wellness, just as racism is a sickness that depletes and deranges both the individual and the larger society.

A clue to whether something counts as wellness is to ask: Does it make me feel more alive and authentic? More connected to myself and others? If it does, chances are it’s wellness.

Of course, it’s still all about balance. Running yourself ragged in any direction is not wellness. And learning balance is, for most of us, including me, a lifelong series of adjustments and experiments as we gradually refine our capacity to operate with self-kindness. See “Do formative assessments” below.

Activate support and accountability. Stating your intention to others who care about your well-being is a great motivator. So is partnering with a wellness buddy (not to mention having a pal makes it all feel more fun). You might share this blog, as well as the rest of the wellness series, with a friend or colleague and support each other in creating and working on your respective plans.

When drumming up buddy candidates, think creatively. Your kid, your dad, or your high school chum who lives across the country might all make great partners.

Practice being comfortable with discomfort. It’s virtually impossible to try new ways of being without feeling squirmy at times. We’re challenging our self-definition and our habits. As you take small steps toward your goal, don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling avoidant. See if you can tune into this sensation. If it had words, they might sound something like: “Eeek! I hate this! I like things just how they are! Change is bad! Change is dangerous! Who knows what will happen! Go get the ice cream tub right now and stop this nonsense!” Think of this sensation and/or voice as a part of you, a part that fears change. Treat it like you would a child who’s terrified of something that you know they need to do. Acknowledge the fear as valid and  make clear you are taking on this wellness practice because you truly believe that doing so is going to help.

Do formative assessments. As a teacher, you know all about those! Check in with yourself periodically––daily, weekly. How is it going? Were you too ambitious? Cut back and monitor the results. Are you ready for more? Up the ante––modestly. Are you ready to shift gears? Revisit the reflection questions above and set a new goal.

Celebrate your growth. At the end of the summer, take stock. How have you grown? What changes, if any, do you notice in your mood, your energy level, your relationships? How will the wellness practices you’ve engaged in help you understand and support your students better as you enter the school year? What practices and mindsets do you want to hold onto even when work ramps up? How can you realistically do so?

Going Further

When I said modest goals are best, especially when starting out, I meant it. That said, at some point you may feel moved to go deeper or further in your self-development journey. There are any number of ways to do that, depending on what calls to you. You might read wellness literature or listen to podcasts; Sounds True features the work of many wonderful authors and teachers. You might wish to work with a coach or therapist, attend an online meditation or yoga class or twelve-step meeting, or avail yourself of offerings connected to your spiritual community. The key is to keep tuning into yourself and asking what feels right at this time. You have a demanding job and we live in demanding times, so stay realistic and kind.

It has been an honor to support you with self-care over the past few months, and I wish you the very best on your wellness journey.