Schools and school systems must provide the space necessary for educators to take care of themselves — or risk losing them.
I was frozen. This first grader who I had just laid eyes on 2 minutes earlier was now barreling toward me trying to get out of the room. I was an obstacle, standing between him and the door. He was angry and crying, screaming things that I did not understand. All I saw was his head flying toward my abdomen. I couldn’t move and I didn’t know how to stop it from happening.
The hit hurt, really hurt and I moved my hand from the door knob to hold the ache. He moved around me and grabbed hold of the door knob. I got my hand back just in time and pried his small hands away. I looked at him, his tiny face was red and the tears had made streaks on his face. When he walked away from me and the door, I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that he would answer my prayer for him to sit down while we waited for the school Social Worker to arrive.
I checked my phone to see if I had received a text message
with an estimated time of arrival. Nothing. I turned up the walkie talkie to make sure that I wouldn’t miss her calling me there. When I turned my attention back to him, he was running atop the tables, jumping the 2 feet distance between them and then over to the heating unit under the windows. He was no longer screaming and his crying had stopped.
Although he heard me ask him calmly to get down from the tables and sit down, he paid no attention to me. He was talking to the stuffed animal that he had under his arm about the day being the 1 year anniversary of his father being killed in front of him. He told “Chucky” that he would protect him, and that he “wouldn’t die like Daddy.”
I left school that day traumatized. In 15 years in education, I had never experienced that kind of scenario; I have had never been hit, had never heard such prolonged screaming and crying and had never seen that end so abruptly. Never in my 15 years in education had I felt so powerless, so small and so confused. It was my second day at the school and I wanted to leave. I am scarred by that experience and the many more that followed with other students. I have been kicked, hit, and spit on. I have been yelled at and called “ugly, fat bitch.” I have had my patience and my purpose tested in many ways. I have questioned daily whether I have the skill, temperament or the capacity to love my students the way they need it.
Fortunately on that day, I rode to and from school with my mother, also an educator. Whenever we had that time together, we would debrief the day, commiserate with and console each other. We would make sure that before going into our respective buildings that we felt strong and capable enough to try again another day. Outside of each other, there was no help, no guidance and no support; except for that one time my supervisor suggested that I take a walk around the block and reminded me that such is the life of someone working in schools.
Because of this experience, I have wondered often where educators do educators go to discuss how vulnerable we really are without the prying eyes of voyeurs or people who fetishize our work? Where can educators learn how to take care of ourselves while simultaneously being responsible for taking care of others? Where can we pay attention to the ever-elusive value of self-care?
Acts of Self-care are the intentional actions one performs to heal and maintain optimal health by meeting physical, emotional, spiritual or mental health needs. Self-care is important for everyone and in particular for those who work with students. What happens in the families and communities of students show up to school with them every day—the good, bad and the ugly. The trauma that our students endure in their personal lives can take a tremendous toll on the educators responsible for teaching them. Consequently, teachers need dedicated space to talk about those experiences, to take care of ourselves and each other more intentionally.
Schools and school systems should play a role in providing the space necessary for educators to take care of ourselves. It is crucial for schools to institutionalize the precepts of self-care into school culture through the professional development embedded into the school year. In between workshops on portfolio development and Common Core math standards, our schools must be responsible for fostering spaces for self-care and healing within the school and during the school day.
- Morning meeting meditation?
- Lunch time yoga?
- After-school massages with a workshop on mindfulness?
Our professional learning communities must transform into personal learning communities that incorporate strategies for self-care and offering a respectful caring space to nurture us. Ultimately, time spent in the personal learning communities can foster the types of healthy practices and relationships that we need to better serve our students and stay longer in the profession.
If we don’t start taking care of ourselves, how can we take care of our students? If we don’t start taking care ourselves, how many of us will have the energy and stamina to remain in the field? It is time for a radical reconceptualization of the professional development that we offer to educators. We must include the kind of personal development that makes us take better care of ourselves and thus be better caregivers of our students.
Eventually, the school social worker arrived and that student got the help and support that he needed in order to have a better day. We need to take the concept of educator self-care seriously enough to ensure that educators can have better days too.
Photo credit: Flickr/Chicago 2016