we can’t force wellbeing – but we can choose it

Gabby Stroud’s essay titled: Compulsory Wellbeing. The Choice between burnout and demoralization has got my mind churning. If you asked me four years ago, I would have applauded any school leader who replaced their Monday staff meeting with a compulsory wellbeing workshop, but now I am not so sure. As an advocate for the wellbeing of kaiako (teachers) in New Zealand, I have been hanging out to see solid wellbeing programs rolled out in schools to support the needs of our teachers, but over the years, the reality that we aren’t all cut from the same cloth has dawned on me. Who wants to be told how one must look after themselves and then have this added to that to-do-list that never actually gets any smaller? We can’t force wellbeing on teachers and expect magic to rain down from the sky. We can’t force wellbeing on teachers and expect all the cultural and systemic problems to disappear. No amount of meditation is ever going to make me feel better about having to work more hours than I am actually paid for. It is demoralizing. Just like the time I had to sit through a workshop on differentiation even though, as a primary trained teacher, this was not on my list of professional development needs. 

Meditate – Journal – BreathWork – Self-expression through arts – all valuable tools to help manage the stressors of the job, but where you might like to run to clear your head, and the teacher next door might like to paint purple giraffes for joy, there is not one single wellbeing workshop that will provide a solution to the growing crisis facing our profession – the great exodus of teachers. No amount of forced wellbeing is going to lessen our workload or deal with the abuse teachers receive from parents, students or society. Forced wellbeing workshops won’t stop the teacher down the hall from bullying other staff, or prevent those debilitating panic attacks, they will only add one more box that needs to be ticked. 

We can’t force wellbeing, but we can choose it and we can foster environments that breed it. 

I first wrote about how I was feeling as a teacher several years ago. It was the first time I had actually allowed myself to take a Mental Health Day and call it what it was. Normally I’d hide behind a wall of shame at not being able to cope with my work. I would convince myself I was actually sick and take a day off (yet still continue to work from home), or bury my head deep in the sand and soldier on, even when I felt utterly defeated and like a failure. 

I remember the first day I wrote as if it was yesterday. I remember because it changed the trajectory of my life – I found my purpose; I found my voice – I found my strength. After a trip to the beach where I allowed my shame to melt away, the words just flowed to me. I sat and I wrote, and I cried. Teaching is so f*cking hard. The tornado that was tearing around in my head now sat poetically on my iPhone. Share it, my heart whispered to me. So I did. I shared my writing to a Facebook Group of teachers and then my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. 

Up until this point of my career I believed I was the only teacher in the universe who found the job hard. Egotistical right? Or maybe naive? For years I had hid my pain because I believed it was only showing my failures as a teacher. My occupation –  something I had always believed was my calling – was suffocating me. My purpose, my passion and my drive were slowly drowning, along with my self-respect, my self-worth and my self-esteem. 

Learning I was not alone in these feelings was enough to slap me awake and the ‘poor me’ victim mentality lost its power. This sense of belonging seemed to help me move past the shame of my feelings about who I was as a teacher and my preconceived failings, but it also woke something up in me. Something fierce. Something powerful. I read hundreds of replies on my post. Many commented that I was in their head and articulating their feelings. Yes, this is me. You are literally in my head right now. OMG this is exactly how I feel. 

I was, for the first time, really seeing how broken the culture of education really is, and somehow, overnight, I had turned into an advocate. Fuuuuck. Let me just hide with my shame in the shadows please… This is too much for me. How can I delete this? What will my work think? I am not brave enough for this. But it was too late. My inner child was dancing in ecstasy at the fact I had finally found my voice (I agree, Gabby, teachers are often silenced and it felt bloody good to feel heard!). For thirty-something years I played the role of the Yes Queen and all of a sudden I felt like a rebel and waited to feel the wrath of my actions. 

I looked to school leaders to fix the culture of education but felt deep pain when I was not seeing anything change around the country. I remember talking to school and wellbeing leaders all over NZ and Australia about it while in our first Covid Lockdown, and we all acknowledged just how hard it is to cater for the wellbeing of teachers within a school, because it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. What I need to feel well, will most definitely differ from what you need, so how on earth do we do it? How do we provide an environment where our teachers thrive when we are all so different, including our tolerance to stress?  If we are expected to differentiate within our classrooms there must be an element of differentiation here too. Do school leaders do nothing because it is too hard, or is that forced wellbeing workshop a show of faith from your leaders that they see there is a problem – that they are trying –  but maybe they’re not getting it right yet? I mean, it’s a big puzzle to piece together, but at least it is a start? Do we want school leaders to give the teachers the time to find their ‘wellbeing vice’? Where will we fit this in? Can we take away a meeting or two so we actually have time? Maybe drop that national box ticking assessment or divy out the playground duty roster a little more fairly?  Is this the school’s responsibility, or is it our personal responsibility to look after our wellbeing? If I am finding the job hard, does this mean I am broken? Or, is the education system failing us and making us believe we are unworthy?

I began to call out the Toxic Culture of Education through my blog. OMG you are so brave, they would say, but with every blog post I wrote I felt the fear of the repercussions of using my voice. I was urging the teacher to take care of themselves because no one else was going to. Your wellbeing is not a chore, I would rage – but maybe Ellen at Self-care for Teachers is right – it is a bloody chore. It must be a chore if people are finding it so hard to do; it is hard to meet your true self, sometimes we are scared to see the person who stares back, but this is a necessity if you are ever to truly meet your own needs. You have to know yourself, value yourself and honour yourself, and sometimes this takes learning, or un-learning in my case. How you treat yourself matters, and as Ellen does say, ‘you are a person first and a teacher second,’ and we do have to take some personal responsibility here. We can’t control the policy makers, the number of boxes we have to tick or the irate parents that come screaming into our inbox (or classrooms), but we can control ourselves – our headspace and our heart space, our actions and our reactions, we even have control over our thoughts and our feelings. We can learn how to manage ourselves, and to me, this is how you take care of yourself. We can learn to do what is needed and let go of the rest, including the angst we often feel towards the system. I’m not saying we use Teacher Wellbeing as a Band-Aid for the whole broken system, but at least we are finally seeing that we have teachers struggling under the weight of it all and acknowledging something needs to be done about it. Maybe I am doing exactly what Gabby is talking about and putting all the work back onto the individual teachers, instead of really blaming the system and pushing for change there, but when I put my energy into systemic problems, I unravel and feel extremely powerless. When I fixate on everything that is wrong with the culture of education – including but not limited to: the high workload, over assessed kids, lack of parental engagement, over zealous parents, no time to actually teach, and having to be an expert in LITERALLY EVERYTHING – it triggers me to spiral, and had once even seen me fall victim to compassion fatigue; I had all the signs of burnout but this smashed into me almost overnight. I took all the powerless feelings of the teachers who were connecting with me on Social Media, and wore it all.  I let all the toxicity infect me like a plague. It caused me great angst because I wanted to fix it for them – and for myself, but cultural and systemic change takes time, it takes commitment and it takes a tribe – a well cared for tribe. So, I chose to focus on myself and what I had immediate control over. 

I spent years analysing and unpacking my behaviours as a teacher (and as a woman). Burnout was common for me. I’d often find myself in a heap on the floor of the shower, sobbing quietly to hide my pain, my shame and my embarrassment from my family. If I can be completely honest, over time, I became sick of my own bullshit. I had a negative headspace. I was a complainer. I was a victim. Everything in my heart felt toxic. So I started to take some control over my head and heartspace. Why am I feeling this way? What can I do? Who can help me? How can I change? How do I take better care of myself when I am constantly feeling beaten and broken doing my job? What can I do less of? Where do I even start?

I started following the wellbeing ‘gurus’ on Social Media. I started working with coaches. I dabbled in meditation, breath work and attended Wellbeing workshops and webinars. I let myself learn about Positive Psychology. I became a coach. I became an author. I learned that I am a Perfectionist and I learned how this was impacting me in the classroom. I learned about compassion fatigue and I learned how to become aware of the signs and triggers.  I learned that I was being too hard on myself. I learned how to heal myself with deep, honest reflection on how I was showing up in my world – not just as a teacher, but as a mother, a wife, and a woman (I even published my teaching journey in my book Cracked Open: a teacher’s battle with perfection). I learned to do less (and nobody even noticed!). I learned how to practice self-compassion. I learned how to take care of MYself because I was ready. I was driven to change. I had ownership over my own growth. It wasn’t shoved down my throat and this gave me the autonomy I needed. I still find my job hard, because teaching is one of the most challenging professions on earth, but I can now be more gentle with myself. I know my behaviours and I am self-aware enough to know when to pull back on my investment in my work, and invest more into myself. I learned how to cultivate boundaries. I learned how to give myself what I needed so I could be a happy teacher, a happy mother, a happy wife – a happy woman. 

So Gabby, I wholeheartedly agree, “what teachers need is time to attend to their own wellbeing in ways that are satisfying to them – and the agency to make such choices for themselves.”

I am living proof of this.

I am a teacher who is *currently* thriving in my work (but feel free to check in at the pointy end of the term). But, how do we make that happen for teachers on a larger scale? Is it a school’s responsibility to find the time for teachers to participate in this kind of work, or is it a personal responsibility? I guess the least that could happen is lower the expectations and workload weighing us down, so we actually have the time and energy to invest into ourselves – but where do we even start? 

Once I learned how to treat myself better as a human being, I learned how to be more compassionate with myself as a teacher. The bureaucratic policy makers still irk me and grind my gears, but I can’t fight every single battle within education, so I choose to focus my attention and energy on supporting teachers and their own personal wellbeing – this is what makes my heart sing.  I wanted to be part of the change, and this led me down the path towards ‘Teacher Wellbeing’. I am, I guess, one of those people Gabby talks about. I am part of the ‘industry coming to life around teacher wellbeing’ and it is an industry I want to be a part of. The wellbeing of our teachers matters. There is a need for wellbeing coaches, podcasts, workshops and retreats because they are enriching and uplifting, and there are teachers who want to participate, but they should be given every right to choose their wellbeing vice. Teachers tell me they want a voice, they want to feel heard, they want to hear, ‘Yes, this is hard and it’s ok to be sad right now.’ They want to feel valued in their work, and they want autonomy – autonomy over how to run their classroom as well as manage their own wellbeing and happiness, inside and outside of the classroom, but they need the time. 

Gabby argues that the term ‘teacher wellbeing’ ‘implies the problem lies with the teacher,’ when in actual fact, the problem belongs within the culture of education. The onus is being put on their teacher how they manage their feelings about their job, rather than blaming the broken system (or trying to fix it). In some ways, I guess I agree. Maybe it’s a language issue? Maybe we drop the ‘teacher’ and stick to Wellbeing? Not all of us know how to look after ourselves – this is not a teacher issue, this is a human issue – I had to learn how to care for myself because I’d spent my whole life suppressing my needs, and this took time. There is an argument to blame the culture for how we are feeling as teachers, but no matter how broken the system is, and no matter what work we do, do we not owe it to ourselves as humans to take good care of ourselves? To love ourselves and meet our needs and desires – as both teachers and people. We can’t just say, yes, this job is hard because the system is broken, and then do nothing about it; we fight. We fight for ourselves and we fight for our learners. For too long the culture of education has pushed the needs of teachers to the bottom of the ocean; imagine the change that could ripple through our classrooms and playgrounds when happy, valued and energetic teachers show up; teachers who have learned or developed resilience, who have mindful practices and a wellbeing toolbox to rely on when things get sticky. No, it won’t change those irate emails hitting our inboxes or the copious amount of box ticking, assessments to grade or Risk Management forms to fill out, but maybe these happy, valued and energetic teachers will finally find the collective strength to go to work, do their jobs as best as they possibly can and walk away at the end of the day knowing that their best was enough, without those irate emails or the politicians tricking them into feeling like a failure. To me, that feels like a win, and a step in the right direction, even if we still have a million more steps to take. Or do I have my rose coloured glasses on? Probably. But hope and optimism are important to me, and I promise there is not an ounce of toxic positivity in there.

No amount of forced wellbeing is going to have an impact on the broken culture. But, focusing on allowing teachers autonomy over their classrooms, and their wellbeing will – and I wholeheartedly believe this. I do not know what the solution is. The problem is bigger than me and anything I can solve on my own. I still do not know what role a school should be playing in this either, but providing teachers with the conditions in which they can actually work a 40 hour week – and actually spend this time teaching rather than ticking seventy thousand boxes, might be a really good start, but is that now just a dream? – do individual schools really have control over that, or is it bigger than that too? It probably is – far bigger. 

In the meantime, I will continue to nourish my own heart and headspace, and encourage other teachers to do the same, because I know when I am feeling well, I am better equipped to handle what’s thrown at me, even the bureaucratic bullshit.

So, to all my teaching colleagues doing the hard mahi, ‘[you’re doing] important and challenging work. How are you going with it?’ 

*** These are my thoughts as of 3rd March 2022. I am open to learning and hearing the perspectives of others

Published by aimeenicole

mother - wife - teacher - kiwi Mindset & Transformation Coach healing myself and the world with my words

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