Teacher Resiliency: Five Lessons Learned from Starting a Revolution

“Attention passengers: in the event of an unexpected change in pressure from administrators, parents, students, colleagues, or school district officials, please assist yourself before assisting children and those around you. Remember to breathe.” The messaging onboard airplanes is the exact same messaging my fellow educators need to hear: self-care isn’t selfish, self-care is survival. The charge to address teacher resiliency is one that is more important now than ever.

I have spent the past seven years as an educator in Baltimore City Public Schools and currently teach kindergarten in a special-ed inclusion classroom in one of the highest poverty regions in Baltimore City. Sitting at a kidney table in Room 108 at Windsor Hills Elementary Middle School in West Baltimore, I look around my classroom and see a stack of papers that still need to be graded, a list of parent phone-calls that still need to be made, and a fluorescent sticky-note reminding me about IEP paperwork that still needs to be filled out. With four days left before winter break, my demeanor and energy level couldn’t be more opposite from that of my students. I’m convinced they have all been eating candy canes for breakfast, and I on the other hand feel the most excited for the moment when my head finally hits the pillow at night.

Although I was warned that teaching would be the most challenging yet rewarding profession I could ever pursue, I still cannot help but feel blindsided by the emotional demands of the job. I knew this was going to be hard. More than one person gave me a heads-up. But in all reality, nothing could have prepared me for the vast skillset I would have to develop outside of learning the curriculum and mastering content knowledge in order to best support the students in my classroom. I’ve come to realize that the emotional demands of being a teacher are just as challenging on day one as they are on day one-thousand.

As educators, we are the most similar to turtles. Turtles are our spirit animal. Our tough outer shell demands us to be disconnected, detached, and equipped with setting boundaries in order to maintain a sense of protection. Simultaneously, our soft underbelly requires an equal amount of emotional vulnerability and willingness to provide attachment to all of our students, but especially an ability to offer unconditional emotional support to children who have experienced trauma or are currently experiencing trauma in their own lives every day. Resiliency in education is the ultimate paradox. I am still on my own journey of cultivating resiliency, in all of its complexity, as I continue to learn how to be emotionally involved in the lives of my students yet emotionally distant, united but separate (Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison).

I started Happy Teacher Revolution, a social support group for teachers, because I am a proud survivor of mental illness. As a student in high school and college, I battled depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and contemplated suicide. My teachers were my heroes who saved my life. They were my “first responders” who recognized the warning signs and encouraged me to seek treatment. Part of my healing journey has been to serve as an advocate for mental health awareness, and as a result of being so outspoken about a topic wrapped in stigma and shame, I quickly noticed a pattern. Teachers from all walks of life came out of silence and shared their personal journeys with me about their mental health. I realized teachers craved the opportunity to connect, to empathize, and to foster resilience in one another. Thus, Happy Teacher Revolution was born.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with educators from around the world who believe in the power of social support networks like Happy Teacher Revolution to foster resilience by providing an opportunity for teachers to explore topics like vicarious trauma, caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue, toxic stress, and the demoralization of teaching. The following strategies are inspired by the conversations I’ve had with educators from Baltimore to Boston, Detroit to Dallas, Manchester to Miami, who share a common passion of keeping teachers motivated, supported, and fired-up about the incredibly important work we are responsible for doing.

#StopTeacherGuilt

Three teachers on Instagram coined the term #StopTeacherGuilt to encourage teachers to make time for what’s truly important: self-care. I’ve personally been crippled by teacher guilt on the weekends when I’m not laminating, grading, or perfecting that ultimate lesson plan for the following week. I’ve experienced teacher guilt when I take a bag home with papers to grade that never get touched or when I call out sick when it’s an especially inconvenient time to have the flu. Normalizing self-care and wellness in the education community through social media outlets helps teachers feel less alone in their guilty feelings and constant comparison with the seemingly flawless teacher across the hall. With Pinterest-perfect classrooms blasted all over the web, it is a refreshing trend for educators to share their self-care strategies with one another.

Disconnect and Detach with Love

One of the recommended strategies for individuals who are in relationship-intensive, caregiving professions is to intentionally disconnect and detach from a place of love. In order to avoid symptoms of vicarious trauma or burnout, we must prioritize our own wellness and shift our mindset as a restorative practice for ourselves, our loved ones, and the children we teach. Intentionally unplug. Set boundaries. Turn off work email notifications on your phone. Set an alarm to leave work just like you set an alarm to wake up in the morning. In order to be fully present for the loved ones in your life, make the choice to leave work at work. Disconnecting and detaching from the demands of the classroom provides an opportunity to practice mindfulness and being present in the moment. Whether that means going on a run after work, having a glass of wine with a friend, cooking a meal with your partner, or taking the dog for a walk, give yourself the opportunity to be focused on the present moment. “Be where your feet are.” All of these strategies help to foster healthy detachment from the demands of the workplace and the emotional fatigue of serving as a caregiver.

Your Vibe Attracts your Tribe

Surround yourself with individuals who inspire you. Consciously choose to spend time with positive people. You’ll know who these people are because after being around them, you walk away feeling motivated, supported, and fired-up. While unfortunately I have had experience in my teaching career with workplace bullying, I realized the painful truth that we cannot prevent children bullying one-another if staff members are modeling that behavior. Make a point of rising above the nonsense, surrounding yourself with individuals who believe and inspire you, and foster those relationships just as you would build relationships with the children you teach. Even though we are surrounded by children all day long, teaching can be isolating and lonely for adults. Utilize the network of other teachers and staff around you, whether that means planning together, making copies for one another, actually eating lunch on your lunch break with a colleague, or chatting about weekend plans with a coworker when you pass them in the hallway. I survive each year by connecting to others who I can talk to, feel vulnerable around, and who provide an empathetic listening ear. While your tribe may not be members of your grade-level “team,” teach on the same floor, or even be in the same building, it is important to remember that your vibe attracts your teacher “tribe.”

Remember Resiliency

Resilience comes from the Latin word resilire, which means “to spring back” or “rebound.” In my darkest moments when I’ve felt powerless, overwhelmed, and question my ability to keep going, I remind myself of all the other instances in my life when I thought I had reached rock-bottom but somehow managed to bounce back. Whether it was teaching 39 kindergarteners in one room with no heating or air-conditioning, or mustering up the strength to share my experiences of being sexually harassed by administration with my union rep, I remember the moments when I thought I would break and yet came out stronger than before. Every one of us has dealt with seemingly insurmountable challenges and have come out with more resiliency than ever before. Remember your resilient moments in the past to get you through these moments in the present.

Start a Revolution

Happy Teacher Revolution is a Baltimore-born, international movement with the mission to organize and conduct support groups for teachers in the field of mental health and wellness to increase teacher happiness, retention and professional sustainability. Happy Teacher Revolution isn’t a therapy group, because I’m not a doctor and my only expertise is my own experience. It also isn’t AA, because teachers have permission to drink afterwards. Rather, Happy Teacher Revolution is a social-support network that was born from the necessity of teachers to foster their own social-emotional learning in order to support the social-emotional learning of the students in their classroom.

This school year, I wrote and developed an online curriculum for educators across the U.S. to train to become “Revolutionaries” and thus facilitate Happy Teacher Revolution meetings in their own communities. Inspired by the consciousness-raising groups of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement, Happy Teacher Revolution is an opportunity for educators to join a grassroots movement to foster resilience both within oneself and in one another. Find a support group within your education community, or reach out to HappyTeacherRevolution.com to learn more about how to initiate a meeting in your area.

I continue to be inspired and amazed by my fellow educators who I’ve had the pleasure to learn from and work alongside. Teachers have always been and will always be my absolute favorite people, and I am incredibly grateful for the ability to connect with teachers around the world who share a common passion in prioritizing the mental health and wellness of teachers.

*****

Article source: Illuminate Education, by Danna Thomas