Inspired by Martyn Reah’s post on teacher wellbeing and the #Teacher5aday movement
Last year was pretty tough. Accumulation of seven years of working non-stop, not forming any meaningful relationships outside of work and an unwillingness to say ‘no’ had finally taking its toll. Added to this I was no longer looking after my body, through a healthy diet and regular exercise, I hit a low that I couldn’t deal with on my own. I needed help and support from a professional, but wasn’t willing to take the medication I was being offered. With kind and caring advice I was able to move out of the spiral I was in; focus on making new habits, not breaking bad. I withdrew from a number of positions I held within the school and implemented some changes in my life that I’m still doing and I can see the positive impact on my wellbeing. Taking time for others and myself outside of my job have helped hugely. The changes I made have worked for me, but would probably not work for others. They are also pretty standard. Exercise, sleep, eat well and make time for people you love. So perhaps vagueness of advice backed up with evidence may be a far better approach to helping keep our sanity and ensure our wellbeing. Here are two habits that I have started and will look to continue into 2015 that could work for you.
The power of writing #notice
When talking through things at my lowest, I was advised to write, to help improve my state of mind. The recommendation was to keep a journal. Having never done this in my life I was confused about what to write. I hadn’t written extensively since being at university and couldn’t think of an occasion in my life I had written for myself. The response was simple; just write what ever comes into your head. Wake up in the morning and for 15 minutes write in longhand whatever you are thinking about there and then. 3 pages of writing, no more, no less. My initial reaction was ‘oh no, not more work’ but I felt an immediate physical response after I had completed it for the first time. My usual state in the morning is one of tired anxiety, but after completing the task I felt more awake and less worried about the day ahead. I have since found later on that this writing task is called Morning Pages, and has had a significant impact in the quality of my life, as much as redressing my physical activity and diet.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that regular writing or journaling about how you are feeling has such a positive footprint on your wellbeing. The act of writing itself seems to be able to help with your emotional processing, it certainly has for me. Some research even seems to suggest it can have physical benefits as well. However some research suggests that writing helps people who have suffered an emotional blow, more that someone who is suffering from ongoing or severe mental problems.
In the end the writing for me allowed me to observe my self. Re-reading what I had written in the morning, meant that with help, I could identify feelings, emotions and my body’s response to them. This allowed me to examine them and and explore why I might be feeling in a particular way. I was told this process was important, that when we could observe our strongest emotions, then we might not necessarily be defined by them. This gave me more clarity on my life, it allowed me to see a bigger world outside teaching, something that I hadn’t done for a number of years. It allowed me to see patterns of behaviour and choices I was making that were no longer working for me. Although I haven’t completely moved on from all my bad habits and emotions, I can see them more clearly now.
From doing my morning writing, I moved on to keeping a journal. I can recommend using Day One, a very easy and user friendly electronic journal. I took my first steps to sharing some of my thoughts and ideas through blogging, finding it a cathartic experience. I’m sure there are many other practical and creative benefits of writing regularly. I’m beginning to see at school how at times I am able to succinctly talk about issues that before I neither could find the words for or able to express my thoughts when I had an emotional response .
A word of warning though. Now I’ve taken to blogging to help with my mental health I can see potentially becoming a compulsive behaviour. Something that I have to do, even if it might not have a benefit for me. Extremes are not productive for me. If that becomes the case, then I need to see it early and step away for a while. Perhaps over Christmas might be a good time to stop for a while. However I plan to continue through 2015 as it has helped me to stay a little more sane.
Maintaining a habit of learning #learning
As a teacher of PE, I always encourage my students to put their bodies under stress. Good stress that is. Unless they overload their bodies with activity, then usually no long term physical or health benefits occur. The body doesn’t adapt unless it is regularly put under this stress. It seems this is the same for the mind. You would think that being a full time teacher would provide enough opportunities for this to occur, but I think of lot of what I have been ‘learning’ within my job has been in my comfort zone and learning overload wasn’t occurring. I was just doing more of the same and that is just increasing workload with no clear emotional or physical benefits. It was explained to me in one of my sessions that the type of ‘learning’ I should be experiencing should feel like going on a holiday to a new place. From the moment you step of the plane to the moment you return home, you are bombarded with new stimuli. Smells, sights, sounds, languages, cultures, histories and people. These can refresh you. This is an example of good stress for the mind. In 2015 I will look to give myself some good stress. I will look to continue learning photography, a hobby I have recently taken up. I will once again go back to University to study a part time Masters. Radio 4 will be listened to on a regular basis (apart from the Archers). The biggest step is that I’ve started reading again, not for pleasure, but for learning.
This type of reading is difficult. It takes me quite a few attempts to understand concepts, constantly referring to a dictionary, and even then I’m not sure I have fully understood. Making time for reading, especially challenging books, even though they might be on education or leadership has fired my curiosity. That curiosity has given me a real shot of energy, a dopamine boost, something similar to what I would get after I had finished a HIT session. It has also made me feel a little vulnerable, especially as its making me come to terms with how little I know. (Punctuation, spelling and grammar rules are quite clearly an area that I have begun to realise I know very little about, as I’m sure you can testify when reading this). I’m hoping my ego will survive, but I suppose that is what part of growing and learning is about. Making time for these new learning experiences has been difficult, and I do slip into my old ways, but I think it is a must.
As teachers we must try to keep our heads when all around others are losing theirs. It is difficult to do that when what we do on a day to day basis has such depth, complexity and is so emotionally and physically draining. There is such a focus on teacher wellbeing at the moment, as there rightly should be, but giving advice is difficult. We are all uniquely complex creatures that are the product of both our genes and environment. You must take the time for yourself and for others that are close to you, even if that means that perfection in your job might not occur (and something that realistically can’t be achieved). Without that time you diminish yourself and therefore in turn diminish the support and guidance you can give to your students and your colleagues. Be well.