“Put your mask on before assisting others.”
If this message is for you: Stop what you are doing. Take a breath. Take as many as you want, actually.
As urgent as the times are, part of what makes education important is a lesson about sustainability. You learn things once, that will inform your thoughts and actions from now on. It only makes sense that your teaching practice is sustainable as well. Whether in front of a wall or a virtual background, your mind should be at ease.
The list of things to be “at ease” from, of course, is hefty. Education has a mental health crisis. You only have to see what the answers are by CCSSO’s National Teacher of the Year state nominees. “How do I practice self-care? I don’t.” But as committed to your students as you are, the quality of your teaching experience can be compromised in the future. If it isn’t already.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and this does not constitute nor substitutes professional advice.
Self-care is cybersecurity for your mind
It is common to misunderstand self-care with doing things that make you feel good. The reality is that self-care is an ongoing practice of personal habits. Temper, resiliency, patience, these are not granted by divine beings, nor by a candy bar.
This is easy to see: Self-care is more than feeling pleased at a given moment in time. Think of your educational project for a moment. Make a quick list in your head of all the ingredients. Now, consider your “mind’s ingredients.” What does it take for you to deliver an effective lesson or curriculum? We mentioned some of them before. They are not exactly limited, but they deplete.
Practicing mindful habits is another way to say that you will invest in your supply lines.
So what is it that you need to be a reliable educator and care for your students? We can draw a parallel with some principles of effective cybersecurity risk management. They refer to three core activities required.
This words is more common in ethical discussions, but is very fitting. For starters, science documents a complicated relationship between sleeplessness and unethical behavior. In this context, it refers to all the elements you need to deliver your learning to your highest professional standard. Issues like your diet and sleep patterns are the base of the integrity pyramid. Without going further: When was the last time you were able to consider these and other health choices?
Being unable to “restore your integrity” from the end of a task work shift to the next is a striking sign of self-care attention needed. Understanding your own feelings are behaviors, in order to provide an optimal response, professionally as well as personally, is a sign of awareness about your own mental health. Furthermore, the confidence of making optimal choices between difficult trade-offs or multiple sources of pressure –including time pressures– in a way that protects your integrity, is a clear sign that you are caring about yourself.
If you are getting only one takeaway from this guide, is this: Your ability to care for yourself is majorly dependent on the group in which you belong. There are exceptions. But in general, just like people coming up with great, elaborate and useful ideas on their own in the exception rather than the rule, the odds of us being able to practice proper self-care increase when our community promotes it, or at least tolerate it. After all, we are social animals.
As an educator, our role as promoter of self-care values towards students is magnified. Especially the young ones. We’re not only transmitters of information valid for the next quiz –at least I hope we aren’t–. The values we promote, explicitly and implicitly, have an educational value as important as the subject matter, if not more in some cases. In short, part of self-care practice our ability to define how available we are for others, and under which circumstances.
Another cornerstone of the practice of self-care, perhaps the one most severely compromised during the recent crisis, is your own control over how available you are and in which domains. The advent of the smartphone had already killed some of the imaginary boundaries we had set up between work and our personal lives. And I mean imaginary in the best possible way.
Now that most of us no longer have the psychological “nudges” of having to physically commute between different places, each full of cues about the kind of mood, thoughts and modes we should adopt, we enter into a really strange situation. Most of these signals, we can tell that they are there, but we cannot possible single all of them out. But now they are gone, and we are not sure what it is that we miss so much. The result: A critical loss in our aided capacity to focus, or more generally adopt the proper mindset for a given context. Can astronauts stay focused at all? How can they get so different things done within a tiny space, for months at a time?
It gets worse. Most of our peers, and of course our students, are venturing into this boundlessness, meaning there are no social cues that can guide us into better practices. If before mass telecommuting your boss was fine texting you at odd hours for “quick status reports,” what kind of divine intervention can interfere now? It can be worse when it comes to students, who are struggling and require support in areas we are not supposed to help.
Well, guess who: Your imagination. At the end of the day, commuting and places are signals, but it is only your mind who has control over what mode it can adopt. It can create its own signals and cues, too. It is not easy and it will not be fast; and you have plenty of resources, tools and help to begin a mindful boundary practice. But another important takeaway here is that self-care is an inner, mindful practice. There no app for that.
A mind with a plan: Working on your self-care
«Every life is many days, day after day. We walk among ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love.
But always meeting ourselves.»
– James Joyce
Is it time to meditate, color a mantra or launch calm.com? It is for you to answer. If the limited Availability you have had so far means you still are not sure, then it is for you to discover. Take a look at the resources included below, and decide which is and is not for you. Whatever works for you; although a better expression would be: Whatever you decide to work on in your mind.
The analogy with cybersecurity can still have some value here. A few years ago we conflated a secure system with installing and antivirus. Today, we have Chief Information Security Offices with long term plans, quarterly objectives and ready-to-go strategies to maximize -not perfectly guarantee– the level of security of an organization. Likewise, mindful self-care is a continuous effort that will lead to a better understanding of what you need to preserve your Integrity, maintain or increase your Availability, and keep or lower your Boundaries without harm. With practice, you become more aware of your own vulnerabilities, and more capable of assessing present and upcoming threats.