The Story of My Workshops
What I’ve realized working with clients in both private practice and school settings is that when we don’t maintain wellbeing in critical areas of our lives, we—to put it in psychobabble—“decompensate,” which refers to a breakdown in the coping systems we keep in place to make our lives function.
At the point of decompensation, information and knowledge about what we should be doing to live effectively become increasingly useless; the further we slide into a state of decompensation, the more we lack the capacity to actually do what we know we should do.
The vicious cycle: As we decompensate, we become less effective. As we become less effective, we become more anxious. As we become more anxious, we decompensate even further. On and on the cycle continues. The teacher caught in this cycle is at-risk for losing touch with the profound vocational calling to impact students’ lives, tragically trading it for not much more than a willingness to tolerate the job because it provides a paycheck and benefits with summers off.
Are you too busy to prepare to fully engage your students academically or behaviorally (let alone finding time to exercise and eat right)? Are you relationally-isolated at work and carrying emotional baggage from experiences you’ve had on your campus or with colleagues? Are you barely able to get by financially, and, in the end, wondering why you ever decided to become a teacher or whether you want to continue in the profession?
You, my teacher friend, are one of 7.2 million teachers in public school classrooms across the United States (as of the 2010 U.S. Census). You and your 7,199,999 colleagues make up the country’s largest professional workforce. The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics lists your average salary in the low-fifties—about $100,000 less than your child’s pediatrician and about $35,000 more than the dishwasher at your favorite restaurant. The projected salary growth for your field is about as fast as average, which is between seven and thirteen percent in the next ten years.
One other thing: half of you will be employed in another profession after five years.
Three key “dashboard lights” tell us when it’s time to check under the hood of the vehicle we call our vocation: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (also known as “burnout”). For the teacher, these three dashboard lights show up as the internal voice saying, “I’m always tired, I don’t want to deal with my colleagues, and I’m not making a difference in kids’ lives anyway.”
Wellness—both the term itself and the idea the term represents—while common in eastern medicine, is a fairly new concept to us westerners. The concept of wellness centers on proactively nurturing wellbeing, versus reactively treating illness as symptoms arise. The idea is that if we spend a concentrated bit of our attention taking care of ourselves, the frequency, intensity, and duration of illness will decrease significantly; in terms of our psychological functioning, maintaining wellness is our first defense against stress and burnout.
What is true in families is also true in schools: the first effective intervention for all children is an adult living a balanced, healthy life. Even the best academic and behavioral interventions, when implemented by staff on the verge of burnout, will have minimal positive effect.
As a teacher, your profession is wrought with squeaky wheels—students, parents, curriculum, administration, federal guidelines, and on and on. The teacher intent on a lifetime journey on the road of education is wise to consistently invest meaningful quantities of the oil of his or her attention on the wheel that matters most: the wheel of personal wellbeing. We have great news for you: you really do have power to make lives better, including your own.