Find What Matters. Get Rid of What Doesn’t. Your Mental Health Depends on It
A time when teachers, leaders, and students recharge their batteries, shake off the stress from last year, and take time to focus on reading books that do not involve education. That’s a good thing, because according to an Education Week Research Center survey, “91percent of teachers experience job-related stress sometimes, frequently, or always.” Teachers are not alone in the job-related stress department. A well-known combined study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found that 42 percent of school principals have considered leaving their jobs.
The issue with summer is that when teachers and leaders recharge, they promise themselves that they will do things differently in their classrooms and school buildings, but when the school year begins, many times they revert to old habits.
I have been guilty of continuing on that same hamster wheel. As a teacher and former school leader I used to to suffer from anxiety, as well as never feeling like I gave enough to the schools where I worked. As an author and workshop facilitator, I was on the road about 45 weeks a year prior to COVID. I used to wear that as some sort of badge of honor because it showed how busy I was and that my work was in demand. Then, in March 2020, COVID came crashing into our lives, and everything stopped as far as road travel and in-person professional learning was concerned.
I quickly had to pivot my work into remote sessions to accommodate schools and organizations that were trying to focus on instructional leadership, which was the focus of my book that came out the month before COVID.
My Mental Health Flourished
Something that was more important happened for me at that time. I was home. I had always promised myself and my partner that I would be on the road less, but I never held the promise. How many teachers and leaders promise their partners, spouses, and children that they will not work on the weekends or late into the night and then find themselves backtracking on those promises? During COVID, I found myself with the opportunity to be home. Yes, I was in my office from the very early morning to late in the evening due to transferring everything from in person to remote, along with working in different time zones. However, once a week, I would go up north to stay with my mom, who was in her mid-80s. My siblings and I were worried about her being isolated because she still lived alone in the house she and my dad built in 1959.
On those nights I stayed up at my childhood home, my mom and I would bring dinner over to my sister Trish and brother-in-law Hassan. My nephew Khalil and his wife, Richele, would come over with their dog, Elbie. During the warm months, we sat on their back deck. In the colder months, we sat in the garage with a heater. My sister was going through her second battle with cancer, and we needed to be careful because all this was before we had a vaccine.
At heart, I was always a bit of a mama’s boy because I called her almost every day, even while I was traveling, just to check in on her. I texted with Trish and my oldest brother, Frank, every day. My mom and sister always came with me on at least one work trip per year, and we vacationed together with my partner once a year as well. This time, however, our trips did not revolve around my work. Those promises of being home more were coming true, and I became one of the people who actually benefited from COVID, because I was forced to find a work-life balance and I was happy to do so.
What does this have to do with teaching and leading?
Teachers and leaders are fully committed to their jobs and many times think that anything other than working seven days a week means they don’t care about their work. I know it was an opinion I held. COVID forced many of us to find a balance between being innovative and actually being present with family and friends. In my case, I didn’t understand how distracted I was until I committed to being more present with my family.
In fact, in the fall of last year, I began writing a book called De-implementation: Creating the Space to Focus on What Works (Corwin Press, 2022), because I was heavily concerned about the mental health of leaders and teachers. I was tired of hearing people say that well-being and mental health were just about giving teachers and leaders the opportunity to breathe. In my experience, mental health and well-being are about doing what you love but making time to spend time with those you love. Mental health and well-being is about doing things that are impactful personally and professionally and not spending energy on those things that waste our time, and that is what de-implementation is all about.
Partial reduction – What do we not need to do as much?
Replacement action – What can we get rid of because it doesn’t work, and what is something more impactful we can replace it with?
I also, through research and working with leaders and teachers, found that there are two types of de-implementation, which I suggest are:
Informal de-implementation – A team is not required, and this action can be taken immediately. One of the most popular suggestions was that of reducing the number of times we check email or give assessments to students.
Formal de-implementation – A team is needed to make this decision. An example could be replacing zero-tolerance policies with restorative-justice practices. For formal de-implementation, I created a de-implementation checklist and pacing chart and provided other samples that will help leaders and teachers formalize the process.
For full disclosure, every school team can find an initiative that they can focus on for the formal de-implementation process, but we need not wait for a team to engage in the informal de-implementation process. Every single day we wake up matters, and we should look at the time we do control and make sure that we are engaging in valuable actions during those times.
In actuality, de-implementation is as much about how we implement as it is about what we need to suspend or get rid of because we found something more impactful. It is about finding the balance between work and home, and it certainly doesn’t mean we care less about our students and job. Instead, it means we want to take action to be more committed to our everyday lives. What I didn’t realize during writing the book is that I would once again learn how important work-life balance truly is because life is precious.
We often promise ourselves that we will slow down or that we will take more time to find the elusive work-life balance we always strive for as we get older. Unfortunately, we revert to old habits because we tell ourselves that if we work less, we must care less about our profession or the kids. I believe that the opposite is true, because I feel that when we have a better balance between home and work, we are more impactful in what we do. Stepping back allows us the time to focus on what matters, and that is good for our mental health and well-being.
During COVID, Frank, whom I am close with, had a massive heart attack, which scared us all. That emphasized for me that being home more was important because family will not always be around. Having lost our dad in 1982, we knew all too well how precious life is but somehow forgot as time went on. Thankfully, Frank is doing well now.
After writing the first draft of the de-implementation book, though, my mom passed away. It was the day before last Thanksgiving, and Trish, Frank, and I were there to say goodbye. Four months later, Trish passed away surrounded by family, including Frank and me. My mom and sister are two major reasons for any success that I may have, because they urged me to get an associate degree. I am the first in my family to get a college degree. I never let them forget how grateful I was to have had them in my corner.
As we approach this coming school year, don’t take for granted that family will always be there or that your mental health can take a backseat to something more important like your work. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being a teacher for 11 years, a principal for eight years, and coaching and running workshops based on my own work for the last eight years, but we will all be better at our work if we spend every day that we can connecting with family and friends and having a life, too.
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