There’s a widespread focus on the need for social emotional learning in our schools. Our students are faced with more trauma and bring an emotional deficit, disruption, or traumatic make up with them to school each day. As a result, educators are being tasked with teaching the standards and helping to create whole, healthy, and healed young people. The need for a renewed focus on SEL is very logical and clearly understood. However, we should not assume that educators are mentally and emotionally healthy enough to support the students they serve. Often broken themselves, they too need help healing, a focus on their wholeness and mental health. However, this need, is not being described here as one that should rise above the needs of students, but one that is equally important. The need to focus on the mental wellness of our educators seems to be missing in the persistent advocacy for social emotional learning. The wellness of our educators cannot be overlooked. While some see the sharing of burdens educators face in this profession as whining, selfish, and a distraction from their focus on students, I see it quite differently. We know that broken people can’t help others become whole, that those who are in a disharmonious state, whether it be personally or professionally, find it difficult to be the sense of calm in a student’s world of chaos. For sometime now, I’ve been thinking and writing about the importance of educator wellness, and I want to make a clear distinction that I’m talking about every educator: teachers and administrators.
While some are quick to note that teaching often comes with working 10 months out of the year instead of 12, it is important to recognize that unlike others in professions like engineering, business, or finance, educators are tasked with being exposed to the burdens of young people daily.
Story after story, my mind recalls all the things I carried home as a school principal and teacher. Like the time one of my students asked me to help him find somewhere to take a shower because he hadn’t been able to bathe in days, or the student who I watched eat from the trash can in a community eligible school that was 100% free lunch, or the student who ran away from home one weekend, whose father had allegedly attempted to kill her as a young child and mother was a known prostitute, or the student who was murdered by her grandfather after losing her mother to cancer, and surviving a nasty divorce. Those are just a few of the stories that live in my heart, and that I carry with me each day.
The trauma educators are vicariously exposed to can be difficult to deal with and damaging. What educators are tasked with is quite different than being stressed about a product coming in on time so that production of a device can be complete by the deadline or a delay on shipment causing an issue with quarterly projections. It doesn’t quite feel the same as the stories above. As educators we work with human beings and while we are certain of the difference we make in the lives of our students, an investment in the wellness of educators: mind, body, and spirit, is long over due.
We’ve subscribed to an “educators are givers and not takers” mentality for far too long. The missionary nature of our work and our deep desire to love and educate children doesn’t mean we are equipped to handle all that we are faced with in today’s public schools. From social media posts about why teachers are leaving the profession to conversations with my friends who are still in the classroom, educators are crying out for help. Our emotional well-being has a direct impact on our children and when we are healthy, we can be better educators for students and better people for ourselves.
I’ve often wondered what would happen if schools were built to include a wellness center for staff-a place where educators could exercise, meditate, sit quietly, or even work with a counselor. What if we had a registered dietitian on staff who helped staff develop and maintain healthy eating habits? What if we had group therapy sessions where teachers had a place to talk about and deal with the repeated exposure to the trauma their students face but also were able to receive recommendations on next steps and how to deal with the stress in healthy and healing ways? Think about the teacher who is trying to help her students be proficient in the area of social-emotional learning, but also dealing with her alcoholic husband and heroine addicted child. Is it safe to say that the teacher is over burdened? Should she simply have chosen a different profession if she didn’t really love teaching? Should her dedications and commitment be questioned because she is unable to “leave her problems at the door” when she arrives at school? I know that teacher because I was her principal.
Contrary to what I’ve heard from many and have been guilty of saying in the past, none of us leave our burdens at the door when we enter work. They live within us, in our hearts and in our minds, and they have a tendency to manifest when we feel like we can’t control what’s happening to us personally or professionally. Why should we expect folks to operate absent from who they are, their lived experiences, the good, bad, and ugly?
Would an increased focus on wellness and the social emotional health of educators result in an improves retention rate of principals and teachers? Might we be able to keep new teachers who tend to leave within the first five years in the profession longer? Might we be able to keep administrators in high poverty schools that have 30% principal turnover rates in their positions longer and more successfully? Might our nation prove well to invest in those who care for its’ children? I could be way off base, but I am willing to bet that any educator who reads this will likely be in agreement that the social emotional learning movement can not be absent of the need to invest in the wellness of educators.
Until next time-be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!