In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, I encourage all educators to take self-care off their to-do list.
This may sound counter-intuitive, yet, for many educators, the idea of self-care often resonates with feelings of frustration at one more task we are expected to “do.” As a lifelong educator and former high-school principal, I have experienced the visceral response of clenching my jaw and holding my breath, while repeating the mantra, “Do not tell your supervisor how you really feel!” Had I done so, it might have sounded something like this: “Actually, when you tell me to make sure I ‘take care of myself,’ I want to scream. Are you kidding me?! I don’t have time for that!” And then I could visualize myself stomping away with the satisfaction of setting the record straight.
That said, there is truth to be found in the reality that we, as educators, will be better prepared to support the social, emotional, and academic needs of our students, when we first nourish our own well-being. The key can be found in the word “being.” I often say, “It is not about what we do, it is about how we be!”
When speaking to an audience of educators, there are always people who give me that “look,” clearly thinking, “Your grammar is off, lady!” Yes—intentionally so. It is imperative that we begin to think about our very act of being. What is our state of being in the way in which we interact with ourselves, and one another? And might leveraging strengths and acknowledging opportunities for growth within specific ways of being actually nourish our well-being and enhance our mental health?
My experience as an educator and as one who supports the social and emotional growth of educators and students, suggest the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” In fact, educator well-being can be nourished without contributing to personal or work-life stress by focusing on specific ways of being that are inherent to our daily routines and vital to effective educational systems.
Becoming aware of our strengths and opportunities for growth is key to sustaining mental, social, and emotional wellness. If you are interested, feel free to complete the Baseline Self-Reflection Check-In based on the Framework for Educator Well-Being pictured above. Our answers will help us to identify behaviors that occur naturally to us (innately or because we have intentionally focused on these behaviors so that they have become natural), as well as behaviors that are challenging, on which we might choose to be more intentional, or seek support, guidance, or strategies.
In the meantime, I invite you to consider the strategies below aligned with three ways of being from the Framework for Educator Well-Being and choose one strategy per way of being, on which to focus this month.
John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience. . .we learn from reflecting on experience.” As educators we know that what we do, tends to lack meaning and purpose if we neglect to connect to why we do it. Consider why you originally chose your vocation. Was it a person or educator, an experience from your childhood, or a value you hold dear that was the catalyst for you to pursue working within an educational setting?
Once you reflect on your why, take time this week to share that reason with another. When we share our why, we renew it, and in doing so, it helps us to be more purposeful in helping our students to discover their own why for engaging in school and in life.
Being intentional means thinking, speaking, and behaving with purpose. Notable author and pastor, John C. Maxwell suggests, “Being intentional adds value to everything we do and every person me meet.” Intentionality is something that is easily neglected in the busyness of our daily routines. Thus, we cultivate our well-being by integrating intention into behaviors in which we already engage.For example, we tend to pass people while walking down the hall at school, or in the aisle of the supermarket. Take time to make eye contact* and say hello. Make a comment such as “Have a good day,” as opposed to asking, “How are you?” This small adjustment in greeting is crucial, because typically, when passing by a person, we don’t wait to hear their answer when we ask, “How are you?” Unfortunately, when we continue walking, we are inadvertently communicating that we don’t really care how the person is. In fact, we know we care, we are simply busy. A comment, on the other hand, reveals that we see and value the person, and at the same time, that small, positive social interaction will actually nourish our own well-being, as dopamine and serotonin are released in our brain causing us to feel a sense of joy or happiness (Achor, 2010). Another way to be integrate intentionality is to take an intentional breath before beginning to speak. In doing so, we ensure that our tone and words represent the true meaning of our dialogue.
During the pandemic, we learned that we, as humans, are interdependent and interconnected. We also learned that, although some people enjoy being alone, for many of us, isolation led to anxiety and depression. As such, social emotional connection empowers humanity.Similar to being reflective and being intentional, being connected can be incorporated into our current behaviors. For example, smiling with intention so that joy leaps form our heart, through our eyes and face and lands in the heart of another can connect us without adding more to our plates. Likewise, using a person’s name in greeting and if time, shaking hands or sharing a nod, or a fist bump, can connect us socially, emotionally, and even physically.
Finally, practicing gratitude by letting others know that you appreciate them nourishes our well-being and theirs. It feels good to appreciate others and, in doing so, we give them something to be grateful for as well. These are all little actions, yet they make a big difference.
Thank you for taking time to consider ways of being that enhance our social, emotional, and mental health while enabling us to take self-care off our to-do lists. Remember—it is not about what we do, rather, it is about how we BE!
* Note that there may be instances in which eye contact is not appropriate due to a person’s culture, religion, or ability. As educators, we must remember and honor each person’s need in this regard.
 John C. Maxwell, Intentional Living: Choosing a Life that Matters (New York: Center Street, 2017).