There was a time when I worked myself to death. All day every day. There was a time when I went to school incredibly sick because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, and let’s face it, the hassle of leaving lesson plans for divers who never completed them drove me completely crazy. Late nights in the building, extra hours in planning and grading at home, and various extracurricular activities require all of my attention and energy. I’ve preached self-care to others, but I haven’t practiced self-care myself. There was a time when I put my job before my family, before my health, and before my health. That time ended when the epidemic began.
I used to work in a school district in Mississippi that I absolutely loved. I’ve been there for so long that parents and students know and understand my methods. My colleagues were good people, and we worked really well together. For the most part, I looked forward to coming to work every morning. That is, until the 2018-2019 school year, when many employees fell ill. One had an aneurysm, another broke her knee while in school, and a third developed a case of cancer that would attack her body at any moment. The district cut their salaries after they exhausted their sick days, per its policy. When I tried to donate my extra sick days to them as I did before to my other classmates, the school leaders wouldn’t let me. At one point, a new school principal refused to let us collect cash collections for each other in these difficult situations. Even with festive occasions like baby showers, we were told we no longer “do that kind of thing here”.
I was angry and disgusted. These area employees were some of the toughest people I’ve ever known. They were at school an hour earlier, worked during breaks and ‘vacations’, and were the last to leave the school premises and then take their work home. I thought if anyone had the support of the district, it would be the same. School districts are not commercial establishments, but I understand that districts sometimes have to operate like businesses. But at the time, I would have expected there to be a more sympathetic politics. Perhaps people in extreme circumstances would have been able to access a set of donated sick days. Perhaps they should have been assigned clerical or virtual tasks that they would have completed from home so that they could continue to earn their salary. Perhaps there would be a policy that would allow these teachers to use the compensatory time they collected from working many more hours.
Will these policies “solve” the problem? Probably not, but they surely would have given my colleagues some breath, perhaps showing them that their time, effort, and dedication did not go unnoticed. Instead, we’ve all watched these teachers struggle to feel gratitude that they have their jobs to return to, even as they struggle physically and financially in the meantime.
I left my district that year. I decided to go to counseling, which worked well until the epidemic broke out and schools were closed. My entrance quickly dried up, and despite the hard hours, no support from the company I worked for or the areas I was killing myself in came to help.
In the fall of 2020, I returned to the classroom in a new area and with a new mindset. I now understood that if I didn’t make self-care a priority, I would kill myself for a system that would hire someone new in my absence. In fact, at the beginning of this school year, we lost a teacher due to COVID-19. My students are still grieving over his passing, and eventually the district had to make plans to hire someone new. Life went on without him, and I think that made my new mindset tangible.
I have been more determined to get a good night’s rest, and although I still work very hard, I am more aware of what I give to my work than of my family and myself. The pandemic has taught me that giving 100 percent to my students is not the same as giving 100 percent of myself. This year was probably the third time in my 10-year teaching career that I’ve had a Mental Health Day. I had to ask myself, what good would I get if I was drained? What value am I really getting if I am so sick that I can barely lift my head? Who will prepare for the future if I am so exhausted that I am not mentally present? What kind of fire would I light if I were lighting the candle from both ends?
Before the pandemic, I worked until I had nothing left of myself to give. My new nature is rooted in the fact that I am human and that if my tanks are broken or empty, there is a constant leak, and I can never be full enough to pour in others. As teachers, we either take home work in the evening or take home the emotional weight of our jobs. For those who are passionate about our work, every encounter is a learning experience. Non-teachers assume that teachers only work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and that we have extended vacations throughout the calendar year. People don’t see planning and grading on late nights, mentoring and mentoring hours for students, or days of training and professional development during the perceived vacation days. People don’t realize that many of us, myself included, are working on additional jobs and striving for higher degrees. We must be willing to go the extra mile to take care of ourselves, because we work for people who often do not understand how hard we work and do not care about our well-being. who are these people? Depending on the circumstances, they may be students, parents, school and district leaders, or even colleagues.
I suppose that if I had to sum up what I learned about myself and about life during the pandemic, I would say that life is too short to waste in pretending that I can be all things to all people at all times. I have learned during the pandemic that self-care is not selfish; It is a necessity, not a luxury. I am clearly dissatisfied with the devastating effects of the pandemic on my community, my colleagues and this country. However, in retrospect, I appreciate the wisdom I gained because of it. I am a better person because of this revelation. My students see a cheerful, authentic version of me. I’m still what I’ve always been: a woman dedicated to exposing my students to the beautiful conundrum of science. I am also a human being who is unable to bear my message if I do not take care of myself and take care of myself in the process.