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How the Self-Care Narrative Hurts the Teaching Profession

 

Recently a picture circulated on social media of a Teacher “Wellness Room”—a dimly lit, soft-seeming room on campus filled with reclining chairs where we teachers might rest our weary souls after (or even during) a day spent teaching children. Most of the comments from teachers tended toward the positive, even envious.  

I was horrified.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m ALL about self-care. I try to stay as balanced as I can in a profession that will extract every ounce of energy we have and blur the boundaries between work and personal time if we’re not careful. Taking steps to stay inspired and energized in this work is an important topic so it’s wise for us to keep it up front in the conversations we have with each other.  

However, part of my work as a teacher leader and as a National Teacher of the Year is to pay close attention to the messages around our profession and how those messages are perceived by the non-teaching public. Why? Because our livelihoods and the future of the profession depends on the public having clear ideas and confidence about what’s happening with us. 

Add to that the grim reality that we are about to encounter a national teacher shortage that has already created permanent vacancies up and down my home state of California. We are going to need people to want to become teachers more than ever before. And we’ve always needed the trust of an electorate that understands what a functioning, effective teaching profession looks like. That means we need to be exceptionally careful about the pictures and messages we endorse.

 

Here’s what that photo may have caused some to think:

  • Is your work so difficult that you need spaces to go lay down during your workday?  
  • I don’t have a wellness room at my work where I can rest. Why should you? 
  • If I had 15 minutes free at work, I’d more likely use it to catch up, get ahead or collaborate with others. 
  • How about instead of a wellness room, you fix all the other broken parts of our jobs that make this room so necessary? 

Teachers Crave Respect

The one thing I hear from teachers more than anything else is how much we crave the respect of the American public—how if everyone just gave us the respect we so rightfully deserved, then our work lives would be so much easier. And then we post about nap rooms.

In December, when this photo appeared, most of us are a kind of bone-tired that few can relate to. It made sense to me to see so many of us commenting that we’d love a room like that right about now, but I worried it was a major turnoff to everyone else. What aspiring teacher is encouraged by the idea that this work is so hard you need to tap out in the middle of it to get yourself together? What neighbor wants to allocate more funding to schools or vote on important pro-education issues when they see a picture like this? 

Effective Ways to Energize and Empower Educators

For me, the wellness room idea is a sign that our profession still struggles to organize itself intelligently and effectively. Instead of a room where my colleagues and I can go rest, I suggest these structural changes to our basic day that will make wellness spaces completely unnecessary. 

  • Embed collaboration time with my colleagues into my workday so the entire school can engage in rigorous assessment and refinement of our skills together.  
  • Extend my workday to cover the diverse tasks that attend the act of teaching so I don’t have to do that after hours, at home or on weekends.  
  • Increase my pay to accommodate the new work hours and workflow. 
  • Streamline my work by ensuring that everything my school does touches on our mission & values. Get ruthlessly faithful to what our school is about. Don’t waste time on programs or initiatives that don’t fit, get results or that simply wear teachers out. 
  • Create a support pipeline on campus that includes site and district-based teacher-leaders who can provide real help to teachers on the front lines.  
  • Build interventions into my day so that I am not giving up my break time to help kids in need.  
  • Design work and break spaces that are conducive to good human connection and happiness for kids and their teachers.   
  • Cultivate a positive, inclusive work climate by rooting out toxic people, inspiring joy and helping me become great at the work of teaching and learning.  

Where there are school systems employing these structures, you will find energized, empowered educators. You will meet teachers whose time and expertise are valued. You will see inspired productivity. I would much rather spend my days in a well-designed and operationally effective profession like this than five minutes in a wellness room. THAT’S how we take care of teachers.

 


Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year from California. Currently a Teacher on Special Assignment, Rebecca coordinates Secondary Teacher Induction and Professional Development for Burbank Unified School District. A veteran middle school English teacher, Rebecca is also a kid at heart who believes there's nothing more important for students than to have the most dedicated, enthusiastic, passionate educators possible. She also fervently believes that the crusade to transform education will happen at the hands of teacher leaders from all across the nation. She has traveled the world advocating for the country's 3.2 million public school teachers, has appeared on CNN, CBS, PBS & the Ellen Show, and she blogs for EdWeek and Education Post.





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