Your Backpack is Open

Do you have any unnecessary but comforting habits at work? Like only using a certain copier because “the other one” doesn’t like you, or parking in the same spot every day? These are the little behaviors that if others noticed they might wonder, what’s up with that?

For the last sixteen years at school, I’ve had a noticeable and completely unnecessary habit. I’m not sure when or why it started. I’m not sure why I let it continue after the first person noticed and said something, but here we are. Every day when I get to work and when I head home I have the same habit. I walk around with my backpack… wide open.

Not even partially open—the main pocket is fully opened and unzipped. You might be thinking, he can’t possibly walk around with stuff in there if it’s open like that, but you’d be wrong. My backpack is usually full of all the different things I like to carry with me to work.

Why would you do this? If you asked me why it started, I couldn't tell you. Probably, for no good reason. Recently, I haven’t been thinking about why I leave it open. Instead, I’ve been thinking about what my open backpack might represent.

It came to me a few weeks ago when a new colleague noticed my bag was open after school, and offered to zip it up. After I got in my car, bag freshly zipped, I started to think more about what that offer meant. Did the offer to zip up my bag and my acceptance of the help represent something bigger, especially during what many, if not most, of the teachers I’ve talked to would say is one of the most difficult seasons of our careers? During times like these, do we ask for the help we need? Do we even know how to ask or what to ask for? If the offer to help arrives, are we able or willing to accept it? That afternoon sparked lots of questions.

For me, asking for help has always been a struggle.

Having the skill to communicate about the help I need and the vulnerability to admit that I need it, are things I’ve had to practice (and still practice) in my life at work and home. Receiving help has been a little easier, but as most people figure out, if we don’t learn how to communicate about the help we might need, that help isn’t likely to show up very often. As a result, I’ve often found that I felt alone in some things in my life, not because the people around me couldn’t or wouldn’t help, but because I didn’t want or know how to let them see the help I needed.

I definitely need help sometimes. So does everyone in a school I’ve ever met: teachers, students, bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides, principals, everyone. Right now the help we might need or the help we might want to give feels... big. There are always a lot of big challenges to face as individuals and as school communities, but especially right now.

With all the help that’s needed, how do we build the capacity to help others?

Shortly after my day of questions, I told my students about my backpack. I can’t go anywhere anymore without a student asking to zip up my bag. Maybe to build capacity we have to help each learn what to look for.

What about the people we are around often? How do we make sure to keep checking in on each other? Just because last week or last month things were good, doesn’t mean they stay that way. I’ve worked with some folks for a long time and they rarely ask about my backpack anymore. I can’t assume that they know I need help if I never ask, just like we should never assume others don’t need our support unless we ask them.

It seems clear to me that support systems should exist to help meet the needs of our students and staff. That systemic help for physical, mental, and social wellness should be easily accessible and multifaceted in every school everywhere. But those effective systems of support do not yet exist in many schools. And while the discussion around learning to care for ourselves is an important part for us as individuals, “self care” isn’t a system to address the needs of students or staff in a school.

While we hopefully work to build the systems we need and deserve to help students and teachers thrive, we do have the power in our own lives to ask for help. To seek out the support we need from the people around us best equipped to provide it. This has made me realize that when it comes to the real challenges I face, I want my life to be more like my open backpack. To make the things I might need help with more noticeable to the people in my life who can support me. Maybe I can even learn to acknowledge when I am carrying something heavy and ask, “Can you help me with this?” If we all work at it together, we can learn to recognize when people show up with open backpacks and we can offer to help zip theirs up too.

Ryan Healy is originally from Olympia, WA and has taught for 15 years at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, WA. Ryan was the 2019 Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. At his school he helped develop a transformative student leadership program where he teaches classes focused on social and emotional learning and character development.

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