“Loving ourselves does not mean indulging ourselves.” Ayya KemaHow many times have you heard the advice that until you love yourself you are incapable of loving others? We as educators live in a field that talks a great deal about “putting students first” and “sacrificing for the benefit of the kids.” What this translates to in daily practice is long hours, substantial amounts of time grading papers outside of class, and spending personal money taking care of the students. These are all noble actions. By far, the expectations that most every educator I know is that they literally “would give the shirt off their back" to a student if it would better that child’s life. They are, as a profession, despite much of the reform rhetoric, a dedicated group of people who genuinely care for the children in their charge.
For all their altruistic motives though, educators are just as prone to neglect their mental, spiritual, intellectual, and physical health in this exercise in self-sacrifice. They often literally give these up on the altar of sacrifice, resulting in the usual mental, spiritual, and physical problems. Mentally, this time of the year many are burnt out and struggling through the anxieties and pressures of ending another year. Spiritually, they’ve often neglected to engage in reflection and contemplation in their chosen religion, or non-religion, resulting in a sense of lost significance and purpose in life. Intellectually, educators haven’t taken the time to foster curiosity and intellectual exercise so vital to having the momentum of being life-long learners. Physically, educators struggle with their weight, high-blood pressure, cholesterol, and fatigue. In short, educators have neglected the four areas that matter most to their overall well-being and happiness: mental well-being, spiritual well-being, intellectual well-being, and physical well-being.
Recently, I was forced to go to my doctor due to a dull chest pain that seemed to be persistent. To make the story short, I found myself connected to an EKG machine for the first time of my life of 51 years, and upon my exit from his office, armed with a prescription for cholesterol medicine. I have prided myself in not having to take any medications up to this point, and now I was going to have to take it each day. The combination of these occurrences were not powerful enough to be epiphanies, but they were eye openers. I realized I was neglecting myself into having more and more health problems. Something had to change.
Since that event, I did some inventory. Honestly, I had done well in the area of mental and spiritual well-being recently. For me, both of these were being satisfied with my ongoing Buddhist meditation and mindfulness training. Mentally, I was dealing much better with job stresses, with just an occasional relapse. Spiritually, I continued to explore my own religion through daily mediation practice and one spiritual retreat every year. Things have felt good spiritually. Intellectually, I also felt engaged and alive. With all the books I’ve lined up for reading, and my ongoing professional learning through my PLN added to my pursuit of a doctorate degree, I felt intellectually satisfied as well. Physically, all was not well though. I was tired much of the time. My cholesterol was deadly while my diet was making me miserable every day. My stomach was constantly in pain or irritated. Overall I physically did not feel well. So, I focused on two things I knew would definitely help: diet and exercise.
I have been thinking about changing over to an all vegetarian diet for some time, and this health check gave me the motivation I needed to make a diet change. I vowed to eat vegetarian, and I have been doing so for three weeks now. I have eaten more fruits and vegetables. For exercise, I simply decided to take a brisk walk of about 4 miles per day. In the interim three weeks, I have never felt better. I have more energy than ever, and I am able to focus for longer periods of time. Additionally, I have dropped 14 pounds in the process. I also no longer have the indigestion and stomach ailments I once complained about. The combination of diet and exercise, combined with my continued spiritual practices, intellectual pursuits have made me feel much more sharp and alive in my job as a school administrator.
I once had a college professor who always ask the question so what when any of us in the class made a contribution to the discussion, so I think that question is appropriate here: so what? What does that have to do with school leadership and being an educator. Simply put: as school leaders and educators we need to love ourselves just a bit more. Loving ourselves doesn’t mean we’re being selfish; it means we are actually loving our students by loving ourselves, taking care of ourselves. For example, a school administrator taking an hour or so in the afternoon for a brisk walk isn’t being self-indulgent; he’s demonstrating love for self. Taking time to engage in the spiritual or non-spiritual practice of your choice is also not self-indulgence. It also is loving self. Making decisions and being mindful about what you eat is also about loving self. It is so obvious we sometimes don’t see it: we can’t keep neglecting ourselves and expect to be able to do what’s best for kids for any length of time. Our students need living, capable and compassionate teachers and principals, not martyrs.
While I have only made some of these changes three weeks, I am confident that they will last because of the rewards of feeling much more energetic and alive. As this year ends, and you begin the process of reflecting on the year and thinking of the coming year, perhaps you need to make sure all your bases: mental well-being, spiritual well-being, intellectual well-being, and physical well-being are a priority. It’s so well known it’s a cliche, but you can only begin taking care of others when you have taken care of yourself.