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We Need to Have a Conversation About Self-Care

Positivity is wonderful, but being human means we will experience pain and suffering. When we experience hard times, our friends and colleagues will often try to encourage us. "Look on the bright side. The glass is half full." "Practice gratitude. Think of all the things your have to be thankful for." "There are people who have it worse than you." (Insert tragic story that just makes you feel even more depressed.) Brene Brown has taught us all to assume positive intentions, so I believe these attempts to pull us out of negativity are not meant to harm us. But our culture seems to promote the idea that, no matter what, there is ALWAYS a silver lining to every cloud, that positivity should be our permanent default state. We are inculcated with the idea that feeling negatively is a flaw, an error to be corrected as quickly as possible. It's not. In fact, by denying our pain, by trying to contort our negativity into positivity, we often strengthen the pain. We may be able to suppress that pain for a period of time, but there are no magical aphorisms to rid ourselves of the challenges we face as humans. And, by suppressing our pain, the artificial positivity we project can be toxic. For educators, that toxicity has reached critical levels over the past two years. Encouraged to don a mask of positivity, to be team players, to "suck it up buttercup," our educators are crumbling from within. Many have left the profession. Others are looking for a parachute and the right time to jump. And, in response to this, many administrators are encouraging their staff to practice self-care. They bring in facilitators like me to talk about self-care, but too often the motivation behind promoting self-care is to ensure that educators remain productive so that test scores don't plummet.

Because educators generally have the best "b.s. detectors," self-care is then not seen as an aid. Instead it is seen as a deflection or dismissal of the very real challenges they face. Even when well-intentioned, it is viewed as another form of toxic positivity. The time spent in a self-care professional learning session is seen as time educators could actually be practicing self-care. They are screaming, "Take things off of my plate so I CAN take care of myself." Too often, self-care becomes just another thing to add to an already overcrowded to-do list."

To the educators who feel that way, I hear you. In fact, most of the folks I know who facilitate sessions on self-care hear you. We are on your side, and we will stand by you as you fight for better working conditions, decreased workload, etc. But please, let's not "throw the baby out with the bathwater." Self-care, mindfulness, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and restorative justice are not your enemies. These practices, which are rooted in compassion, represent the hope of building a public education system that honors our humanity. Implemented correctly, they hold the promise of being an antidote to the toxicity we and our students are experiencing. The toxicity exists precisely because our humanity is NOT being validated. Self-care, in its proper form, helps us start prioritizing ourselves without feeling guilty for doing so. It encourages us to say no and set boundaries. Brianna Wiest puts it this way, "True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from."

Self-care, when executed properly, inspires us to take collective action. It motivates us to say no to things like:

  • Extra duties without compensation

  • Taking work home or staying at school late into the evening

  • Reading/answering emails on the weekends and vacations

  • Anyone disrespecting your boundaries

Saying no is much more powerful when it is done collectively. If we can stand united together in saying no, that no becomes exponentially more powerful. Where self-care is introduced as means of quieting dissent or shifting the conversation from the very real problems educators face, it is not self-care. It is control disguised as self-care. It is manipulation dressed up as compassion. We need to be able to make the distinction between this destructive bastardization of self-care and genuine self-care because authentic self-care too often winds up being misunderstood and rejected when that contrast is not drawn clearly. ​Authentic self-care gives us the courage to take off the masks of fake positivity. It gives us permission to sit with our human pain and suffering without feeling like we are broken, crazy, or defective. It then helps us summon the courage to finally make our own health and well-being a priority without being gaslighted into believing we aren't putting "students first." Self-care is about demanding compassion for ourselves so that we have a reservoir of compassion available for others. Let's support each other by making these demands together. The SCEA is here to stand with you, not just to build the schools students deserve, but the schools our educators and support staff deserve as well.

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