By Catherine Sosnowski
In the first half marathon I did, I was okay for the first nine miles. Now mind you, I wasn’t setting any speed records. I was walking at a decent clip, but I hadn’t collapsed in a sweaty, whining heap either. I was full of self-congratulations…until I passed mile 9 marker. My body was done. My energy was tapped out. My mind resembled tapioca. D.O.N.E. Done. I thought about all the sneaky, cheaty ways I could shave those last 4.1 miles off. I wanted to. I really did. But my better angel intervened, much to the chagrin of my body, and I continued honorably, if slower, to the finish.
As we round the stretch into the last weeks of school, I think of mile 9. My body is done. My energy is tapped out. My mind resembles a drop of water color paint in water, it fades so fast. D.O.N.E. Except we still have 3 weeks left. It is always a white-knuckle ride to the end of the last day.
The site We Are Teachers shared the following online during Teacher Appreciation Week. “What people don’t understand about teaching is that it sticks with you all the time. There is no getting up from your desk at the end of the day and walking away.
I think about my students as I fall asleep at night and the first thing in the morning. I realize a lot of jobs are 24/7 these days, but there’s a unique emotional labor to teaching that goes unnoticed.”
We even have lingo for this now: compassion fatigue, empathetic fatigue, vicarious trauma. Education has started to consider the impact of trauma on our students, especially their mental health. This is a good thing. Yet, the solution is always teachers will do this work. Sometimes there is training for this – a day, maybe a few- and then teachers add this to a plate that is not full as much as overflowing. Worse, the assumption is made that we are emotionally and mentally healthy enough to take on this difficult, necessary work. This is the emotional labor We Are Teachers referred to. In many ways, teachers are first responders. This is especially true for us as ELA teachers. We often know, through discussions, through student writing, where students are emotionally. I think of John who mailed his suicide letter to me because he knew he could talk with me. (I am grateful the U.S. mail was fast, and John was safe.) Or Jeanette who wrote a poem about her sexual abuse and trying to prevent her father from doing the same to her sister. Or Devin whose father was murdered by a neighbor. I think of the faces of his classmates the next day asking me, “What do we do?” and I remind myself that no matter where we work these things happen everywhere. There is no immunity.. This is the stuff they don’t teach us in teacher school.
In my new status as semi-retired, I’ve been working with a colleague at CCSU on teacher resilience. In the lit review we discovered there is very little research being done in the U.S., but there is a lot of research being done internationally. This is, it seems, not unique to us here, but part and parcel of being a teacher. There’s some comfort in that, I suppose. My wonder is why? We know that 82% of teachers come into the profession to make a difference in the lives of their students. We know 50% of first year teachers will leave by year 5. We know one of the most cited reasons for leaving is lack of support. Unless we have a group of like-minded colleagues, an affinity group, to share our stories and our concerns, the weight of each day is harder and harder until it is unbearable.
A meme making the rounds on self-care sites is “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Such a prefect line to explain what we need to do. If we don’t attend to our health – mental and physical, we cannot attend to the needs of our students. Self-care is not selfish; it is critical to our survival and thrival (I know it’s not a word, but it should be). As we move toward our mile 9 marker, I ask that you take a bit of time – to sit quietly, to turn your face to the sun, and just breathe.
Thank you for your work this year, for making a difference. You are my affinity group, and I look forward to seeing you when we are rested and full of ideas for the new school year. It will be epic! Enjoy your summer!
Side note: To celebrate the end of the school year, join CT CTE at the Florence Griswold Museum on June 20th from 1:00-4:00. See https://www.ctcte.net/upcoming-events.html for more information.