Wellness (noun): The state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.
In a field of serving others, how often do we take time to take care of ourselves? Not just a spa trip, random yoga class, or a nice meal out with a friend, but intentional, continual self-wellness?
I’ll be honest, this was a concept that has been foreign to me. It is not something that I watched the adults in my life growing up do, so it felt very selfish to me to take time away from my own family or my work to take care of myself until I realized that there is no way I can be a successful educator without making wellness an intentional priority. Daily. No matter what.
Last school year was one that pushed me to my limits, both emotionally and physically. The influx of our kids dealing with trauma was staggering. Luckily, I had a phenomenal local resource, Josh Varner (@JoshVarner65), who, through the Anne Marie Project, came and worked with us extensively to understand childhood trauma impacts and how best to respond as educators.
Our staff was truly amazing in their actions after the trainings. However, following up with Josh, we realized we needed help to help ourselves with our own wellness. The secondary effects of trauma that our staff went through were so real and palpable daily. Josh came back with a whole new training aimed at educator wellness, especially as it deals with those secondary reactions.
One of my big takeaways from this work with staff is that it is okay to not be okay. Too many staff members were putting on a brave face and not confronting the emotional toll that was happening. I realized as a leader that intentional focus on our staff well-being had to become a priority—and fast.
No More Excuses
I continued to try to be the strength and support for all. I felt like I was experiencing almost a tertiary effect from the trauma of both students and staff. The year ended, and I had an exhaustion creep in that I had not experienced. A family beach vacation helped ease the pain, but I knew that I had to make big changes moving into the next school year. I realized that as the school leader I had to take care of myself to better support and care for those I served. Not by chance, but rather by choice. In my head, I kept making excuses for my daily practices:
I can’t control the issues that fall in my lap.
I can’t control the situations that our students and staff have to deal with in their lives.
I can’t control the negatives situations happening around me.
But then I realized I do have control over a lot of things in my life. I choose what I put in my body for nourishment. I choose what time I get up and how I use that time before I go to school. I choose many of the commitments I put on my calendar. As this realization came over me, it was incredibly empowering. How might I make my wellness an intentional priority?
I started with something small. I stopped drinking soda. Diet Pepsi was my best friend, so I knew it would be interesting. I planned what I would drink instead. Just that little plan made a difference.
The summer went on, and I tried to get a fitness routine in place. I struggled with this one. As school started, I realized that my eating habits needed to be the next focus. My amazing assistant principal Erica Hogan (@EricaJHogan) and I decided to meal plan with her sister. They let me know what we would be doing was called “Whole 30.” Sounded great to me! I figured it had to do with whole grains or something like that. Oh, no… pretty much only natural foods “from the earth.”
Thirty days of this eating. The first month of school. I couldn’t believe we would even attempt it, but we did, and it was life-changing. Those first two weeks were basically a detox from all of the processed foods that had been our life. As we finished off the month, we felt so good that we’ve continued this plan to this day. It has not been easy, but having a support system has been instrumental to this happening.
I also realized that it is easy for people to make fun of your healthy decisions for whatever reason and that I had to become an advocate for my choices. Just the change in my eating habits greatly impacted my overall health and stress tolerance. I enjoyed the days, even those tough ones.
I also had the chance to go to a professional development session on educator self-care by Adam Drummond. (@AdamDDrummond). He shared many ideas to try, and one that I’ve added to my plan is Friday Reflection. Basically, on Friday afternoons before you leave for the weekend, do the following activity.
- What went well and why? (My goal will be to identify at least five things.)
- What didn’t go well and why? (My goal will limit this to one or two things.)
- What are three goals for next week?
- How will you get there?
It is important to remember that educator wellness and self-care has to be personal. Do not feel pressured to do what others are doing if it doesn’t work for you. With that in mind though, it is important to try new things because you may find out that yoga class that sounded intimidating is the perfect fit for you. And stop with the guilt! You are worth it and deserve it! And as my good friend Jessica Cabeen (@JessicaCabeen) says, self-care is not selfish, and at times it can be life-saving.
Other Tips to Get Started
- Don’t try to do it all. Pick one or two things to try so that you are not overwhelmed. As you make habits, add other ideas.
- Find a support system. A colleague, friend, PLN member, family member…someone who can help celebrate as well as get you through the tough parts.
- Make wellness appointments and take a sick day. Not going to lie…I finally did this for the first time since I was pregnant. My “baby” is nine.
- Drink water. The goal is half your body weight in ounces, but if anything, start with one more glass than you drink now. This is what I’m tackling right now. The effects have been immediate!
- Take time to send two positive emails or write two positive notes daily. Our energy is contagious.
- Analyze your before-school routine. Are you frazzled before you even start? Are you giving yourself plenty of time to be ready for the day?
- Eating habits—are they helping or hindering? You may not be ready for a big overhaul, but if anything, start by adding fruits and veggies. Small steps can go great distances.
- Talk through the hard situations instead of bottling them up inside. Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative, it’s a mindset and how we respond and react.
- Say no. Let that wash over you for a minute. It is okay to say no. You can do it without being rude. I found that I am most ineffective when I attempt to squeeze in more commitments than time allows. Of course, at times we don’t have a choice. One way I have learned to do this is when someone asks me if I have a minute, and I actually don’t because I’m already committed, I say, “I don’t right now, but I do at ____time. I want to give you my full attention.”
Read additional suggestions from my professional learning network on my blog, where this post was originally published.
Beth Houf is the principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO, and co-author of Lead Like a PIRATE: Make Schools Amazing for Students and Staff. She is a 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Connect with Houf on Twitter (@BethHouf), Voxer (@BHouf2026), Instagram (@BHouf), and her blog (leadlikeapirate.net).