Sunday, October 26, 2014

Developing A Spiritual Hazmat Suit

Two weeks ago, I attended the Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference at Mission High School in San Francisco.

In the morning, I participated in a session led by a woman who'd taught for some years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The title of the session was something like "Self Healing for Education Professionals."

Describing her time as a teacher in LAUSD, our facilitator told us about a time an internationally renowned African healer visited her school and mentioned to her that upon entering, he felt immediately that he'd stepped into a "energetically radioactive" environment.

If you've spent any time in public schools, particularly schools that serve large numbers of students who deal regularly with poverty, trauma, substance abuse, and institutional racism and discrimination; I think the notion of "energetically radioactive" might resonate with you. Particularly if, along with these factors, you also struggle with poor administration.

Our facilitator mentioned that, in order to work in these environments, it's important for educational professionals to develop what she referred to as a "spiritual hazmat" suit.

Toward the end of my tenure as a public school teacher in New York City, I began experiencing what doctors would later tell me were panic attacks.

One day in May of 2011, I was sitting alone in my apartment typing on my computer and, out of nowhere, I felt a streak of pain shoot through my forehead. A few seconds later, my heart rate shot through the roof as if a bear had jumped out of the closet. However, NOTHING had happened. I began doing deep breathing to calm down whatever in my body was happening, but it didn't seem to work, and I dealt with a tightened chest and high heart rate for the next few minutes.

The stress of working 10-12 hour days with an hour commute to and from work, combined with a lack of exercise and sleep, and relatively inadequate diet, had me showing up to work with bags under my eyes and tremendous irritability.

Students who experience trauma at home don't need to spend their days at school with teachers and counselors who don't have a strong hold on their own lives. It leaves us less compassionate, less capable, and less able to deal with the hard problems that show up at our schools on a daily basis.

I now think of my experience in NYC as the first step on my journey toward creating my own spiritual hazmat suit. I've strengthened it over time through the development of balance in my own life, meditation, proper diet, exercise, and (most importantly) regular sleep patterns.

When you begin teaching in high-needs schools straight out of college, you have this sense that if only you care enough, you'll change the world.

And you're half right.

The caring part is important. But you can't care with reckless abandon. If you do that, you'll send your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and find yourself unable to meet your own basic needs. Forget about tending to the needs of the children who walk through your school's doors every day.

We call this burnout, and it is one reason we see such high turnover in public education professionals.

Do you want to last in public education? Here are my recommendations for developing your own spiritual hazmat suit. These things should not be negotiable.

- Sleep regularly, and enough to allow you to wake feeling energized.
- Have one off-day per week where you do not allow yourself to think about work or do anything related to it.
- Make time for play.
- Get over yourself. You cannot do it all, nor should you be expected to.
- Do a small number of things well rather than a large number of things poorly.
- Breathe deeply and meditate for 15 minutes a day.
- Take a nap mid-day.
- Take time to work out the food you're going to eat throughout the week with attention paid to meeting your dietary needs. Seventy-five percent of your diet should be fruits, grains, and vegetables.
-  Move. It can be any type of movement that works for your body, but we all desperately need to move.
- Speak with students and colleagues as positively as possible at all times. Never pass up an opportunity to complement someone.
- Work to ensure the environments you inhabit most often are welcoming and feel good (e.g. your classroom).
- Think deeply about your life's purpose and how the activities you participate in on a daily basis support that purpose.

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