With No Relief in Sight, Educators Must Manage Their Self Care

By Richard M. Long

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues indefinitely, school leaders and educators are exhausted from the continuous challenges of the job.

The Covid-19 pandemic is wearing out our school leaders and educators, or perhaps, they are wearing themselves out. What has started as a crisis has become an ongoing set of challenges that is exhausting and frightening.  Educational leaders are moving from one problem to the next, knowing well that there are no good answers, yet they are also charged with helping others by bringing perspective, reasoning, and alternatives when there are no good answers. Yet, they too need to find ways to take better care of themselves.

As a trained mental health professional, I would like to suggest that you, as a leader, take a few moments and think about how you can help yourself to be able to continue to help others. First, we all need to acknowledge that being an educator is a tireless job under normal circumstances, and with the pandemic there are many new challenges that have no right solutions.

And, each of us knows and can quote what is important to do to take care of one-self: exercise, eat right, reduce alcohol consumption, sleep better and connect with friends. Yes, I know you are saying, “That’s well and good, but I have no time.”  So now the second point, you need to acknowledge that you are important but not indispensable.  The fact is many depend on you to be able to perform your job as well as possible, and to do this also means you need to take care of yourself. For this, I’d like to offer some research-proven strategies that may help you to get started with some questions and suggestions: 

  • Do you have boundaries? Stop working every night and every weekend.  Start planning something that is good for you and tell people that they can’t disturb you – save for the real emergency.  Set those boundaries.  I knew a principal who relaxed every night by taking a hot bath and reading a book. No one bothered him during that time.
  • Walk or exercise every day. Even 10 minutes helps, and being outdoors helps.
  • Cut back on the alcohol. Most of us marvel at the notion of sitting down and having a drink, and the idea of cutting back on the alcohol fills many with trepidation. It’s easier than you think, in reality it is everything that goes into it – it is the mood that you set. Keep up the setting, but change the beverage and savor it.  For me, I enjoy the quiet, sometimes I read or watch TV, and in reality, I am calming myself down with a mood and not the beverage. 

Finally, we need to change our perspective—and perhaps temper our optimism. In a recent presentation, the noted psychiatrist Pamela Canter cited the Stockdale Paradox. I was shocked to hear this noted humanitarian quoting the senior prisoner of war from the Vietnam War. But it makes sense: Admiral Stockdale was tortured for eight years. The paradox is that he never deluded himself, he admitted how bad his reality was, but he never gave up hope and he never had false hope. He said the fellow U.S. prisoners who fared the worst were the ones who thought things like, “Maybe by Christmas we will be home.”  When that didn’t happen, they were crushed.

What does this mean for today?  Frankly, we don’t know when the pain, isolation, and fear of this disease and the economic loss will be over. While it is likely we will have a vaccine and testing, this is going to take time.  That is the reality. We can’t be saying, or even thinking, “By the spring… summer, or even next school year….  We get back to ‘normal.’” We can, however, hold the thought that we will get through this and that we can affect others, and know that we have started to care for our mental health.

You will be a better leader by taking better care of yourself – and by teaching others how to do this.  This will make a difference as your colleagues move away from thinking that your leadership includes being able to make everything better.  Talk about and practice activities including mindfulness exercises, yoga, and even art.

We all need to keep in mind that everybody is trying to find ways to cope.  Let’s help each other to stop acting as if we are the only ones who can do a particular job, duty or chore. As a leader, perhaps on any given day you are indeed indispensable, but what about the next day?   

Change how you’re are thinking, set some boundaries, do some little things to take care of yourself and you will find that you will be able to take better care of others.

Richard M. Long, EdD., is executive director of the Learning First Alliance. He has worked as a family counselor and earned bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees in counseling from George Washington University.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.





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