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What does it look like to value teacher wellbeing?

I grew up on northern Vancouver Island (Port McNeill, BC) in a logging town. From an early age, I was taught to work hard – and I love it. My first ‘real’ job was on a construction site, at the age of 12: I painted, hammered, cleaned up, and learned to pour cement. The harder I worked, the more praise I received – from teachers, from supervisors. Later, when I became a teacher, I took the same approach: staying late, arriving early, the attitude being that the highest good was to support the youth – and if that came at a cost to my own personal life, so be it.

I remember a grade 10 Social Studies class I taught many years ago. I had one particular student who liked to find ways to push the limits, whatever limits they could find. Most of the time I did my best to be patient, understanding – I offered them choices, allowed logical consequences in their actions, and found humour and teachable moments in their comments, questions, distractions.

There were days when the class just seemed a bit more rowdy than usual. I myself would exhibit more frustration, and my response had a little more zest than I’d like. I wasn’t as able and ready to connect with an open heart, somehow. Those were the days when I was tired, stretched from lack of sleep – when I was fighting a cold and hadn’t been up to cycling into work; when I had been up late marking, or organizing an event of some kind; when I was dealing with stress.

In the past year, we have heard over and over again that in order to promote student wellbeing, we need to prioritize teacher wellbeing. If teachers aren’t heard, valued, appreciated, and supported in their own wellbeing how can they be expected to support their students’ wellbeing? This ripples into so many levels: the dynamics of a system tend play out on multiple scales, from the individual to organizational to societal.

We all know this is true: and yet it’s hard to take care of our wellbeing. Here’s two of the best arguments I’ve heard so far:

  • “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first” – this analogy comes from Kevin Reimer, of the BCPVPA. I think it speaks well to the point: we can’t truly support others unless we support ourselves first.
  • “Contagion effect” – Kimberly Shonert-Reichl at UBC has been studying what she and colleagues call the “stress contagion” – the stress of a teacher directly affects the stress of students. My own observations suggest taking this one step further to adult-adult transmission (though I have no hard research to prove it!) When one teacher is stressed others are likely to become so; when administrators are on edge, teachers feel the reverberations; when our leaders are overwhelmed, we each hold a little more stress.

I’m inspired by LifeHack, a group in New Zealand who are also working on wellbeing in children and youth and who suggest a ‘wellbeing-centric’ approach to their work. There's also some great research being done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in the US on teacher stress.

How do you support your wellbeing? Why is it important for we as adults, educators, those supporting youth to take care of our own wellbeing first? Interested to hear your thoughts, comments, perspectives.