6 Self Care Strategies for Educators (and Everyone Else!) that are Free .99


The work of educators is a daily fight against systems of oppression. We may not be seen on television marching in the streets, but every lesson plan affirming the identity of our scholars, every moment of joy we create, every restorative conversation we opt into over suspension, and every time we address the counterproductive actions of adults is an act of resistance. It is not abnormal in this work to experience an emotional high and it immediately be followed by an emotional low.  These contradictory moments can sometimes happen within the same hour. As a school leader I realized very quickly, if I was going to sustain my fight I had to become an expert at self care.

My initial definition of self-care included massages, pedicures, and wine on the weekends.  As I got deeper into my leadership journey, I realized the primary source of my stress was internal. The unrealistic expectations I would hold myself accountable to or the unproductive internal dialogue I would have were gasoline to my stress. No amount of wine or nail polish would fix this.  It was something I was in control of and needed to own. I also realized that I couldn't wait until the weekend to do it. It had to be a daily practice and making the choice to do so would cost me nothing.

There are 6 habits I have adopted as a daily self-care practice and guess what?!? You can use them and don't have to spend a single penny to make it happen!  We need you to sustain. Our kids need you to sustain. Check them out below and pick one to try within the next week.   

1. Saying "No"

Why is it that we feel bad saying "no" when we know what comes after saying "yes" will stress us out?  For me the reason is usually either fear of rejection or a need to control.  Saying "yes" out of fear of rejection would look like me agreeing to do something for someone else when I really didn't have time to do it or me agreeing to a social activity when I was exhausted. Saying "yes" out of a need for control looked like me taking on tasks because I wanted them done a certain way, I wanted to control the outcome. By doing this I was rejecting the opportunity to teach someone else. I was creating the pattern of me being the only one who knew what to do it and therefore unintentionally committing to do it in the future.

As my responsibilities as a leader increased, I had less disposable time and my obligation to developing others grew. For my sanity I had to say "no." For the sake of following through on my commitment to developing others around me, I had to say "no". When I did, what I feared rarely came true. I was never rejected. There were a couple of times I delegated something to someone else and it wasn't done up to my standards, but that's when I learned to be a better leader by stating my expectations and identifying checkpoints to provide feedback before the deadline. I also think the fear of saying "no" comes from how we think it will sound when delivered. The reality is "no" doesn't always have to be the two letters followed by a period. It can sound like "I wish I could but I already have plans" or "I honestly don't have the capacity to take this on but if you have 30 minutes tomorrow I can show what I have done in the past."

Last October, I delivered a TedxTalk and one of my fellow Tedx-er's delivered a beautiful talk on "The Gift of No". If saying "no" resonates with you check out this awesome talk

2. Living your definition of leadership and not others

"Don't measure your progress using someone else's ruler"

I interned with a Fortune 500 company every summer of college. I learned very early on about professional norms: what to wear and not to wear, how to style my hair, "professional" dialect, and email etiquette. Around 23 years old, I realized there is a fine line between professionalism and assimilation. I started to recognize the labeling of "unprofessional" in some spaces as code language for "your culture is not welcomed here".  I would see one's work being judged on how well they could assimilate to dominant culture rather than the actual quality of their work. It was exhausting to live a double life, one at work and one outside of work. I couldn't do it anymore. I had to practice what I preached to my students. I would tell my students "Be bold, be you, dim your light for no one."  I switched my neutral color blazers for beautiful african print jackets and my black pumps for a pair of Nikes.

I also had to take inventory of the superficial leadership acts dominant culture taught me to value.  The time you leave work says nothing about the quality of your work.  I had to stop equating how long you worked with effectiveness. This allowed me to put down the to-do list and get home at a decent hour to enjoy dinner and watch one of my favorite shows.  It also allowed me to choose not to check email over the weekend rather than feeling obligated. As a leader, when I gave myself this permission I gave others permission to do the same. 

I had to stop overthinking how I talked,  how I interacted with others, and how I conducted myself in work environments.  The reality is my core values would not allow me to intentionally conduct major breaches in the work place. I had to accept that being me is synonymous with being effective. 

What leadership "rules" are you following that are compromising who you are?

3. Having an email check cut-off time

I remember an elder telling me "Home is the only place you can guarantee your piece of mind." Checking email would not give me piece of mind in my home. Sometimes the emails were super technical and I could give a simply one word response...."Ok!".."Great!"..."Thanks!"  But then there were those times I am sitting on my couch at 8pm and see that parent email that gives you anxiety and you can't do anything about because it's 8 o'clock at night.  So you are just left on your couch with anxiety and can't even focus on Thursday night Shonda-land. I had to create a hard cut off from email. The time wasn't always the same every day, but the cut off became consistent. I changed the settings on my phone to silence that pesky "ding" that meant you had a new email. I constantly tell myself, "whatever I can do at 8 o'clock at home can be done in the morning when I get into the office." If it is an emergency, those who would need to get in contact with me have my phone number. 

Is email impacting your peace? If so, what will your cut-off time be?

4. Social Media Boundaries

There is a lot of bad happening in our world. After a long day fighting educational inequity, I sometimes what to relish in a Cookout tray with side of fries and Cheerwine, and rid my mind of all the struggles in the world. Just when I get cozy on the couch, fry in one hand, phone in the other, I open social media and BAM.....there is an article about a new bogusly oppressive policy, some new video of police brutality, or someone justifying their ignorance with a new hashtag. Setting social media boundaries is a form of self-care. Sometimes you have to turn off to tune in.  For someone like myself who uses social media for my business, it can be hard to set boundaries.  One helpful way I have found is using an app called Hootsuite to schedule my posts. I link my social media accounts to Hootsuite, write up the post, and schedule the time for it to post.  Voila! Just like that my posts become public without having to open a single social media app! 

Does social media give you ease or does it ignite your stress?

5. Ask yourself "What if that's not true?"

I am dramatic. I admit it. If you say you are going to call me at 6pm, and I haven't heard from you by 6:05pm, that means you are in a ditch being eaten by an alligator. I know, it's a bit much. I felt slightly comforted in my dramatic ways when I read Jim Collins "Great by Choice". In it he describes the concept of "productive paranoia". He defines it as "maintaining hypervigilance, staying highly attuned to threats and changes in their environment, even when—especially when—all’s going well. They assume conditions will turn against them, at perhaps the worst possible moment. They channel their fear and worry into action, preparing, developing contingency plans, building buffers, and maintaining large margins of safety." This was me, 100%.  There are times when the productiveness was at a high and plays in my favor. Like the time North Carolina rolled out online state testing and I was paranoid about how this would impact our scholars' testing experience so I created a plan. We had enough technology for every scholar to have a personal computer so we began administering all of our assessments online. By the time state testing came our scholars weren't phased a bit. 

But then there are other times when my paranoia is not productive and it's usually the times I am paranoid about something so small I can't create a plan around it. Telephone messages with no content, just a name and phone number give me the most paranoia. No lie. Why would they call and not leave an actual message? What do they want? Are they pissed? Did I do something wrong? Before I know it, I have brainstormed all the negative possibilities about why this person is calling and I haven't even talked to them yet. When I get into this unproductive line of thinking, I literally have to tell myself to STOP.  I then ask myself, "what if all the negative things I am thinking about aren't true?" As soon as I consider the alternative, I begin to relax and realize I just need to call them back.  When I do, the reason for the call is usually something so basic and 5 minutes later I forget I even had the message in the first place.  My negative thoughts do nothing but create stress. 

A phone message is a small example, but the internal dialogue can play out and have a greater impact.   I recall when a person thought I was angry because of a short email I sent when really I was just exhausted when I wrote the email and didn't have time to include fluff.  We talked and were able to clarify everything. This person mentioned they were finally relieved because they were up all night worried about why I was angry with them. Negative thoughts kept someone from a good night sleep. 

We can create negative thoughts or assumptions about a lot of things: why someone sent that email and cc'ed that person, why they didn't say good morning, why haven't they responded to my text, why they didn't loop you in on that email chain. It's sounds petty but we do it. We create negative messages and start to convince ourselves to believe them without having the conversation. The negative assumptions impact our peace, they impact our team, and they impact our work with kids. 

Stop the negative thoughts when they start to brew by asking yourself, "What if it isn't true?" and find peace in all the other possibilities. 

6.  "Be" Time

"The mind is like water. When it's turbulent it is difficult to see. When it's calm, the answer becomes clear."

Find time to just "be". A synonym for "be" is exist. Find time to just exist during the day. I had a hard realization one day that I had little to no "be" time during my day when someone saw me eating my lunch while scrolling on my phone.  They asked me, "Do you every just eat your lunch and do nothing but enjoy each bite?"  It sounds so basic but I thought about it and my answer was no. I was always doing some type of work during lunch.  Sometimes I would be eating during a meeting, lunching while checking email or I would literally be eating my lunch while walking down the hallway to my next destination.  To "be"...to exist.....It sounds so simple which means it likely is the first thing to stop happening when we get busy.  When we aren't taking time to just "be" we miss the small gifts in our daily lives! "Be" time is intentional time to focus on your own thoughts and notice the small things around you.  For me "be" time looks like:

  • reading a devotion in the morning before I get out of bed
  • listening to inspirational music on my way to work
  • creating flex time in my calendar so I can breathe between meetings 
  • taking a 15-20 minutes lunch at least twice a week in my office, door locked, with no email and no work
  • one minute of slow inhaling and exhaling when I feel overwhelmed (It sounds weird but try it! I promise you will feel so relaxed!)
  • a walk around the outside of the school building in the middle of the day 

These are just a couple of examples. How will you "be" this week?

Erica Jordan-Thomas