Teacher Wellness – We Cannot Serve From An Empty Vessel

Crisp, white-tipped waves of turquoise water, come forth from the Atlantic Ocean to lovingly caress the soft, white, sandy beach along which I walk. Above me, puffy white clouds dance with the sun in a pale blue sky. Its rays warm my back, as waves chill my feet.  

Palm trees, latched beach huts, and spirited volleyball games punctuate the seemingly never-ending stretch of sand. Trade winds pick up bits of European languages and dialects, mingle them with my fellow Canadians’ words, and then waft the mixture over me.

Varadero, Cuba is my March-break reprieve from snowy conditions back home. I, like the tourists I encounter as I walk here, am taking time to breath, regroup and replenish. With each step, every crunch of the sand underneath my feet, cool wave and warm sunbeam I feel the stresses of my life slip away. As they do, I think about how each of us needs time to emerge out of the dark, cold impenetrable winter. How the palm trees and turquoise waters of Cuba contrast starkly to the Canadian winter back home. The way the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves alleviate the stressors I brought with me.

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Continuing along the beach, I think about how the winters of our lives sometimes are symbolic; the burdens and crosses we bear, the rigors and stressors of our profession. As a wave washes over my feet, I am reminded that every winter—real or symbolic—contains a promise of spring and renewal, a chance to step back and recharge.

As my stress washes away, I am left the realization that circumstances in January and February dulled my shine and tired my soul. A mid-year classroom change, documentation for my students’ IPRCs, Brigance testing, report cards and IEP writing all completed in addition to the responsibilities of home, and raising my three boys—pushed me to my limit.

I see how, in addition to the responsibilities of work and home, we, as teachers, carry the stress of others within us. The anxieties, hurt feelings, and frustrations of our students weigh us down. On car rides home, we replay the events of the day and consider ways to do things differently. The remnants of one school day await our wakening the next morning. Too often they prevent us from having a good night’s sleep. It is easy to get sucked up into the vortex that is a life of service. Only an educator can understand the 24 hour-a-day impact of our profession.

Not surprisingly, it takes a number of days before the feeling I left Ottawa with—having sunk below sea level—subsides. Even then, the feeling struggles to resurface. I think about my colleagues who don’t get a reprieve. Whose stress, anxiety and fatigue weighs them down. How do they pull themselves out of the depths? What will I take back with me from my reprieve that I can draw upon the next time I sink?

An excursion to Cuevas de Bellamar provides some insight into this question. The cave located near Matanzas is over 300 000 years old. Crystals, stalactites and stalagmites protrude from its walls and ceiling. Passages are tight, ceilings low and rough and floors rocky. It is warm and humid, even at the base of our descent. Visitors must press on in the heat, to reemerge at the top of the cave.

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Walking through the bowels of the cave, I feel as if I am in Dante’s Inferno. The final staircase, a steep incline with the promise of sunlight illuminating the exit. A reminder that in “order to come out, you need to go through.”

Our tour group is the last of the day. As we ascend, the guide extinguishes the light in each cavern after we retrace our path through them. I do my best to keep pace and move towards the sunlight that marks the exit.

Passage out of the cave symbolizes my life. I must keep climbing, despite fatigue and burden or risk being left in complete darkness. Underground, I will become blind, disoriented and vulnerable. The only way up is to remain oriented towards the light.

As I step out of the cave, the sunshine reminds me that getting out of the depths requires a steep upward climb, using my two feet. I see how the cave symbolizes the daily routine that awaits me in Canada. I must find ways in my day-to-day routine to maintain energy, sense of purpose and direction. I must find ways to unplug and recharge. While vacations provide a quick way to recharge, there is no reprieve for me from the stressors that await my return. As the journey from the base of the cave shows me, to get to the top I must use my own two feet to push through to the light. I find within me the strength to carry myself onward.

Like the tide on the beach, my life, and yours, is a delicate balance of sinking and rising. It is a struggle to keep level and to resurface when too deep. Such equilibrium requires having solid footing on uneven terrain. We cannot serve from an empty vessel. We must take time to replenish. The words of Camus make this clear:

“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that…In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Spring arrives shortly after my return to Canada. The season is rife with the imagery of new life, growth and redemption. Carrying with it the deep symbolism of Easter. The agony on the Cross, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christ was filled with doubt of his own mortality and felt abandoned as he suffered on the Cross. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(Matthew 27:46). Like Christ, we must bear our crosses. Like Him, we must be strengthened by our trust and faith. God’s grace, his strength and light abide within us. These qualities enable us to make it to the top of the climb. We, like He, are not the forsaken. We are, each in ourselves, enough. But, we all must remember to not forsake ourselves. In the service of others, sometimes self-care is forgotten.

Spring reminds us that the crosses we each bear link us together. None of us is immune from struggle. Often, we bear crosses that are invisible in silence.

When Jesus bore his cross along the narrow streets of Jerusalem, bystanders were three types. There were those who stood in silence and observed his plight. There were those who offered to bear the cross. There were those who grieved for him, wiped his tears and the sweat off his brow. Ultimately Jesus bore the cross by himself. So too must we bear the burdens of our lives.

As educators, seasonal breaks, such as the one I just experienced in Cuba, are reprieves from the burdens we bear. Reminders that we must not forget to replenish our own vessel throughout the school year. There are sure to be times when you and I are at cave-like depths. Summon up the strength to go forward and upward. When legs are weak seek help. Get support. Find those who will pull you towards the light. Let them lessen the load. Help bear the cross.

The lesson of the beach and cave for me is that in my service of others I must not let my flame go dark. That keeping it burning brightly necessitates tending to my own wellness. Not forsaking my self-care. Taking the time to rest, rejuvenate and replenish. Stepping away from responsibility. Mindfully creating white space that alleviates pressure and calms the mind.

My greatest responsibility is to self. From it, all else flows.  Keeping my vessel full enables me to shine brightly for others. Let’s be mindful of this as we continue on that upward climb.

I leave you with the words from my students’ daily meditation.

Repeat after me:

I am calm.

I am centered.

I am at peace.

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Photos taken by my son, Patrick

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