The week of May 7 to 13, 2018 is Mental Health Week in Canada. Mental health addresses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It impacts how we think, feel, and act. Our mental health determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices in our lives. Each of us—young and old—has mental health. In contrast, mental illness will directly impact one in every five people. The remaining four will know a friend, family member, co-worker or acquaintance that struggles with mental illness. Greater awareness and open dialogue of well-being is crucial. This week #GetLoud!
In this post, Adriana Pietrantonio considers her entry into the teaching profession. Having just completed her Bachelor of Education at the University of Ottawa, she has put into place a strategy to conserve her mental health in the days, months and years ahead. I would encourage all teachers to make well-being a focus as they face the challenges and stressors of the profession. None of us can “serve from an empty vessel”.
“That’s so exciting that you’re almost graduated!” “Do you want to teach abroad?” “Do you think that you’ll stay in town?” “Do you speak French? I hear new teachers never get jobs unless they speak French…”
These are just a few examples from snippets of conversations with countless friends, family members and colleagues. After 20 years of being on my own academic journey, I am about to shed my safety blanket and join the adult world as a new teacher. This is a very exciting time in my life- with a big change coming up. This is why I was especially thrilled when one of my professors at the University of Ottawa assigned my class a task of creating our own New Teacher Well-Being Strategies to cope with the big changes in our near future. With my own past as a highly anxious child and my Type A personality, I jumped at this opportunity to plan and prepare for the big changes that lie ahead.
Finding the Silver Lining
I have been dealing with anxiety since I was a young child, so identifying potential stressors, and creating positive coping techniques was not new to me. For me, and I’m sure for countless others, change and adjustment was something that did not always come easily to me and was typically a cause of major anxiety. I’ve experienced more than my fair share of intense anxiety, excessive worrying and panic attacks from soccer tryouts, sleepovers, transitioning to high school, transitioning to university, interviews, relationships etc. While it was a huge obstacle to overcome at the time, I have finally found my silver lining through teaching.
I feel that one of my greatest strengths as an educator is that I can truly and genuinely empathize and relate to my students who struggle with anxiety. I believe that they truly feel heard and understood by a caring adult who will do anything in her power to help them. Having gone through this experience myself, I also know that with the right supports at home and at school, that these students will be able to persevere through their anxieties.
The reason I do not say ‘overcome’ is because I do not think that anxiety is something that ever leaves us. Even adults who do not have a generalized anxiety diagnosis experience intense amounts of anxiety at one time or another in their life. I would never tell a student to aim for no anxiety because that is unrealistic. There is a huge difference between an appropriate/normal amount of anxiety to feel (ie, butterflies in your stomach) and then there is the paralyzing anxiety that leaves you unable to move, breath or cope. As an educator, I am happy that I have had first-hand experience with identifying and recognizing these types of anxieties and I feel that I can use this to help my future students.
Maintaining a Healthy Mind
From my own ups and downs in my life, I was able to identify one thing that always managed to decrease stress – exercise. I’ve noticed that I feel most mentally healthy when I am physically healthy as well. I tend to sleep and eat better, therefore, enhancing my own mental health. Things just naturally seem to roll into place once I make my physical health a priority. However, when I am on the other side of that- not eating well, not sleeping enough and not getting enough exercise- I notice that my anxiety and stress levels tend to increase and I tend to stress more easily about things that I would not normally categorize as a stressor.
When I created my New Teacher Well-Being Strategy for school, it appears to be a physical health regime, and while it is, it greatly affects my mental health. Some of the strategies to improve my mental, and physical health included:
- Making sleep a priority
- Going to the gym 3-4 times per week
- Attending a yoga class once a week
- Creating a weekly schedule to follow all my goals
- Eat foods that make me feel stronger and healthier
- Having open and honest communication with my family and friends about how I am feeling
- Seek support from friends and peers when needed
These are the main strategies that I find work for ME. Moving forward, I will continue to re-evaluate these strategies to see if they still work for me. Just because something is working for me one moment does not mean it will be beneficial in the next so I will continue to monitor and evaluate these strategies.
It is a Matter of Balance
I think it is important for all new Occasional Teachers, and even teachers who are well into their careers, to remember to take time for themselves to do whatever it may be to maintain their mental health. Whether that may be training for a race, painting, music, baking, meditation or prayer… we need to remember that if we do not take care of ourselves it will be much more challenging to take care of those around us, our students. We spend so much time teaching our students about self-regulation and different techniques to get into the Green Zone, and I think it is important to ‘practice what we preach’. We are some of the adults that they will interact most with during their young lives, and I think it would be beneficial to the students, and to ourselves, if we were to model healthy habits.
The process of identifying potential stressors and creating a well-being strategy to positively cope was such a beneficial exercise for me. I feel more confident going into a new school year in September, knowing that I have a proactive approach to maintaining my mental health. I encourage all teachers, especially new teachers, to try something similar.
I am happy for the experiences that I have had because through it all – I have learned how to persevere, believe in myself when it seems impossible and have to have confidence in myself and my capabilities. The amount of confidence, as a teacher and as a person in general, that I have that resulted in persevering through my anxieties and adversities is outstanding to me. I feel that I have grown so much and come so far because of the fact that I had some extra hurdles to jump over in my childhood. And because of that, I feel that I can be a more relatable and effective educator to students who may face some of the same challenges that I did. While at the time it seemed like a nightmare, having grown up into a confident young woman I am grateful for EVERY experience in my life as it has shaped me into who I am today.