In a world where caregivers are expected to shed blood, sweat, and tears beyond their capacity, it’s hard not to become a martyr for the people you serve. Education, health care, and social services are all industries that rely on employees to completely surrender their own needs to serve the greater good – without recognizing that the system in itself is flawed, and is NOT sustainable by exploiting our labour this way.
And yet, here we are, begging the question, “How do we protect our peace?”
We spent half an hour a couple of Wednesdays ago during our second discussion panel chatting with two incredible individuals: Gabriel Malquisto, who works with street children in Manila, Philippines; and Michelle Gordon, who’s worked in America’s Title 1 schools, sojourned to the United Arab Emirates to learn work-life balance, and is now teaching in Texas, USA. Both had wisdom to share about how they deal with the trauma that comes from their work, and both had so much to say about how they unapologetically protect their peace.
The key takeaways:
Set strong boundaries, both physically and mentally.
Leave the trauma at work; don’t bring it home with you.
Make time to rest, or you will lose your passion for your work.
Obviously much easier said than done. In order to actually implement the aforementioned wisdom, there needs to be a complete shift in mindset for us – heck, even to BELIEVE we deserve to be at peace, even when the needs of our students are so pressing, requires bravery on our part. We cannot do our work if we burn out. Period.
So how do we protect our peace?
Click here to have a listen to the recording! We hope you get as much out of it as we did. We will update the blog post with the transcript once it’s ready 🙂
Tell me: how do you care without burning out? Send me an email or leave a comment; I read every message.
It wasn’t too long ago that I burned out hard.
I crashed so hard that I was forced to take time off from work in order to rest and unfrazzle my frazzled nerves. This happened officially in April of 2018, though I had been burning out for years before that and didn’t think anything of it. I mean, come on. Wasn’t everyone working in education completely burnt out by mid-year? What was so special about me?
BY THE WAY, it’s a red flag when feeling burnt out is normalized in your industry.
The fatigue I experienced back then was deep and heavy. On top of being the eldest daughter from an East Asian family, I was also a teacher with a saviour complex, and that was 1000% a recipe for high anxiety. I ate up all the toxic messaging, including Ellen Gruell’s Freedom Writer mentality – EVEN THOUGH Ms. G’s personal life fell apart when work completely consumed her. There’s caring, and then there’s THAT.
It actually took burning out for me to finally realize that my need to solve everyone’s problems perfectly in every way possible was making me sick. Articulating it this way makes me seem like I was insane, but there you have it. My close friend Helen even called me from San Francisco, California the week I got shingles. “Kay,” she yelled at me, “do you really need to drop dead in front of your classroom before you give yourself a break?” It’s one of Helen’s favourite moments, because it was the kick in the arse I needed to finally put my health first and get my head right (thank you, squidgette).
It’s now 2022. 4 years later, I’m healthier, calmer, and happier than I’ve ever been.
It took a lot of hard work in therapy, deep introspection of who I was going crazy for and why, untangling self-worth issues, and reimagining the kind of person I want to be. But I did it.
And I’m still me. Just… 2.0 ☺️
I tell you this story, dear community, because it’s one that is so common in our profession. We’re worked to the bone and told we do it for the kids at all cost, even if it’s to the detriment to our mental and physical health. It’s the same with nurses, social workers, PSWs, and many other caregiving frontline workers. The guilt imposed on us when we try to live a rich life is overwhelming.
(And the impacts of this are ever amplified when you consider the intersectionality of marginalized identities in North America, aka everyone except middle-upper class cisgendered straight white men.)
So we normalize endless sacrifice. We normalize burdening ourselves with the problems of those under our care. We normalize becoming martyrs for our work.
Something has to change. But how?
If you’ve been following along on our socials over the last month, you’ll notice that basically all the content has been geared towards making sure y’all take care of yourselves this summer. Because you deserve the rest. And on top of that, our next Discussion Panel is all about how to care without burning out, aka fighting the Culture of Martyrdom that pervades the education industry. Everyone who’s caught wind of the discussion topic had the same response: “Whoa. That’s quite a topic.” And it is.
Our hope is that you won’t feel so alone in your struggle. Please send us your questions for our panelists when you RSVP and we’ll do our best to answer them! And if you’ve got any tips for us that work well for you, feel free to share in the comments or email us. We’ll be sure to pass it along to our audience.
We’re all very excited to be hosting this much needed conversation. We hope you can join us.
Until August 17th, we’re sending you Love in the name of Peace and Justice.
Our #FeatureFriday Series serves to honour educators and stakeholders of education in their ongoing hard work. Creating a more mindful, trauma-informed practice through an anti-oppression framework is not easy, but the work IS being done. Every day folk are not getting the recognition they deserve, so inevitably, we feel isolated in our grind. Our hope is that this series can be a reminder to you that we are NOT alone. Let’s connect and do this together.
Mother of 3, wife, teacher, newly transitioned back to the US from teaching in Dubai. Michelle Gordon is quite a force to be reckoned with.
When Michelle first welcomed me to my video conference room (yes, it was MY link, but I felt welcomed by her), we clicked immediately. There was something about the smile in her eyes, something about how happy she was to meet me, that made me feel immediately comfortable in her presence. It also didn’t hurt that she offered to support our network without a second thought. My cousin Janice was the one who introduced me to Michelle; they taught together in Dubai. I kid you not when I tell you that Michelle said to me, “Karen, I love Janice. And so I love you too. I’m happy to help!”
(Can you imagine how loved she is able to make her students feel? One dreams of such a capability.)
So of course, while I was grateful for this kind soul, I also wondered how well she was able to maintain her boundaries between supporting others and ensuring that she didn’t burn out. And during our conversation, she didn’t disappoint. Michelle is the perfect embodiment of what it means to fall, push through, get back up, fall again, and relentlessly find ways to take care of herself so that she doesn’t end up a martyr for this system of ours. Her gentle strength and resolve had me in awe.
Michelle is originally from Illinois and currently teaches Gifted and Talented students in Texas. She taught in the United Arab Emirates for 5.5 years, the first 3 of which was spent teaching Al Ain’s local children English in math, reading, and science. The last couple of years was spent at an international school in Dubai. Both experiences were so unique and rewarding, and as you can imagine, both dramatically different from teaching in North America.
But those are just the checklist of her recent repertoire. Her journey takes a much deeper dive than this.
Life and Lemons
My cousin Janice and her husband Jake both agreed that Michelle would be the perfect person to speak on the Culture of Martyrdom and what it means to maintain boundaries. Janice explained, and I quote, “[Michelle] works so hard at her job. She’s the one who will put 120%, and yet at the same time she recognizes how important it is to have an outside life. [This includes] her kids, her friends – she cares a lot about them… She holds true to her values.”
Isn’t this what we all wish to achieve? Excellence without sacrificing our own lives?
Sometimes though, life throws you lemons, and sometimes those lemons are just rotten. You really need to sift through the rot in order to find ones good enough to make lemonade.
In Michelle’s unique case, her teaching job was NOT where she was expected to martyr herself; it was dealing with the culture shock of an uncompromising, xenophobic American credit system that made transitioning back to the US from Dubai a near nightmare. Somehow, the American system made it so that it was easier transitioning overseas than it was coming home. “I felt like a foreigner in my own country!” she exclaimed.
Between paying a disproportionate amount in rent compared to her salary, her family also found it difficult to lease a car without a credit card, even though they were able to pay cash. These simply were not issues in the UAE. “The list goes on and on,” she said, “Needless to say, my anxiety hit the roof. I ate everything in sight, clothes no longer fit and I lost sight of what I was passionate about. It took me losing my cousin to remember that we are not promised tomorrow. I have to make sure I take care of my mental and physical health to continue to thrive.”
So what has she tried to do in order to find balance through all the chaos?
“Being a mother of 3, a wife, teacher, etc, it’s challenging at times, but I attempt to find balance when I exercise or read. You have to do it; you have to find time. Otherwise, you’ll just get lost.”
And that’s the harsh truth of it. There is no Hogwarts wand to wave, no special lavender potpourri to sniff, that will magically keep you from burning out. You have to do the work and figure out what works for you, and be relentless and uncompromising in protecting it.
As she processed her grief over the loss of her cousin, Michelle took a breath and reflected on what it was that she enjoyed about her vocation. As much as the inanity of thinking about work during such a big loss makes you feel like you shouldn’t, it was still a nice moment to remember her passion and her why for what she does. “I teach because I want to make a difference.” She said to me, “I want to be a role model for children, be a shoulder they can lean on, as well as for their parents. I also teach because I honestly adore working with children.”
And in this way, Michelle is working away on the lemonade. Through her grief, through the messy transition back to America, through the responsibilities of being a mother and a wife, she is actively searching for ways to find balance so that she doesn’t become a martyr within an uncompromising system. Thankfully, her job gives her the autonomy and time to figure out her role, so in a rare case of teaching in America, Michelle’s job isn’t adding to the pile of rotten lemons (do you see how not being dbags to your employees can be such a make-or-break for them??). This is something Michelle is so grateful for, and absolutely does not take for granted.
We take a deeper dive with Michelle (and our other panelist, Gabriel Malquisto) on how they came to recognize that protecting your peace is an absolute must as educators and caregivers. Thank you so much Michelle for joining us, even through all of your own challenges, to support our community as we go through the toughest years in all our careers. We appreciate you so much!
[IDs: Michelle sits by a window with the sun shining over her face. She is smiling brightly, her face propped up by her hand with her elbow on the window pane. Her hair is partly covered with a yellow and orange scarf, and her wrist sports colourful bangles.]