Wandering in York County

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Simple things like a foam roller can release the tension teachers feel from hunching our shoulders throughout the day. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Duty to ourselves: Teachers intentionally prioritizing self-care amidst the COVIV-19 pandemic

“What did you do this weekend?” asks a fellow teacher at my school.

Finding reprieve in productivity, a 2019 response would have looked something like “cleaned my house, organized my office, and meal-prepped.” This year, however, looks different.

This past weekend I went on two trail runs, wrote this blog post, and enjoyed camaraderie with a friend. Not that these activities are totally out of my norm, but I’m more intentional about my time than ever before.

In front of the kids, we’re the encouraging, excited educators our students need us to be. Our boards read “Spread positive!” and “YOU have the power to change your mindset.” But when the car door closes at 3:30 and we can finally take off our masks, the long exhale exposes our exhaustion.

Signs at Milton Hershey School empowers students to be intentional with their attitude. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

To be frank, COVID-19 has many of us teachers worn down. I teach 9th grade American Cultures and a character development class at Milton Hershey School. This is my 8th, and most challenging year yet.

People who aren’t in front of kids – in the “trenches” as they say – miss the performative nature of our occupation. It doesn’t matter how bad we’re feeling, we have to be the loving, happy cheerleaders. It’s only fair to our kids. It’s our duty, and we’re fortunate and happy to be able to do it. But we also have a duty to ourselves, and that means self-care.

Tapping into the emotional strength required to be the teacher that radiates happiness isn’t easy, but teachers at Milton Hershey School have found ways.

A teacher’s guide to mental health during the pandemic

When school started in August, nervousness caused me to suffer from my first bout of stress-related heartburn. Not only is the start of school anxiety-laden enough, COVID-19 meant a new schedule, changing my seating arrangement, adjusted lunch procedures, and a switch to more digital classroom tools. I thought I was handling my stress well; I was wrong.

Putting on a heart rate monitor revealed that while “relaxed,” my heart was pumping at 104 beats per minute (my normal is 60). Since I firmly believe how we handle stress is in our control, I looked for ways to take better care of myself.

One of the first things I did was buy an Apple Watch. It tracks my heart rate so I can recognize when I’m worked up. I also set my filters to prevent social media alerts. Now, I can check my watch to make sure I haven’t gotten any important texts without finding myself in the black hole of Instagram or Facebook.

Due to all the stressors this year, my heart rate was running higher than it should. The Apple Watch helps me keep tabs on my stress so I can keep it under control. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

“I always try to prioritize my mental health,” ninth-grade American Cultures teacher Abbie Konnick tells me, “but this year especially I’m making sure to do certain things so that I’m well enough to keep pushing on!” Konnick makes sure to get enough sleep, turns off the laptop when she’s finished work for the day, and prepares home-cooked meals.

“I try to cook food using whole, delicious ingredients that I feel good about working with and eating,” she says. “I look forward to the part of my night where I get to cook, and I think this activity serves as a small but significant part of maintaining my mental health and happiness!”

Abbie Konnick, a teacher at Milton Hershey School, finds preparing a meal for her family relaxes her stress while feeding her soul. Abbie Konnick Photo.

As an 11th- and 12th-grade seminar teacher (a character development class), Megan Kopp takes 10 minutes every day to practice mindfulness via the Calm app. She also works on “saying no so that I’m not over-committed.”

Others, such as ninth-grade American Cultures teacher Sarah Brodish, visit the chiropractor, the spa, or a nail salon to relax and focus on wellness. She tells me she’s “spoiling” herself, but in reality she’s taking the much-deserved time to make sure her mind and body are in a healthy space that will carry her through the school week.

Here are some other stress-management strategies teachers at MHS use:

  • Reading books for pleasure.
  • Going to bed early for plenty of sleep.
  • Long walks on the weekends with family members.
  • “Treat yo’ self” trips to Starbucks (See Sarah Brodish below).
  • Reality TV shows that provide mental escapes.
  • Household chores that require mindless repetition such as power washing the deck.
  • Self-care bingo–an activity our elementary school uses to promote staff well-being.
Sarah Brodish, a teacher at Milton Hershey School, walks her dogs to Starbucks to breath fresh air and treat herself on a Sunday morning. Sarah Brodish Photo.

Self-care goes mainstream

The term “self-care” originally gained traction in 1950s and 1960s as a medical concept. At the time, it was used to describe activities that allowed institutionalized patients to preserve some physical independence. Tasks, like exercise and personal grooming, helped these individuals nurture a sense of self-worth. Hey, it works for me. Working out definitely makes me feel better about myself and where my life is headed.

Over the next few decades, the civil rights and feminist movements transformed self-care into a political action brought about by the sexism and racism that was present in the medical field.  Doctors regularly dismissed the ailments of women and minorities as trivial complaints.

In More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement, Jennifer Nelson explains how health rests on socially embedded inequalities expressed in housing, employment, education, access to fresh water, food, and air. By improving health, minorities corrected the failures of the white, patriarchal system in addressing their health needs. So, every time I take care of myself, I’m still participating in the fight for equality.

The self-care concept continued to evolve. Fitting with the changing times, counter-culturalists who wanted to escape the “toxins” of society moved to farming communes to find a lifestyle centered on total health: body, mind, and spirit. Health movements and social movements became intertwined.

Yet, these ideas weren’t new. The idea of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Pennsylvanians can trace the concept of simple living back to William Penn, the founder of our commonwealth. David Shi in The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture argues that people rejected material luxuries for a simplified life.

This is one of the reasons why trail running is so important to me. Navigating a path over tree roots and over branches while running through the woods forces me into the present. I feel my breath, the wind, the rain sometimes, and this helps me escape. Although, I’m not willing to throw out my brand new Apple Watch for it!

The idea is simple: One cannot take care of others without taking care of oneself

Unlike the Spanish Flu of 1918, we know a great deal more about ways to maintain mental health during exorbitant amounts of stress. Thankfully, my employer, Milton Hershey School, is helping as well. They offer us $150 to purchase wellness-related items for personal use such as online fitness apps, exercise equipment, and fitness devices, through our adult wellness program. I bought a yoga ball, two 20 lb. dumbbells, a roller, and a yoga mat. These items facilitate my coping mechanisms, functioning as tools to calm myself.

Another important aspect of mental health is knowing your “tells” or your stress responses. When my heart rate goes up, it’s a signal to take it easy. When this happens, I’ll call my mom or visit a co-worker, physically distanced, of course! Even something as small as chatting with my neighboring teachers between classes helps. Cultivating social connections and teamwork are “powerful stress inoculators,” writes Steven Berkowitz, MD.

While our heroic medical community is caring for the physical well-being of sick people, teachers are caring for the mental health of our students. It is with utmost importance, not only to ourselves but also our students, that we preserve our own mental strength.

To my fellow educators, administrators, and support staff, I urge you to remember yourself and take advantage of programs your employer offers, whether it’s wellness programs or employee assistance programs and psychological services to maintain your mental health and deal with added stress or anxiety.

Our kids need us, but we need to make sure our own oxygen mask is fastened before we can extend ourselves to others.

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