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Secure Your Oxgyen Mask Before Helping Others

August 14, 2010

Last week’s post on Lessons from a Yogi provoked many comments from readers who are teachers, parents or both.   I am grateful for readers on both sides of the fence.

The conversation about balance gave me reason to pause and really consider the broader implications of teachers having a personal sense of balance or fulfillment.  I’m old enough to accept my own mortality and how choices I make now will impact that, and I continue consider the tremendous task adults have to be positive role models for children.  If kids see one-dimensional, hyper-driven, stressed adults, what message do they internalize? Part of the beauty of childhood are the opportunities to try many different activities and hopefully, to be surrounded by adults who support their efforts to find their passions and help them grow in ways that don’t come easily. Our actions, no matter how well-intentioned, will undermine that effort and the inherent joy of childhood if we are stressed and unbalance.

Like the oxygen masks on an airplane, we have to secure our own masks before assisting others.  Teachers (and parents) need to ensure that they have as many positive emotions before they can play a role in helping children attain the same state.  I’m not talking Polly-Anna, but rather a sense of optimism, acceptance and balance that serves you and your students.

Joann Deak writes and speaks about the role of the amygdala in learning, as it is  “the center of the emotional part of the brain and when it is feeling a positive emotion, it tends to kick into gear the thinking part of the brain better and enhances learning.  And when it is feeling frustrated or alienated or too weird to live, it kicks the cortex and says, ‘Ick.  Don’t like this. Don’t want to do it.  Won’t do it well.'”  She goes on to say how as teachers, we  ” have to grab the amygdala of every brain in front of us.”  Rather tough to do when you’re struggling with your own emotions, particularly negative ones like fear, anxiety, worry and negative stress.

On an intellectual level, I understand the role of play in the healthy development of children, and even in adults. On a practical level, I often find myself juggling so many balls that the idea of playing with a ball or anything else doesn’t even make it on my to do list.  My friend Michele Woodward offers insights on work-life balance but one that really helped underscore the importance of walking the walk is Life In The Balance.  For a lot of teachers, Michele’s comment “we’re all so nose-to-the-grindstone, unhappy-as-hell, but-hey-what-can-I-do-about-it people” can be the harsh truth of our existence. We need to set reasonable goals, stay focused on the tactics that help us reach those goals and keep our eye on the over-arching strategy to keep things in perspective and balance.

We all need a fair measure of joy, fun and distraction from our teaching lives. Read. Write. Run. Paint. Swim. Garden. Solve a puzzle. Foster a dog. Photograph children. Rock climb. Serve your church or favorite charity. Remodel a room. Meditate. The list goes on.  There will always be 24 hours in a day, so it’s up to us to prioritize, stick to that plan, and execute our days in ways that provide time for the things we are responsible for completing and for the things that bring joy to our lives.

Then we bring that to the classroom explicitly so that children see us as multi-dimensional people who embrace life with enthusiasm.  During Monday Morning Meeting, we often share “weekend news.”  It’s not only a powerful way to know your students’ life outside of school, but a way to show them what you’re all about. I admit, there are weekends that the prospect of weekend news nudges me to stop the chores to do something fun!  Share with students something about what you do outside of school. You might find you share interest or you might inspire each other to try something new.

You’ll naturally bring this balance to the classroom in more subtle ways. Children are excellent barometers of how we feel, so if you approach each day with enthusiasm, purpose, joy and curiosity, they’ll sense that and feed off your energy.  You’ll be calmer when dealing with conflicts with children and adults. The more you can let go of that which you cannot control, the easier it is to channel your energy on the things you can control (like emotions, reactions, and activities).

My husband has traveled to war-torn and developing communities  and uses those experiences as the benchmark for what he interprets as stress.  If an issue puts someone’s life in jeopardy, then it’s a real problem for him. If not, then he resolves the issue or chooses not to perceive it as an issue and moves on.  He is a rare breed, and  I  (like most who know him)  am grateful not to be in his shoes. Over time, though, I have adopted part of this attitude.  It takes a lot to really upset me, but since issues and conflict exist in life, but most of it passes when cooler heads prevail. Rarely are they worth my stress and ramped up amgydala.  I’m working on ways not to let a runaway to-do list (which are the norm at back to school time) stress me, but events and issues are manageable with the acceptance especially when my own oxygen mask is secured.

One of my personal goals in the coming weeks, is keeping the sense of balance in the coming weeks.  I’ve revisited favorite books such as Parker Palmer’s The Courage To Teach, Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey’s  Slowing Down the Speed of Life,  and John Kabat-Zinn’s  Wherever You Go There You Are.

Later this fall, teacher, author and consultant Mike Anderson will release his new book , The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out.  Mike’s offers ways for  teachers  to stay healthy and balanced as teachers so that we can maintain the passion and energy needed to meet the needs of our students.


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