We Can't Pour from an Empty Cup: mental health is for teachers, too

Dec 03, 2019

If you've ever flown on an airplane, you know well the following 'in-the-event-of-an-emergency' directive by heart:

'Please secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.'

--Flight Attendant (preferably one of the ones who let's me stuff all my crap under the seat)

I'll admit, it stings a little every time I hear it (no matter how many times!); because at face value, it seems a little counter-intuitive to the average Hero in all of us.

(Like, 'don't I *want* to put others before myself? 'cuzzzz the Bible tells me so...?')

Yet in the event of that kind of emergency, the most logical thing to do is--in fact--follow the dang directive (it's sheer oxygen + science, y'all).

Meanwhile, to a teacher, it's still straight-up blasphemy-talk.

By signing the dotted line to be an educator, we pledge (at minimum) the following:

  • to put our students on a path toward productive citizenship,
  • to equip them with the knowledge and skills needed for success,
  • to lead by example,
  • and to care for our students with all we've got.


So if you ask me, teachers put the proverbial 'O-2 mask' on their students first, every day.

But just because it feels good, doesn't make it right...

Truth is, even with all our teaching 'superpower' might, we can't pour from an empty cup.


If our physical, mental, emotional (and as it applies, spiritual) reservoirs are depleted, how are we supposed to pour any heart or energy into our classroom efforts?

Yet, 'Hi-Ho'...like Happy, Doc, and Dopey, it's off to class we go--puttin' that lifesaver on every student first...

  • burning the midnight oil to get that last stack of essays marked + into the grade book (though it's not even reporting week)
  • skipping that bento box lunch we so-preciously-packed because a pile of students came in for extra help (or were seeking a shoulder to lean on)
  • giving up the last RX energy bar in our desk drawer
  • shelling out our last vending machine dollar we have to a kid who didn't ~have~ a neatly curated bento box from which to grub from
  • foregoing our planning period to mentor a teacher who's new to your curriculum (or the profession in general)
  • coming in extra early to re-organize desks or tackle much-needed tidying up (don't lie, you Swiffer your floor!)
  • staying late to call parents, or to catch the first half of a student (from last year!)'s volleyball match because she begged us to come watch
  • canceling weekend plans to chaperone the school dance, or because there's just too. much. crap. in that Teacher Tote of ours


(Admit it. You've done some, if not all, of the above ;-)

We aren't conditioned...we're hard-WIRED, to operate in this way.

To give without the expectation of reward. And to give it *all*, until there's nothing left to offer.

And pa-lease don't get it twisted...we do all these things because we want to.

This isn't a complaint.

This isn't a rant.

This is honest and simple *TRUTH*.

We want to help our students be their best selves. We want to show them we care, that they're seen, that they're valued while IN our care.

Especially now.

Pressure, cyberbullying, poverty + homelessness, inequality, the looming threat of school shootings, spikes in teen suicide.

Today's youth have seen their fair share of raw, uncut reality and are battling a whole host of psychological monsters because of it: anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anger, apathy, despondence.

We ask, 'how can we reach them?' 'How can we shield them from crisis?'

I don't have the magic bullet, I don't have an invisibility cloak.

But I do have a place we can start.

And it comes right down to heeding that caution from our in-flight guides of the friendly skies: put the freakin' mask on YOU, FIRST.

If we're going to spread the energy, manifest the right mindset, deal a lil' Hope for our kiddos...we've gotta generate all that in ourselves FIRST.

Placing better emphasis on our own mental health will better equip us to elevate the wellbeing of those we SERVE.

Jill Pavich

So, for my folks in the back:

The way you're showing up every day to class...be that tired or energized, agitated or excited, short-fused or fired-up...has a direct impact on--not just the academic success, but--the WELL-BEING of your students.

So my goals for this post...

  • First, let's talk about US.
  • Then, let's talk about what we can do for OURSELVES to help them :-)

If you're still with me...let's get it!

Stress in 'Merica

According to the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey, work was the top source of stress for 60% of individuals in 2014.

(And if that doesn't strike you, roughly a third of Americans reported it as 'chronic,' work-related stress.)

In 2016, once again, work was among the top 3 stressors (falling just below worries about the future of our nation and, of course, money.)

And while wellness index scores have finally stabilized in 2019--after two years of decline--'career' continues to drop, despite.

(Wellness, by the way, being that self-directed process of working our way (in our own way!) toward our fullest potential + doing it in the most mindful way possible...)

So work-stress...that's 'Merica in general.

Meanwhile, Health Research Alliance took it a step further and narrowed their research regarding 'stress' as it exists in the school setting specifically, pointing out that 'educators are in a profession with a uniquely high level of stress and burnout'.

*raises hand*

Teacher, here. I see you, HRA.

Our career well-being is at considerable risk when we put on the hat of 'educator' (in part because we rotate--or wear simultaneously--so many hats, right?!)

And even though teachers have self-reported in the past to be among the happiest professionals out there, ranking 2nd highest in the 'emotional health index score, specifically...

...here's the part that gets me feelin' like I put my pajamas on backward:

'The one area in which teachers do not score well in (in terms of wellness, and no matter what year it is) involves our 'work environment.'

Let that sink in for a minute...

We're happy professionals, except when we're... at work?

So on campus, where we're in our Genius Zone (you know, spittin' those God-given talents of teaching + engaging with our students), we're not feeling well?

Maybe it's the cranky co-worker we share a desk space with or that damn copy machine that constantly jams.

Maybe it has something to do with our students being more interested in Tik Tok than taking notes, or our inability to lecture and write on the board at the same time...

But then there's also:

  • lacking or inadequate resources
  • work overload
  • endless accountability
  • pacing + coverage pressure
  • funding + poor pay
  • top-down decision-making
  • onerous interruptions
  • unhealthy testing culture
  • difficulty with staff and/or parents
  • lack of trust in our ability to choose what's right for our own students

Either way, in 2015, Gallup reported that only 30% of teachers are actually 'engaged' in their work (i.e. involved, enthusiastic, committed); whereas a whopping 57% prove quite the opposite, not to mention the remaining few who are completely checked out.

Stats. Gallup. Heck, AFT...

Le's get something straight right-quick before we move on.

I don't need Research Rita to step up and tell me about the bias of AFT as a source, or the slippery skew of survey numbers. I don't need to hear about standard deviations or any other 'scholarly' jargon, either.

Not because I'm unwilling to listen + respect other people's pontificatin'...

But rather, because many of us can arrive at those same numbers ourselves by taking a single, honest look around our own workspace: you've got those teachers tap-dancing to the tune of Involved Commitment, and those who aren't, just don't have the time to dance in general!

Want to hear about my own journey in self-care + inspire the bright side of your own mental health? Join me on Instagram!
('Cuz this lil' Light o' mine...I'm gonna let it shine ;-)

Now, stress is one thing. Everyone hits pockets of stress.

But when it leeches into the ebb-and-flow of our every day, that stress shape-shifts into a creature of much more sinister intent. And he shows up in the skin of Insomnia, Anxiety, Depression (sometimes with somatic, ninja-like reflexes).

Said another way, Stress is fixin' to pounce on the jugular of our mental health.

Now naturally, as an educator, I'm a ride-or-die advocate for teen mental health....

But more and more, I feel a calling to do the same for my fellow colleagues, just as well.

In 2015, thirty-four-ish percent of our teachers voiced concern that their mental health was 'not good.' (Had I been involved in that survey, I would have stood with them.)

But the part that gives me straight, gag-reflex?

Just two years later, in 2017, that number jumped to 58%.

Now again, I hear you: stats-schmats...

I respect your view that stats-n-sources are *suspect* AF...

But check it:

Teacher pals to my left and your right will openly admit they lost sleep thinking about tomorrow's annual 'checklist' evaluation; or that they woke up with debilitating anxiety this morning just *thinking* about facing Second Hour or Block A/B.)

So...the kids ain't a'ight.

But neither are the teachers...

So quit the preach...where's the Light?

Check this out.

A trend is on the rise to create campus-wide 'wellness' or self-care rooms for staff, a place where educators can go for a brief decompression-slash-recharge before returning to the next chapter of their day.

(And I'm not talking the water cooler or that blasted break-room the Wong's told you to steer clear of your first year!)

We're talkin' special lighting, shaded window panels, gravity chairs and foot-massage centers; water features, journaling space, meditation time...

Essential oils (!!)

At the forefront of this work: meet Debbi Rakowsky.

She's a district social worker in Long Island, New York, with 30+ years of experience in the field of education.

In all her work with kids, she had an epiphany moment that maybe--just maybe--teachers needed the same kind of cuddle that her pre-teen middle school cohort did.

Plenty of conversations, tons of notes, and a bold proposal later, Debbi spear-headed the first-ever 'zen' zone for her staffers. A place they could escape--even for a few moments--to re-charge their positivity + mindset batteries.

(Wondering if they have any pillows to scream into? Just a thought.)

In a podcast interview she did with Nick Ortego of Class Dismissed, she said that this gesture gave educators an incredible gift: they felt seen, heard, and valued.



Each week, she offers her teachers things like Workshop Wednesdays, where they cover topics such as managing anxiety and balancing awareness.

Her 'Lunch + Learns' bring local practitioners into the space to talk about things like diet, nutrition, acupuncture, and more.

I am digitally *bowing* to this woman right now because as a teacher, I store all too well in my memories that work-life IM-balance that defined my career for the first decade ~minimum~.

(At one point, my husband was like, 'will you EVER come out from under this pile of paperwork?!')

But here's the catch (and I know it's what you're allll thinkin'...)

  • Who is gonna build me a School Spa on my campus?!
  • Who is gonna freakin' fund it?!
  • And while I'm at it, when am I going to find 3 minutes to mozy my arse over there?!

If I had a zen space on my campus, it would look like this:

~me getting a foot massage while the 127 essays I'm balancing on my lap~


~me flipping a coin on whether to rest or use the restroom~

Me? I'd be the chick trying to 'find my center' while double thinking the tech set-up for my next class period.

In short, my brain won't LET me shut down, even for a millisecond, during the school day. (Not even if I paid it time-and-a-half!)

So while I seriously love that Teacher Zen is on-trend, it's not necessarily going to be accessible to all.

I am throwing ZERO shade on Debbi here...as I said, I bow to her.

But the 'stats' tell us that only a quarter of schools offer stress management (stress being that punk threatening our mental health).

That's even less than the 36% of support offered in the general workforce...

So what now, Sis?!

Well I *refuse* to be the Dolly Downer because it's not how I roll, so insert the part where I deal some Hope...

Instead of waiting for someone else to value us, why not value ourselves?

What can we do, right now, to better treat our bodies, the ones that stand all day, scamper to the far ends of campus, rearrange furniture, hang from the rafters to get our students' attention?

What can we do-- not just to feed our minds with knowledge and PD--but to eat the *foods* that can increase our focus, decrease our stress, and keep disease at bay?

What habits can we develop to protect our hearts, our spirit?

(You know, that Light inside that students positively gravitate toward when it's #lit?)

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a therapist.

But I am in crisis mode every day to get to the next best version of myself because that's how I'm going to make an impact on the folks I serve: be that my students, my fellow teachers, or my family.

So if you know me, you know that yoga is my jam, right?! It's where I get my self-care in. It's where I put my mental mess in check.

Don't worry, this isn't the part where I tell you to go get your downward-dog on and then everything is going to be alright.

But I DO want to share with you the micro-mindset shift I've made in the intention I utter every day when I step onto that mat:

'On this day, I ask for Strength, so that I might life others up.'

You can do that -ish while you're singing in the shower if you want.

Better yet, come up with your own.

Just keep in mind, the only way we're going to have the energy we need to do our job, be the change, make the impact, and deal some hope to the students we serve, is if we *make* that energy ourselves through thoughtful self-care.

Join me on Instagram. Mondays I'm going to spit my non-physician knowledge about how I take care of myself, how I keep my head in check, my stress levels on even-keel...

Because I think the best thing we can do is spread a little bit of the goodness we all uniquely have to give.

So if you want to know how I get down with my own wellness journey, follow me on Instagram!

Take care of you, brave teacher. Be WELL.

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