Change is on the horizon

How to ready your resilient self

I read yesterday about an adult with developmental disabilities who was found walking alone and lost. When police asked who they could call—the man could say only one name—his junior high school teacher. When the police contacted her, she said she had not seen that student in over a decade. Nevertheless, the teacher immediately drove to the police station to help her former student. And now, that student is in her care. The student’s father recently passed away and he has no other family. That teacher is now in the process of becoming the student’s guardian. Amid this crisis and the trauma of losing a parent, the only name the student could recall was that of his teacher.

Education is a unique profession that creates the conditions for such deep and meaningful connections. And, it is not just teachers who can have such a profound impact; it is everyone who makes up the greater school community. NFL Star Brandin Cooks from the LA Rams knows this. The footballer gifted his school’s custodian two tickets to the Super Bowl this past year as a gesture of gratitude for all the custodian had done for him. Cooks said the custodian was part of the reason for his success. Everyone in the school community matters and has the opportunity to make a positive impact.

As members of the educational community, you know the impact your profession has on society. The influence of education goes beyond the bricks and mortar of the schools. It is the people and practices within the buildings that foster those relationships that have legacy. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, educational workers are in a challenging situation where they have to defend and protect the educational landscape that is required to facilitate positive learning experiences. Change is on the horizon. Yet what that change will actually materialize to be is an unknown. This article will look at how we can prepare and meet changing times. This is an invitation to ready your resilient self.

Education is such a deeply personal profession. It calls on us to bring our whole selves to work every day. And, when we do that we are greeted with opportunities for growth, connection, purpose and care. Alongside those opportunities, though, lie more malevolent factors like stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and the never-ending drumbeat of change. In our province right now, educators are fighting a hard battle. Lately, I hear people asking for educational workers to keep showing up and give 110 per cent, as if that extra 10 per cent will get them through the challenging times. I take issue with this notion of giving more than 100 per cent. How can you give more than all of yourself? We need to think about this idea of just giving more of ourselves differently. And to do so, let’s look at our relationship with ourselves and others.

This past year, I had the wonderful opportunity to share my approach to resiliency at OSSTF/FEESO regional conferences all over the province. It was an honour meeting so many dedicated and committed educational workers. Many of these people were also tired, and more than that, they were sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Looking after and caring for other people, particularly in stressful circumstances, can leave us depleted and perhaps eventually disheartened. It is hard to take care of others and ourselves. Most of us know that self-care is important. It is practically common sense—you can’t be of service to others if you are not well yourself. But, I see a disconnect between the appreciation of self-care and actually doing self-care. In this case, common sense does not equal common practice.

Taking care of one’s self is one of the key components to being resilient. Taking care of yourself is required for you to be able to navigate change, manage stress, and persist towards your goals despite all the noise, setbacks, and challenge. And here the intention for being resilient is being able to practice self-care so we can continue to do our jobs well. To do so, we need time for renewal and rest. I explain resiliency as one’s ability to bounce back from adversity. What happens, though, when you are in a constant adversarial state? Some rally through times of stress with little damage, but for most of us, going above and beyond everyday—trying to give 110 per cent—exacts a heavy toll. Without time and commitment for rest and renewal, resiliency is so much harder. It also threatens our connections with our loved ones and makes self-care just another thing we are not doing well enough.

Our primal drive is for human connection. We strive for personal relationships and a sense of belonging and purpose. The core of a resilient self is a deep sense of trust, security and belonging. Knowing you matter to someone is vital. Where do you find your community? Where do you feel like you truly belong? Where is home? Where can you be what and who you are? Ironically, though, in times of uncertainty and when we feel as though we have little control over our current situation, we tend to let our stress bleed into our personal relationships. Despite our best intentions, our loved ones can end up as collateral damage of our stress. We all need a home team and that home team needs to be protected from our stress. I believe the only way a bad day at work can hurt my family is if I bring it home with me. I invite you to think about how your self-care practices can expand to include how you nurture your relationships. How do you leave the stress of the day behind and really show up for those you love and who love you? I invite you to consider creating your personal daily transition plan or ritual that allows you to let go of work and embrace “after work.” I have the joy of being welcomed home by my two Labrador Retrievers, Luna and Apollo. These two pups beat the children to the front door every time I come home. The dogs welcome me home with such enthusiasm and delight every time; they are as consistent as the sun’s rising in the east. One practice I have recently adopted is to really say hello to those pups to tap into their exuberance and truly be welcomed. My pups have become my transition prompt. Those wagging tails and their pitter-patter dance is my mental cue that I am coming into a new part of my day. And, I really welcome that part of my day!

Along the same idea, I reflect on the lessons from the late Toni Morrison. Morrison writes about the importance of transition and impact—“When a child walks in the room, do your eyes light up? That’s what they’re looking for.” When you come home and see your loved ones for the first time all day—can your eyes light up? Can you meet them with that unconditional love and belonging? Let’s make what matters most, matter most.

When we are depleted and overwhelmed, we have little cognitive and physical energy to devote to others as well as ourselves. Research demonstrates that personal care is the first item to get taken off our ‘to-do lists.’ I have learned that when I think I don’t have time for a work-out is precisely the time I need it most. Exhaustion, staying up all night, or working overtime is mistakenly rewarded in our society as performance and achievement, despite overwhelming research indicating these practices lead to burnout and illness. Words like motivation and will power abound, but I believe it is more about personal discipline—choosing to do what you need to be well and making it a priority versus waiting for time to open up. I can assure you there will never be a perfect window for you to devote to self-care. You need to make that window in your schedule and then honour it as you would any other appointment you make. How can I set healthy boundaries? What does prioritizing my health look like? What are the signs that I am slipping away from my optimal self? I believe that stress erodes body kindness. When we are under stress our nutrition and physical practices are diminished. I invite you to think about how you can truly nurture your physical body. Research explains how being in motion, stretching, sleeping, nutrition, and spending time in nature all support stress reduction. Your physical well-being matters. And, how you talk to yourself about your physical wellness matters. Show yourself compassion. Life is hard. Making time for everything including self-care is hard. Small and simple steps in the right direction count; some is better than none. Be compassionate with yourself. Carving out moments to take care of yourself can foster your sense of worth. You matter. You deserve to feel well.

Another component of learning how to be resilient in ever-changing landscapes is to reframe how we conceive of change. Change has a bad reputation. I choose to believe that people want to grow and evolve but fear of the unknown creates resistance to change. Sportswriter Allister McCaw says that what you want is on the other side of what you don’t want to go through. Can we adopt a different perspective and see that how we navigate change is actually up to us? What don’t you want to go through? Can you think about change differently? Can we use this season of change as an opportunity to see how resilient we actually are? How can we ready our most resilient self?

I believe that we can best navigate challenge when we know we truly have a home team, when we practice self-compassion, and take an empathic lens in seeing others. I also think we need to set a goal on how we want to meet change and challenge. I invite you to set a goal for yourself this new academic year regarding how you want to meet change. Choose to strive for building your sense of belonging, prioritizing your self-care, and being brave in the face of change. Be filled with a renewed sense of empathy for others. Can we adopt the perspective that we are all doing the best we can in difficult situations? So often we are tempted to get frustrated with the discomfort of change and try to avoid the challenges. Brené Brown writes, ‘we need to choose courage over comfort.’ The next time you are tempted to go around an issue, try navigating through the challenge instead. Set an intention to meet the challenge in a manner that serves you. Remember, it is when we are outside of our comfort zone that we learn what we are truly capable of achieving. Striving to achieve personal goals and setting the intention to meet change in a proactive manner can be scary. Some people even abandon their goals because of the risk of failure or because it goes against the collective tone of others resisting change. True resiliency is being brave and scared at same time but choosing to persist. Reflect on why getting through change matters to you. Remind yourself of the impact your work has on others. This can help keep your focus and strengthen your commitment to not letting change deplete you and your loved ones. Put your energy into what matters. Change can be tough, but so are you.

About Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe
Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is an educator, speaker, author, consultant and education instructor, with over 13 years of teaching and research experience at Trent University.

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