Caring for Myself—as Much as I Care for My Students

By Kimberly Berry

If asked to describe myself, the words "kind" and "caring" would come to my mind—I have always found joy in taking care of others. That's part of what led me to become a teacher.

And yet, I haven’t always been good at being kind and caring to myself.  

In my previous role, I was the director of a burgeoning special education program that was a department of one: me.  I was a captain, but I was lacking a crew. In many ways, this role was an amazing opportunity. I was able to use creativity and critical thinking every day.  I felt like I was making a difference and that my work was important. I had great relationships with my students and their families.

But I was drowning. Sunday nights were the worst.  My anxiety about the upcoming week would consume me. I often stayed up half the night working and worrying. Looking back, I can’t even remember the details of what work filled my time or made me so anxious.

As any teacher will tell you, the work never ends.  And for me, stress began to build up and accumulate. Some days I would cry in the car on my way to work and hope that my students couldn’t see how terrible I felt. I had this fear that if I stopped working—constantly—even for a moment, everything would fall apart.  My family and friends advised me to just turn off my work computer and stop at the end of the day or on the weekends. “But they have never been teachers!” I’d tell myself. They didn’t understand the situation. There’s always more to do!

In my new (current) role, work has felt much more manageable.  

Those close to me occasionally ask why this year feels so different.  In some ways, it is the priorities and mindset of the school and administration.  For one, I get thirty minutes of paid work time bi-weekly with the Teaching Well to prioritize my own self-regulation and wellbeing in one-on-one mindfulness coaching with found, Kelly Knoche.

In that time will Kelly,  I have learned a lot about my own signs of fatigue—a lack of patience, less focused thoughts—and can better predict and manage them. Plus, I have the kind of amazing supervisor that everyone should have, who responds to my laments of "I'm behind this Monday because I spent too much time with my family over the weekend," with, “You aren’t behind!  You should never apologize for spending time with your family. That’s what weekends are for!”

By and by, I have learned to accept the grace, patience, and spaciousness that others offer me and extend that grace to myself more often.

I realize now that it wasn’t necessarily the environment or the role that I was in, but rather my own inability to self-regulate and prioritize my own life beyond and outside of my classroom. I think about those moments, overwhelmed and crying in my car, and I realize how obvious it is that you can’t give 100% to your students if you’re not at 100% yourself.

Making sure that I am committed to taking time for self care—even just 5 or 10 minutes of quiet within my ever-chaotic days—has helped to make this my most successful year yet. I love my students as whole people, with all of their struggles and amazing successes. And, now, I’m learning how to bring that love home to myself, too—along with all of my struggles and successes.