My first full-time job upon graduating from college was with the YMCA. It was not a job or career field I would have chosen – and ultimately, I chose to leave it. But during my time there I learned a few things that have served me well in what has become my life’s calling.
I digress, but you see, a life’s calling, to my way of thinking, is more than a job. It’s even more than a career. It’s a passionate commitment to whatever it is that we can’t not do for the rest of our lives. It’s an inevitability that speaks directly to our hearts – and it can be, at times, overwhelming and exhausting.
So where do my life’s calling and my experiences at the Y connect? Right at the intersection of avoiding-burnout and little-things-I-learned.
A little thing like risk management – which isn’t really little, but you can avoid it becoming big if you just manage your risk in an intelligent manner (checking to see that all shoelaces are tied before recess, no afterschool tutoring without keeping your classroom door open, etc.).
A little thing like planning ahead. When you are responsible for making sure that several hundred children have a daily afternoon snack, homework help, organized game time, and a craft activity you learn the benefits of planning (and shopping) ahead.
The biggest little thing I learned, however, was the importance of staying mentally healthy. The tenets of the YMCA have always been spirit, mind, and body, and during my time there I learned just how important the care and keeping of the mind really is. Concern for the mental health of the staff was as prevalent as concern for physical health. We were not only encouraged, we were expected to take the periodic mental health day. There was a clear understanding of and concern for the mind-body connection. Recharging our minds when they became a bit run down was considered as valuable as our regular workout or taking the time needed to recuperate from a bout with a cold or the flu.
It continues to surprise me that of the little things I learned from my tenure at the Y, the state of my mental health is the one I most frequently forget or ignore. I don’t know how things work in corporate America, but in education, the unwritten rule is you only call in sick if you are close to death; otherwise, your presence is not only expected, it is demanded. Taking a day for your mental health? Pshaw! That’s what summer is for. And really, should someone who needs a mental health break be allowed to work with children?
My response is first of all, “No, that’s not what summer is for.” And secondly, “Hell yes! I want someone who advocates for the health of their whole-Self interacting with those malleable young minds.” Studies show that almost 16 percent of teachers leave the field every year, and a whopping 40-50 percent leave within the first five years. There are many reasons for this (chief among them are a lack of respect and low pay), but the reality is that the demands put on teachers can be back breaking. Most of us enter the profession because we want to serve, to help, to make the world a better place. We throw ourselves into our calling with abandon, thinking only of our students and their needs. This behavior is not sustainable. Constant self-sacrifice does not make you a better teacher (or nurse or minister or police officer or…) or person. Instead, it makes you a cranky, irritable human being who becomes ineffective and unable to help themselves or anyone else.
And this brings me back to the lessons learned at the YMCA. To this day my risk management skills are superior and my planning skills are pretty darn good. So why do I still struggle with the idea of taking the necessary mental health day (or two)? I wish I knew, but I have decided no more! After a couple of rough years on the home front, I’ve decided to fully embrace the Y’s philosophy of spirit-mind-body. I’m refocusing my spiritual disciplines. I continue to walk Tes (my dog) every morning and evening – endeavoring to add distance and speed to each outing. And I absolutely resolve to take a mental health day as needed – without guilt or apology.
Regardless of profession or calling, we all need to find balance. Taking care of our whole Self should be a priority – one that enables us to live our best life. Taking care of our Self keeps our cranky pants tucked in a corner of the closet where we don’t see them or need them. Taking care of our Self us allows us to keep answering our life’s call without losing our center.
So go ahead and schedule that break you need. Take a day to go mental. No guilt. No apologies. Do it for yourself, first, and others will notice and appreciate the results.