30 years ago I had an epic day of playing hooky. I won’t go into it here for legal reasons. (I haven’t looked into the statute of limitations on some of the stuff we did.) I can say that it still has a place of honour in my memories.
Now, as I enter the final act of my teaching career, those same memories have benefited from the perspective that time and life experience affords.
For one, I no longer see my principal, Mr. Rooney, as a spineless tyrant but rather a product of a system that inculcated him with the idea that his role was to shoehorn me into a system that I didn’t fit into.
But that day has also left me with other insights that have helped me have a long and, I believe, successful career.
While I might have seen that epic adventure as a ‘day off’, the spirit lives on in what are often called ‘mental health days’.
Someday someone will coin a better phrase, but at the moment ‘mental health days’ is the vernacular of my profession, so it’ll do.
Giving myself permission to take a ‘day off’ here and there has helped me protect and maintain a productive mentality. Rather than success being measured as whether I’m avoiding getting sick, I choose to test whether I’m on the right track by the state of my creativity and engagement.
Generally, I find there’s no creative ‘me’ time in the life of a teacher. At the same time, the research is now pretty conclusive that in order for our minds to be creative, we need a certain amount of unstructured time. (It seems to have fallen under the very full teaching rubric of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ We would never expect our students to stay healthy, creative and productive if we were to demand they be as full on as we are ourselves.)
The bottom line is that I believe I need to carve this time out not only for my health and wellbeing, but also for my creativity and innovation.
Quality vs Quantity
Having finally decided to take a mental health day, the biggest pitfall we can fall into is to have this time merely be more of our same old routine.
My advice is to make sure that these days are actually off. Take a drive downtown, visit an art gallery or take in a parade. Using a mental health day to catch up on laundry, errands or correspondence can be very tempting. And while it can release some of the pressure of an overpacked schedule or to-do list, the qualitative experience of our daily life can remain unchanged once we return to school the next day. It doesn’t defeat the purpose of taking the time, but also doesn’t actualize its full potential, either.
The Stakes couldn’t be Higher
To really get the point here we need to acknowledge that the highest good we can offer our students is to hold space with integrity. Fulfilling the basic requirements of our job isn’t enough for us or for our students. We need to get to the point where we can avoid measuring our worth and effectiveness based simply on how many hours we put in but rather the quality of the depth of our relationships and the extent that we nurture our students’ sense of wonder and engagement in the world.
What happens if we surrender our higher commitments and determine our okayness by showing up or not? We start taking attendance like an automaton. We start lecturing like a zombie. Or worse, we get so run down that we get sick and have to take even more time off. Then we end up returning to school back where we started, rather than refreshed and inspired.
I’m not saying that to do this is easy. There is still a lot of shame for many of us around making time for ourselves, especially if it is by ‘playing hooky’. But it couldn’t be clearer that this needs to shift. Teacher burnout is at record high levels; we’re just not sustainable in our current ‘push through it’ culture. There are positive notes out there, too. Districts with ‘discretionary’ leave days are starting to get the message that creating more sense of space in teachers’ lives is better for everyone. But in the meantime, we need to take the initiative and start looking after ourselves.
Because life moves pretty fast and if we don’t stop and look around once in awhile, we could miss it. It was true 30 years ago and is still true today.