As educators, we have a lot of tendencies that are perhaps less common in other professions (I cannot speak for them.) One of the most common and widely accepted tenants that sweeps education, is that in everything we do, we should put kids first.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? And, in truth, there are a number of times when in education that it can hold incredible value. There are plenty of teachers that need to hear it because they disregard what’s best for kids on a regular basis to support their comfort, their routine, or their unwillingness to struggle through learning something new. If you haven’t been reading this blog over the past few years (I don’t blame you, it’s sporadic) I am not big on the Eduisms that flood educational social media and conferences. This one, like most, is rooted in an important concept, but as we reduce it down and strip away the context, it becomes toxic.
The real message, as I understand it, is not that we should always put kids before ourselves, or put kids needs before our own, but that as stakeholders in education, kids hold the highest priority. When planning academic experiences, we should focus on student needs as a top priority. When making policy decisions, understanding how students are impacted should be of paramount importance. When building a culture in the classroom, or a school building, student needs are vital.
But, often we reduce that rather weighty paragraph down to the simple phrase, put kids first. It looks good on a field of wavy grass with a sunny day behind you, but those words can be toxic to the health and culture of your staff.
Think about how many schools have a culture where teachers readily stay in the building until 5,6,7, as late as 10pm each night. They are putting kids first, working the extra hours to make their lessons just that much more incredible each day.
Or, think about the schools where teachers are stressed, focused so intently on their students needs that they neglect their own.
Raise your hand if you have neglected your personal needs, your family, or your some other important aspect of your life because you were putting kids first? Good, now put your hand down you look whacky raising your hand while staring at your device.
Mental health has become a major issue in education and in truth our world. I don’t know many teachers who have not shared publicly or privately a struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Yet here we are blasting to the world that the best teachers neglect themselves for the sake of others. We are telling all of these struggling people that if they try to take care of themselves before taking care of others, they aren’t good teachers.
My point is this, if we want teachers that can focus their instructional decisions based on what kids need, and we want teachers who are part of a culture that inspires and empowers learners toward their full potential, then we must have teachers that are healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually (for whatever you may take that to mean.) You can only operate on selflessness in the classroom for so long before you flame out and consume yourself.
Eduisms like these are part of an issue of bumper stickering our language to make it brandable. When it’s brandable, it spreads fast, and the hard work of building real understanding is often left by the wayside.
So take care of yourself. Put yourself first. I’m giving you permission (not that you needed it from me) to care about yourself first so that when your kids’ needs and well-being need to be met, you’ll be wholly up for the challenge day after day. By allowing yourself to put yourself first, I don’t mean to neglect change, ignore opportunities to learn, or not provide your kids with everything possible to help them. I simply mean that it’s ok to go home early sometimes, that it’s ok to not do that work on Sunday or to take a day off to go on your kid’s field trip. It’s ok. It doesn’t make you any less awesome as an educator. If anything, it will probably make you even more so.
Until the next inspiration hits, I leave you with my new favorite line for our world via Philip Larkin.