By Anna Nolin
Originally posted November 2013
Last May, I saw off long-time 5th grade teacher, Kay Dopfel, and spoke at her retirement party. Those of you who know Ms. Dopfel or whose children do, know that she was a graceful, smart and hardworking professional who touched the lives of many children and families.
I always interview exiting or retiring staff to hear their reflections and experiences; veteran staff members have so much to teach us all. In her exit interview, Kay focused on what it takes to be a teacher in terms of mindset, which translates into a lifestyle and a way of interacting with the world.
At the time I was interviewing Kay and reflecting upon her ideas, I took up Bikram Yoga. The intensity of my own work as the Wilson Principal had increased significantly in the 10 years I had worked there, and my stress level was high. I sought yoga as a way to try to fit both meditation and exercise into a regular schedule in my life.
I chose Bikram because I am a wonderful multi-tasker—sometimes to my detriment. I can do many things at once and, as a life-long runner, I would run and mentally work out papers to be written, teacher evaluations, my budgets, grant ideas, personnel matters. I could think and talk to myself as if I was working. Running had ceased to engage my mind enough to be free and relaxed for that time period.
Enter Bikram yoga. It’s for tough nuts like me that need a 105 degree room to get their attention. Because it’s so hot and the poses are hard, I cannot think about anything else. And besides that, the stretches, breathing, and poses are good for building strength and balance. I took my 22 year old sister with me and she agreed, it was the toughest kind of exercise because it required your concentration and your body.
So Bikram and it’s comforting regularity--26 poses, 2 breathing excrcises and 90 minutes was what connected me to Kay. As I lay in class one Sunday in savassana (dead man’s pose) the instructor indicated: “you come to this class each week or each day with the body and mind you have and you do the best that you can. Each day will be different, you will be better hydrated one day and rested the next and this will change your interaction with the work. But it is your mindset, your commitment to it that will carry you and gain strength each day.”
Kay’s comments about the strong mindset required to meet a career in education, 180 days, 7 periods, 100 students, year after year and the commitment, strength and balance that requires cannot be understated. In light of certain recent accountability measures--pressures and stress on teachers is high. Recently, a teacher I respect a great deal shared in a meeting how much she was struggling with the death of Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer--to the point where she could not participate in a dialogue about instructional improvements and technology--she could only think about the moral and mental health status of her students. She was rocked and the intensity of her feeling and speech at an unexpected time, startled me. It has stuck in my head the effect of recent events, recent mandates, the manner of public interaction with staff. As I work within our system, teachers cite this year as feeling more stressful and tense than before. I have been rolling it around in my brain as I want to support teachers and make their lives better as they make the difference in the lives of our students.
While it's been a few weeks since that story broke, it's still on the minds of our staff and on my mind, too. There is an uneasiness in certain conversations and a worry about our young people that we all share, but this goes beyond that to their own role and interactions with students--how our mindset has to shift in order to place events like this within our thinking.
This past Sunday as I again lay in savassana after completing the camel pose (see picture below), my instructor crooned: "Whatever you feel after camel (ustrasana) pose is normal--you have just stimulated the whole of your nervous system. You have opened yourself wide open to the stretch and whatever you feel--dizzy, euphoric, sad, sleepy, energized--it's all normal."
Teaching is a stressful career. Gone are the days when teachers could expect long vacations and summers off. Education requirements and recertification cycles are rigorous and teachers must take courses constantly in order to keep up. The number of hours that teachers work outside the classroom –an estimated average of 3-5 hours over and above the 8 hours they spent teaching, planning, coaching and counseling--continues to grow. Forget how much teachers think about their kids when they aren't "officially working." As a former English teacher, I never read a book without thinking, "How can I use this?" I corrected papers constantly; I dreamed of projects and then revamped them to meet the new children in front of me each year. Teachers and educators pour their hearts and souls into the work and there is an emotional component to coaching, growing and guiding young people that cannot be quantified. You take teaching on as a vocation --the good teachers see it as a calling. Because of this, each day can feel like putting yourself in camel pose--you are utterly exposed--open to the stretch but vulnerable to the punch, the kick, the challenges of being a teacher today.
So, to support teachers, I offer this news about putting yourself "in camel" in your work each day. The yoga stretch:
- creates maximum compression of the spine, which stimulates the nervous system.
- improves flexibility... relieves backache, and helps avoid degeneration of the spine...
- helps avoid constipation and end constipation
So, too....does your teaching and your work as a teacher. It's hard and scary but the benefits are phenomenal. Perhaps this metaphor has gone on too long, but, in these dark days of November, when you are holding on until Thanksgiving break, when they wonder "why do I always have to do so much work? be so exposed? never shut off from work?" In this small way, I wanted to appreciate your ability to stretch yourselves daily in their work, provide stimulation for kids, demonstrate constant flexibility, and work to ensure that our students avoid degeneration and constipation in their thinking, growing and learning. Remember, the benefits of the stretch, the exposure, the compression outweigh any feeling you may feel as you recover each day from the pose.
I appreciate how vulnerable you sometimes feel and, in this time of Thanksgiving...just wanted to say that you are a part of what I am thankful for each day. Stay strong in your teacher mindset and know you are supported.