Put Your Oxygen Mask on First
It’s called the Oxygen Mask rule: “In the event of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” It’s a simple rule with a simple message: How we care for ourselves determines how well we can care for others.
We all care deeply about kids. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have become teachers to begin with. We also care about how well we teach. We want to do better next year than we did the year before.
We take care of our kids and our teaching in many ways. But the best way to do better by both is to take care of ourselves first.
Why is Self-Care So Hard?
Self-care ideas are everywhere: have a cup of herbal tea, take a walk in nature, enjoy a relaxing bath, get seven or more hours of sleep, meditate, do yoga, exercise, etc. Yet few of us practice these things regularly. Why? Because they take time we don’t have or significant behavior changes we’ve never wanted to make.
But what if we build self-care into our school day? What if we develop simple habits, based on what we already know how to do, that fit naturally into our harried schedules? What if there’s a way to practice caring for ourselves and for our students at the same time?
“Modeling your strengths helps kids see their own. Reflecting on your strengths helps kids understand the process of self-discovery. Playing to your strengths demonstrates self-efficacy.” – Positive Action
Self-Awareness as Self-Care
When we teach kids about self-awareness, we talk to them about subtle changes in personal perspective. In a world where media comes at us literally at light speed and old norms yield all too quickly to new uncertainties, even the tiniest insights into how we feel, who we are, and what we can do make us stronger, healthier people.
When we spend time teaching kids to discover their strengths, why can’t we do some discovery of our own? What strengths do you see in your teaching? How do you leverage those strengths to teach more effectively? This is what we want kids to discover about themselves.
We know kids benefit more from a strengths-based view of themselves than they do from a deficit-based view. So do we. The more we increase our awareness of our strengths, the better we perform and the better we feel.
Think of a favorite teaching activity, something you enjoy because it works so well. When you teach it, tell your kids why you enjoy it, what strengths it helps you see in yourself, and how positive action leads to better results that improve your self-confidence.
Modeling your strengths helps kids see their own. Reflecting on your strengths helps kids understand the process of self-discovery. Playing to your strengths demonstrates self-efficacy.
As long as we’re willing to show kids how we sharpen the accuracy of our self-perception, we receive the same benefits they do. Even the smallest moments of positive self-regard—strung together across days, weeks, and months—add up to a powerful practice of self-care.
Kids often think they lack imagination. They think they don’t know what to write about or why the characters they read about do the things they do. Sometimes, we think they lack imagination, too. At times like these, what we’re all lacking is empathy.
It’s easy to confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is understanding how another person feels. Empathy is feeling it—most often by imagining it first.
To find our way to empathy, we have to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. When we have empathy for others, especially for our students, we are deeply connected to their experience of life—even though their lives are very different from our own.
We all seek the connection with our kids that empathy affords. We also want them to feel connected to us and to each other. Connection is the bridge we cross from self-awareness to social awareness. Empathy is the key to connection. Imagination is the key to empathy.
The power of empathy is strongest when it’s reciprocal. It works best when it goes both ways. When we teach kids to increase their capacity for empathy, we have an opportunity to increase our own by imagining how they feel as they try to learn from us. We can also ask them to imagine how we feel as we do our best to teach them.
Empathy is the key to connecting with our kids. Connecting with our kids is one of the most satisfying experiences we can have. Imagine teaching in a classroom where empathy is ever-present. There could hardly be a more caring environment.
“Teaching kids the skills of good decision-making, grounded in ethical responsibility, may be the highest form of care we can offer them.” – Positive Action
We strive to include teaching kids about ethics in our curriculum. We explain concepts, we share stories, we attempt to unravel the process of responsible decision-making so kids can practice it themselves – But what if they saw that process in us?
Teaching is ethical work. All day long, we make responsible decisions based on professional standards of practice, healthy social norms, and genuine concern for the safety and well-being of our students.
Kids just think we teach stuff. They don’t see the wheels turning in our minds as we determine the actions we strive to balance the needs of individual students and the classroom as a whole. All day long we walk an ethical balance beam. Kids have no idea of this.
Why? Because we rarely talk to them about the ethics of our work. We rarely tell them why we do what we do and how ethics guides so many of our choices.
There’s a reason for this. It’s scary. We face so many pressures from so many sources. It isn’t always easy figuring out the right thing to do. Yet for many, it may be the most important set of competencies they’ll need to succeed in our classrooms and in the world outside of school as well.
Teaching kids the skills of good decision-making, grounded in ethical responsibility, may be the highest form of care we can offer them. And a wonderful way to take care of ourselves.
As we walk kids through their own ethical reasoning, it’s essential to share with them our own. There are two reasons for this: (1) Ethical behavior is best learned from the models of those we respect and admire; and (2) We feel better about ourselves when we are conscious of acting with ethical intent.
Ignoring ethics, as if our choices don’t matter, leaves us feeling empty, and leaves a void we often attempt to fill in unhealthy ways. Compromising our ethics is emotionally painful, and emotional pain leads often to physical pain.
Striving to live an ethical life, as challenging as it can be at certain times, is something to be proud of, something that provides for us—and for our students, too—an enduring sense of well-being.
When Teaching Becomes Learning
At each grade level, the core competencies of traditional curriculum areas differ. As kids grow up the grades, what we ask them to focus on changes, often significantly, from year to year—especially in a subject like math.
As self-care, a learning-while-teaching mindset fits right into our schedules. Simple and repeatable, this approach lays the foundation for lifelong self-care practice. It’s a mechanism for establishing healthy habits. It’s how we bring the best of ourselves to our work. It’s how we put our oxygen mask on first.