This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Four key strategies for teachers who are working with chronic pain or illness.
I hear from teachers on at least a weekly basis who are struggling with chronic pain and illness and want to know how to adapt my productivity strategies and work/life balance advice for a season of life in which they’re just not at their best.
Almost everyone will experience this challenge at some point in the career, whether it be from a difficult pregnancy, recovering from a surgery, or dealing with an issue that is more ongoing.
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I have four key strategies that I think will be helpful in this scenario. A disclaimer, of course: I have zero medical training and am absolutely unqualified to give any sort of medical advice, so please consult with your physician before taking action on anything I recommend here. I’m speaking solely from my experience working with teachers in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club who have faced these challenges and found ways to adapt and thrive.
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1. Create a plan for how you will handle daily routines on low, normal, and high energy days
It’s important to start by embracing your current energy and productivity levels without judgment: It is what it is. This is the new normal for right now — maybe not always, but for now you are dealing with a chronic issue and you need to have a solid plan for managing it.
You can think of this as high/normal/low energy days, or low pain, normal pain, high pain days, or whatever phrase is helpful for you. The idea is to have three categories, and decide in advance how you will approach your day based on where you fall in that category.
It’s important to identify these three plans in advance and create systems for each of them, because often when you are ill, it feels too taxing to make decisions and your problem-solving abilities are impaired. Knowing ahead of time how you will operate that day takes out the guesswork and allows you to fall back on pre-established routines.
You need to share, or even better, co-create this system with those you live with, as well as family and friends, so they don’t have to tiptoe around you or constantly ask how you’re feeling. Set up a code of some sort so all you have to say is “It’s a low energy day” or something similar, and they’ll know exactly how you plan to manage your time and energy, and what they need to do, as well.
For example, another adult in your household might know that on a low energy day, s/he is responsible for picking up dinner on the way home from work, or cooking and washing dishes that night. Sit down and create the plan together so each person involved knows their role to play and no one has to guess what you need.
You might even want to share this with your students. I can’t tell you how many teachers have commented on how their students were their angels during times of physical pain. Many children get extremely protective of their teachers when they know we aren’t feeling well and will spring into action to help you lift heavy objects, quiet the class down, and other things that drain your energy. It’s okay to let kids know you’re having a low energy day, which means you won’t be sitting on the floor with them or walking around during the group work, or whatever that means in your situation. Bring the kids into the plan so they can work with you, rather than pretending everything is the same every day and forcing kids to try to figure out on their own whether you’re feeling up to certain activities or demands.
2. Find a teaching buddy you can turn to, and tell him/her specifically what you need.
It’s always tricky trying to decide how much to let others into the battles you’re facing with your health. I’ve heard a number of teachers advise that you should first contact your teachers’ union, and possibly even JAN (the government Job Accommodations Network) if you have a disability. This will help you find out more about your rights and responsibilities before you make your administrators aware of your illness or request ADA accommodations.
Depending on your school culture, it may be very helpful to let your principal, teammates, and selected others you work with know about what you are going through. One teacher I talked with about this said it this way, “Explaining the situation to my colleagues helped them understand the position I was in for that season of life, and helped them have understanding and compassion when I couldn’t do more than the basics. They also were willing to lend an extra hand when I need it, knowing I wasn’t able to do as much during that time.”
A strong support network is key, but not everyone has a community of people they can rely on. Fortunately, a single friend in your school building can make a big difference. When a teammate says, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” say, “Yes, there is one thing you can do” and spell out exactly what you need right then and there.
You might ask your colleague to be available to combine your class with theirs if you leave early or need a break mid-day due to an emergency. Or maybe you’d like someone to take over lunch, recess, or dismissal duty so that you can sit down and rest instead of being on your feet during those times. Think about which responsibilities are draining your energy the most and how others on your team can help out. You can either split the responsibilities amongst several people who tell you “I’m happy to help out, let me know if I can do anything,” or if you just have one person, pick the most impactful thing and ask him to take over in that area.
Most people don’t want to take this advice because they’re worried about unfairly burdening their colleagues. But there will come a time when you can help them out — maybe by making their photocopies, or sharing the lesson activities you planned. A strong coworker relationship functions a lot like a strong marriage: If either party is keeping score and tracking who does more for the other, someone’s bound to get resentful.
Don’t try to match every act of generosity from your coworkers. Accept their help in your time, knowing that you will return the favor in their time of need. Focus on showing appreciation rather than trying to reciprocate for now. For example, if you stop to get coffee on the way to school, pick up an extra one for your colleague. Those little expressions of gratitude will mean a lot.
3. Listen to your body, and stop before your body forces you to stop.
Here’s the thing about pain: It’s designed to be a useful signal from your body that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. It’s very tempting to pop painkillers and keep moving at your normal pace, but all you’re doing is dulling your body’s message that the underlying problem is not being addressed.
Think about what happens when you warm your hands over an open flame: At some point, your fingers will become so hot you feel forced to move your hands away. You could anesthetize yourself so you don’t feel the heat, but you’d still get burned. You have to move away from whatever it is that is creating the pain, not just try to dull the sensations.
Getting in tune with your body is absolutely key. Most of us need to spend less time Googling what random people on the internet say to do and more time being still and present in our bodies, and observing the effects of our choices. How do you feel when you eat a certain type of meal? What effect does a certain type of exercise have on you? How does your body respond when you get more or less sleep?
Notice these things, and write them down so that you can begin to uncover patterns. Everyone’s body is different, and illnesses impact different people in different ways. Invest your time and energy into noticing these patterns for your own body: It’s one of your top priorities right now because it will enable you to get well again or at the very least, manage your symptoms.
Nearly every illness is compounded by stress, so observe your stressors and journal about them, too. Get serious about cutting toxic influences and toxic people out of your life.
As you learn what your body needs — and you observe the consequences of not giving those things to your body — you will find it is much easier to say no and to stop before your body forces you to stop. One of the biggest mistakes people with chronic illness make is forcing themselves to keep working or keep being productive when they are experiencing clear signs from their bodies that they need to quit.
Even when you are not ill, it’s always better to stop for the day before you hit the exhaustion point. If you work yourself to the absolute limit, you’re not likely to have a great day the following day because you overdid it. So instead of having two moderately productive days, you end up with one awesome day and one day in which you could barely get to bed. Those ups and downs are stressful not only for you but for everyone around you, including your students. So pace yourself, and stop while you still have a bit of energy and focus left.
4. Create a set time each evening after which you will do nothing but rest.
I’ve said many times that rest is not a break from productivity; it’s the catalyst for it. So it’s no surprise that sleep is showing up here as the final strategy.
Sleep is also the time when your body is best able to heal itself, so it really has to be a priority when you’re ill or in pain. This is something everyone knows to do but few people actually follow through on. To prioritize simply means to create time for. Put sleep and rest first. Sleep is not something optional you can skip if you have papers to grade. It is not a reward for when your entire to-do list is done, and therefore, something you can’t give yourself until you’ve met a list of demands.
Here’s what you do: Change your evening routines so that the tasks you’d usually do right before bed get done earlier. If you set up the coffee pot, lay out your clothes, tidy up the kitchen, etc., do not wait until right before you’re headed to bed to tackle those tasks. Do them earlier, maybe right after dinner.
The idea is to allow yourself to mentally AND physically shut down much earlier in the evening, instead of resting for a bit and then trying to get back into active productivity mode again right before bed.
So for example, you might decide that anything productive you are going to do must be complete by 8 pm. That’s the cutoff. If it’s not done by then, then it just won’t get done that day, and life will go on. 8 pm is the deadline, after which you will do nothing but restful activities, like relaxing with family members, reading, watching movies, etc.
Do the same thing for your bedtime. By 9:30 or 10 pm — or whatever time makes sense for your body —you must be in bed. I find that’s it’s helpful to make in bed the goal instead of sleep because the more I pressure myself to get X amount of hours per sleep each night, the more stressed out I get if I’m not asleep on time. I’ll lay there and get more and more anxious as I think about how few hours of sleep I’m going to get: Well, I’ve been laying here for an hour, so now I’m only going to get six hours sleep, now it’s only going to be five hours sleep. Yeah. Don’t do that to yourself. That anxious thought pattern makes it even harder to relax.
So the goal instead is to have a time after which you will ONLY rest, and a time after which you will ONLY lay in bed. That might include watching TV or reading, but the idea is that you’ve put yourself in a position to get solid sleep. You didn’t work right until 11 pm and then expect yourself to unwind in 30 seconds and be asleep by 11:01. Build up to it.
Your takeaway truth for the week ahead is this: Hold yourself to a standard of grace, rather than a standard of perfection. Let go of what you think you “should” be able to do or what you “ought to be” doing. Relax into that state of grace, giving yourself permission to feel exactly as you’re feeling right now, allowing your body to perform exactly as it’s able to perform. You can do this! And remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
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