Today we are joined by Evan Whitehead, a veteran educator who is the director of special services at a K-8 school in Illinois. Evan has served in a variety of roles, from crisis and behavior interventionist to Latino parent outreach coordinator to Title 1 director. Further, Evan actively presents on reaching at-risk youth, leadership, and self-care for everyone in education, and is a national consultant for the Aha! Process.
We discuss how educators can best prepare for self-care, especially now within remote and hybrid contexts. Further, we focus on conversation on two themes: 1) how can we build systems (e.g. breaks, SEL check-ins) to ensure teachers are supported by administration, and 2) how can we ensure that toxic positivity doesn’t ignore equity and social justice in the “name of” self-care?
Evan Whitehead, a leader in social-emotional learning, leadership, and self-care, and director of special services at a K-8 school.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to episode 77 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Steve Peterson, Tim Fawkes, and Erin Goodell. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Today, we are joined by Evan Whitehead, a veteran educator who is the director of special services at a K-8 school in Illinois. Evan has served in a variety of roles, from crisis behavior interventionist, Latino parent outreach coordinator, to Title I director. Further, Evan actively presents on reaching athletes, youth, leadership, and self-care for everyone in education, and is a national consultant for the AHA process. The reason why I've invited you on and talk about teacher self-care, and right now, probably more than ever, self-care is needed as we head into a very unique and potentially radically different school year for the better. Can you talk a little bit about what you talk about when it comes to self-care and what educators could do to prepare for teaching during a pandemic?
Evan Whitehead: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it, Chris. I think in terms of self-care, right, the earlier that we started the better, right? I'm a big proponent of prevention rather than intervention. It's kind of about like, what have we done prior to this moment to get ourselves anchored? And if we haven't done that, this is a great time to start now. But we should also be mindful and conscious of trying not to do too much too soon. So just some basic things about self-care. First and foremost, are we getting enough rest? Because of the way in which the end of last school year ended, and then also the summer, sleeping patterns have changed, right, for not only our students, but also for us as educators. And for parents, probably our children's sleeping patterns have changed. So making sure we get enough sleep and get enough rest is important as well. And then also make sure that we're eating properly, whenever we will be putting into our body, you know, when are we eating, because all those things are important in terms of core principles for self-care. The other part is kind of taking out time to make sure you're organized. There has been a very quick shift for a lot of districts and schools in terms of going for crisis learning, as I put it previously, that we were in to now if we're going remote or hybrid or whatever the model may be for all in person, is making sure that we're organized and ready for the school day. The other thing I would say is, you know, making sure that we begin to really have time to do some reflection and be able to pause during our day, give ourselves some grace to do that, because things are going to be going so fast, and I don't care if it's your first year or your 25th year in education, this is brand new for everyone. Giving ourselves permission and giving ourselves grace to feel as though, you know what, it's okay. We don't know everything right now, and we're going to take it day to day, week to week, and you know, it's okay if we don't have all the answers, because I think a lot of what's going on right now, there's a lot of angst that's going on, just because we don't know. There's a lot of unknown, and sometimes the stories that we tell ourselves in our head are actually worse than the reality of what it could be and the mistakes that may happen. So I think just some of that is just being able to sit down, reflect, and pause, and just understand that we're all going through this new, and hopefully we'll begin and things will begin to settle, but just giving ourselves time to do that.
CM: Right. And I think there's something to be said when it comes to reflection. I'm personally someone who tends to over plan. I am very bad about going home and just taking a break. I can't turn off sometimes. Something that I realized very quickly going into this upcoming school year is that less is definitely going to be more. There's no reason to pick 20 different ed tech tools and try to integrate a different one every single day and think that students are going to be quote-unquote engaged for 45 to 90 minutes every single day when that's not what happens during a typical school day. A lot of that time is spent doing other things. Could you talk a little bit about how teachers could maybe arrange their class or arrange planning for their class in a way that can keep them motivated?
EW: Sure. I think the point that you said is true is, Chris, is that what we once knew in terms of the school day doesn't necessarily fit now. It's almost like we're trying to cram everything into a remote or virtual setting as we did in school, and that's not realistic, right? So in terms of your planning, make sure, first and foremost, if you're going remote or you're a hybrid model, you should be putting time into each subject area or class, virtual class, that there's a time for everyone to come together and talk, check in with people, see how your students are doing, let your students know how you're doing, give the students time to interact with each other. That needs to be built in. Definitely building in the schedule of time to check in with students, but prior to that, making sure that there's some time that teachers take before they even begin their instruction time for themselves, a nice transition to start the day. And then during that schedule, making sure that there are breaks in between subject areas to give the students a little bit of brain break, but also for the teachers as well. Also making sure that there's a lunch built in just as if we were on site. And then at the end, making sure there's time to transition and kind of decompress from the day of being online and in a remote teaching situation before we transition into our personal life at home as well. Because oftentimes, we kind of just speed through and forget that there needs a time for us to switch hats, so to speak. So having those times built in are going to make tremendous, tremendous gains for what we need for ourselves in terms of our self-care. And also I think our students will appreciate it as well because they also need to learn a new schedule and new routine. So as we build it, it'll be definitely effective for the student and the teacher as well.
CM: One that I want to talk about with you to take a critical lens at self-care is this intersection of justice and kindness. So a lot of times we talk about SEL, it gets framed as positivity, which it should. You should be positive about the environment that you're in and express positivity. At the exact same time in that balancing act, I think some maybe are pushing for positivity too far to the point where it becomes toxic. And we're no longer recognizing that the world is not necessarily perfect, and we should have just readily walked back into the school and say, oh, things were great, and we should just treat it as great because I'm practicing self-care, in air quotes. Do you want to talk a little bit about how toxic positivity can be counteracted while still practicing self-care? Yeah. You know what? That idea of the toxic positivity, as you spoke to, is really because we're not self-aware or we choose not to be self-aware. Life has its ups and downs, it ebbs and flows, and too much of anything is not a good thing. And really, there's definitely a continuum. Although social-emotional well-being and social-emotional learning does try to focus on things being positive, the reality is more it's about how do you navigate life's challenges, life's pressures into the everyday world so that you can strive, and that's it. So I think some of that can be dangerous because the reality is we've come back from what we're still in with the global pandemic, hasn't changed. Even though a lot of the language we use talks about a second wave coming or spikes in terms of cases, however, it hasn't changed. It's still here. COVID's still here, and people are still suffering from it, and we're still seeing the manifestations of that. Also, in terms of social justice issues, it hasn't gone away, even though some of the hashtags and social media have kind of disappeared in that trending as much as they were before. Those challenges still exist, and I think part of that is that's where the SEO comes into play, right? Where are we? How are we self-reflecting? Where is our self-awareness, right? Understanding what our strengths are, what our challenges are, what we do well, what we need to work on. Also, in terms of the social awareness, right, that idea of just because we're back to school and everything's gonna be fine, putting the positivity, positivity, positivity is great, but also understanding the social context in terms of where we are right now is important, and I think that's often missed as well in this. The self-care comes into play because, yes, we wanna prioritize ourselves, but there has to be a balance with that, right? There has to be a balance in terms of where we're putting our energy, where we're putting our efforts in, how we're doing what it looks like, because if we just imagine or want to imagine that simply by me thinking positive, things are gonna go better. That's not the reality. It has to be action behind it. You know, the idea of students wanting, you know, just because they want to learn, we as educators have a responsibility to help facilitate that learning. This whole idea of social-emotional learning is a journey for everyone, and it's a journey for the adults just as much because we have to be able to model what we want for students, and students are gonna come to us with challenges, right? They're gonna come with the typical life challenges that they had previously, but now they're probably magnified. So we have to be in the right state to understand that, not to think that so bad that they're beyond help or beyond, you know, the challenges they have are so strong, but really, how can we help them to understand where they are, what they need to be, and how to build, you know, a life around that so they can be a lot more successful and be able to navigate that, because that's what it's about. It's about the resiliency, and if we think that everything's going to be easy and it's gonna happen overnight, that's not realistic. So we have to be able to be realistic and authentic about our work as well in terms of self-care and self-management.
CM: That's really interesting that you bring up the word resiliency, because that to me is something that we struggle to model with our students, because it's hard to be resilient when you're constantly demanding better, especially surrounding issues of equity where, from an SEL perspective, it can seem like the world's burning, figuratively and literally. It's one of the toughest topics to bring up with coworkers, with administration, and feel like you're going to be met with, I don't know what the right word is, but not every work environment is going to be receptive to talking about issues of equity, at least openly, beyond the hashtags, beyond just putting a message on the website. How can then educators balance practicing self-care when they're talking about these issues that are systemic and wide-ranging and sometimes kind of disparaging? How can they just make that work for them?
EW: The idea is that this self-care has to work for you, and what does that mean within your context? As an organization, we have to get better as a profession, and recognizing the importance of it and making it a priority. As leaders, I include myself in that category, we have to give space for those that we serve and those that are working in our schools and our districts to do that. We can't keep expecting so much from everyone else and then say, oh, by the way, make sure you practice self-care. Well, when do I have time to do that? Are you adding so much onto my plate and are the demands switched so that even if I want to talk about self-care and put myself first, I really don't have time to do that. That's I think where we have to be able to understand that and what does that look like. Equity today, it appears so different than what it once did, and there are so many components to it. I think as we begin to kind of deconstruct what equity looks like, think about what it looks like within our own local environments, what does that look like in our classrooms and our schools, what does that look like in our communities? Because there's not a one size fits all, just acknowledging what that means and defining that and have a clear definition and a common understanding is important because there's this misconception that as soon as we talk about equity, we're talking about race and talking about ethnicity. We forget about all the other areas such as gender, such as socioeconomic status. We think about religion. We think about inclusion of students with disabilities, all these areas like English learners. I think that we need to define that and really get a grasp on that because sometimes the word equity is a trigger for some that creates a barrier, so we have to be mindful of that so that we can have those conversations. We don't put too much on people. I think that coming back this school year, there's been so much that's happened over the summer. What are we expecting of our educators? Are we expecting them to be equity experts now because of reading some books and having some book studies, which I'm all for awareness and I think that's the first step. However, now does that necessarily mean that they're ready to facilitate conversations with that? Are they in a safe place to have that, in a safe space to have those conversations because that's part of the self-care too, right? Do you want to put yourself in a situation where it's just too much for you, you can't handle it because now are you taking too much on, right? Are you ready to do that? Are we asking kind of the, I don't want to say the usual, but the typical people to do that work and are we expecting them to do it all the time along with everything else that they have to do? That's to me, that's kind of where the self-care comes in too, right? Are those champions that are typically, those people that are typically champions of equity, that are the ones that are willing to do that additional work, are those the ones that you always lean on, especially now? Are you leaning on them so much that they're not, they don't feel that they can take care of themselves? That's kind of where I see where the self-care and equity kind of come into play. That work is draining, right? To be an advocate, it's draining. To be a champion of that work is draining. And that's where I believe issues such as compassion fatigue start to get in because we often want to do so much. And then we all, we start feeling the pain of often those that we're trying to serve. And sometimes just because we're willing to do that, or we have in the past, we end up inheriting the role of having to do that within our organizations. And we forget about that we have to make sure there's a balance to take care of ourselves as well. So I think that's something we need to be cognizant of. And as I speak to my leaders, make sure we're cognizant of that as well and not putting too much on those usual people so they don't get, they don't, you know, start feeling burned out and feeling that, you know, that they're tired and they can't take care of themselves.
CM: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, burnout culture in the teaching profession is already commonplace and now I'm sure that it will only grow unless we take some measures to lessen it. I mean, you see teachers left and right, my own workplace and online, who are highly concerned about the additional planning it takes to plan an online class or to plan especially a hybrid class where you're basically teaching like two or three classes at one time. It's like additional preps. What ideas would you have for educators or maybe even administrators to basically systemically integrate self-care for educators? We talk a lot about students and giving them breaks and allowing them a choice and the many, many, many different elements of progressive education, human centered education. But what does that look like for teachers during the workday?
EW: As administrators and leaders, we have to build that in to the day now, right? What are we doing? How are we doing? How are we checking in with our staff members, right? And it can't just be, you know, wait for that monthly staff meeting because now we're already separated and isolated physically. Waiting once a month is not enough. Things that we've done in my school district during the beginning of the pandemic is that we had, you know, three times a week, we would set aside time where we would provide social emotional wellbeing for our educators prior to them starting their instructional day. So for example, the day would start at 8.30. So like from 8.05 to 8.25, we'd have a social emotional wellbeing time where we come in and ask how they're doing. We'd ask, we'd talk about different topics and have some guest speakers come in just so they could get anchored in themselves and have an opportunity to prioritize that. You know, that's time that administrators can protect to make it happen. And you didn't have to be, you know, and don't make it mandatory. The reality is what we saw in my district was that people wanted to come because it was some consistency for them to anchor themselves and to get that into their day. So even though we didn't make it mandatory, there was no additional pay for that, they wanted to come and they look forward to it. So I think as administrators we need to think about that. Also we need to think about is listen, right? We have to listen. We have to listen to those that we serve and what's going on and be cognizant and aware that we have to think about people as human beings again. We all have lives. And I think the biggest challenge right now is that, you know, the multiple roles that we have, you know, as people are coming to a head right now and, you know, you're asking an educator and a teacher to be a teacher during the day with their 20 plus students. But then they all, if they're parents, they have their own children that could be, you know, working, you know, have a remote learning situation at home. If they're a husband or a wife, so now they have the role of the spouse and then some have our caregivers, elderly, you know, parents and families, family members. So we have to understand that everyone's going through something right now and just because we see them for those hours, we can't forget that they have a life as well. So I think as administrators, we need to be cognizant of that and give people the grace and flexibility to work through this and give them that time, you know, and not try to put too much on them, right? Kind of the invisible work of educators is the fact that everyone sees us and says, oh, you have summers off, you have all the paid holidays, right, and you have all this time, you work Monday through Friday, but they don't know about when you're grading papers on, you know, after work, when you're grading papers on the weekend, when you're going to classes during the summer. Like all these other pieces are involved and I think we need to remember that that is part of the person and part of their daily experience. So we need to not too much, put too much on them as administrators so they can have their weekends off, right, so they can have time to spend with their families. Not too much on them so that after, you know, their day of working, they're not doing so much in this extra planning so that they can't relax. You know, that's part of it. They need to be able to do that and we have control of that as leaders. What time we protect, how we protect it, and then also the time that we're able to give back.
CM: Yeah, and I can't help but think as you describe each one of those things, flexibility, grace, scheduling, how that applies to students as well, just kind of going down the line, not expecting students, students have people that they take care of, they have families that are struggling. I'm particularly concerned about unemployment and economic ramifications and what that's going to do for our community and just like really basic things that were already there but are now exacerbated during the crisis and what that means for educators. Something that's helped me as an educator since spring is setting firm boundaries. The ability to say like after 4.30, after 3.30, like I'll get to you tomorrow and not feeling bad about that and giving, setting up the class in a way where people don't feel pressure that they get something done constantly all the time where that would be stressful not to be able to get in contact with a teacher because otherwise you're in a perpetual state of like, well, the computer is there and I could check it and maybe someone sent me a message and you're doing that once every half hour for ad nauseum and it's draining. With that being said, Evan, thank you so much for joining us. Do you have anything else that you would want to add or plug or something like that?
EW: You know, I think that in the conversation we've kind of talked about it but you know, that's my big push is my three Bs, the balance boundaries and breaks and that's what I talk about a lot for educator self-care and well-being and it's true, you know, we talked about balance. What does balance look like, right? Why do we need balance? You know, the importance of balance and I think that now it's more important than ever that we begin to understand how critical time and energy is and how we use that and we can't just give it away and we can't, we need to invest into things that are going to be reciprocal whether those are people because people can be draining, you know, also sometimes well-intended but they can be draining and also kind of the projects that we take on as well, right, understanding kind of prioritizing what we need to do and what we want to do. The other part is the boundaries that you talked about is critical. You know, as educators, we don't have a good track record of setting personal boundaries. You know, we respect everyone else's but we don't often adhere to our own. We say yes a lot and we don't say no and it's important that we do that for our self-care and wellness because if not, you know, people aren't going to say, hey, Chris, why don't you slow down a little bit or don't take this on or hey, Evan, you know what, you don't have to, you don't have to stay till five o'clock tonight and, you know, your office, you can go ahead and leave at 3.30, right? Those are things that we need to think about, you know, what does that look like in terms of our personal health and our physical health, right? It's okay for us to go ahead and say, you know what, I don't feel well today. I don't have to push through and come into work, you know, just so it looks like I'm doing my job, right? There's a reason why we have sick days. We need to take them when we're truly sick and especially now, right? Even though, you know, we need to be so mindful of that because I can tell you the culture of education and educators, we're not good about taking our sick time and taking our medical concerns when we need to. That's why often there's so many illnesses that run through schools so quickly, right? We need to be mindful of that. So that's, you know, especially now that we talk about boundaries is truly important. The last one is breaks, right? Taking that break, taking that time to pause, taking that time to reflect, taking that opportunity to take advantage of that time that you could spend reflecting, time you can spend with your families and just unplug, right? We're so focused on laptop, cell phone, you know, whatever device we have, and we're always plugged in. It's okay to unplug for a couple of hours, right? I know everybody can't do it for a full day, but go ahead and do it. Try it for an hour. You know, it'll make a huge difference just so that you know you're not on a schedule so that your body and your mind has a chance to just recuperate. So you know, just in parting, I always encourage people to think about my three Bs, the balanced boundaries and breaks. How can it help you? How can you apply it to your own personal life and just take care of yourselves so you can be the best person so you can take care of others that you serve.
CM: I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.