Teachers' Health: What Are We Doing Wrong?
This blog goes back to one of my pet bug-bears, teachers' health. Unfortunately, it needs a bit of context. Bear with me, the points I'm making are worth it. In my opinion at any rate. Which hardly constitutes the most ringing endorsement, but it's the only one you're getting...
The other day I met up with a friend of mine who used to study taoist arts with me for many years. We taught t'ai chi together for well over a decade, studied therapeutic massage, diagnostics, acupressure, Chinese Medicine, and eventually she went on to become a professional acupuncturist and a lead teacher of acupuncture at one of the country's best acupuncture colleges. She regularly used to treat me in a preventative capacity, as is the idea in Chinese medicine: You treat people to keep them well, not once they're ill (stable door-horse bolted scenario). In fact the Chinese used to have a system whereby doctors could not charge for their services when you were ill (you couldn't earn money to pay, after all), so the whole medical system was predicated on the importance of prevention rather than cure (as is the case within our own system, which also happens to be so profitable for the major pharmaceutical companies incidentally. I'm just saying. And digressing apparently).
It has been a while since my last treatment, but this one provided me with a hell of a shock. According to my acupuncturist, my health has seriously deteriorated in the last eleven months, due to factors which can be solely attributed to teaching, despite the fact my western doctors tell me I'm doing everything perfectly. I eat well according to Western orthodoxy, I get above average amounts of exercise, and I generally look after myself. Nothing wrong, excellent health. Only I know different. I can feel that all is not well. And now I have someone telling me the same thing, someone telling me she can measure how far my constitution has been depleted. I am working at a pace which, in her own words, is constantly pushing the limits of what I am capable of withstanding, and is digging into my reserves of energy every day, not just occasionally. But they're reserves I say, that's what they're there for. And when I have no reserves left, apparently, that's it. Life essence spent. Grave time.
Not a nice thought. Especially for my family.
Now I'll be the first to acknowledge that doing an ASLDP course at the same time as a secondment to leadership, a whole-school project and running a faculty on a full timetable is a struggle, but to be honest I didn't think I was pushing it that much. My body on the other hand knows differently. And therein lies the problem: My brain seems to think it knows better, and rationalises all sorts of things which are bad for my health, to the extent of saying that this is what constitutes "normal" within the teaching profession. So here are a few of the things we're doing on a day to day basis in the teaching profession which are harmful to our health, and not to put too fine a point on it, are killing us slowly by using up our reserves of energy...
Obeying our seasonal rhythms
We've just come through a long hard winter (and I'm not even sure it's finished yet, dammit!). During that winter, every animal in the natural kingdom spent more time sleeping, expended less energy, and generally took it easy in a hibernatey type of way. Plants do the same in general: They die back, they collect their essences back into their roots, conserve their energy, distil it even, and then get ready to burst forth beautifully when the sun returns and the days lengthen. What do we do? We have our longest term, followed by an alcoholic holiday, and then straight back to work for more of the same. We leave the house when it's dark, and get home when it's dark, and then carry on working, despite the clear messages from the rest of the natural world: Rest up. And then we take our holidays when there is most energy around to be doing things, and most daylight. The beginning and end of school years are utterly at odds with the natural world, from which we are becoming ever more separate. If we had any sense, we would start in February, work our way up to our best learning in the summer, and as Autumn came and went we would harvest that knowledge (with exams, I guess), and then rest over Winter when the cycle is done.
Speaking of which... We get decent holidays in this job. So everyone keeps reminding us. But how much of your Easter holiday did you take, I wonder. Me? I spent four days on a students trip and a week in school running coursework and exam prep sessions. I doubt I'm unusual in this respect either. Whether it's because we need the time to catch up on work we've not managed to get done during the hectic term, or simply because of the guilt we feel every time someone berates us for the length of our holidays, I like many of my colleagues just seem to keep working through them. How strange.
Obeying our daily rhyhms
We can all relate to the concept of a body clock, especially when suffering from jet-lag after a long plane journey, or a really late night and lack of sleep. Your body functions in such a way as to take advantage of the 24 hours in a day, with different organs peaking at different periods according to Chinese Medicine.
(I could have used the Large Intestine between 5-7 a.m. as an example of the best time for bowel movements, but you're probably eating as you read this, so let's move on...)
All of this is fairly self-explanatory, and indeed self-evident if we stopped for a minute to listen to our bodies. Instead, we tend to listen to our schedule, our timetables and our piles of marking, which results in many of us skipping lunch, or even working through them, also no-nos in TCM. You see, in TCM, every organ is linked to functions, emotions and other areas of the body. Since we're on the Stomach and Spleen organs, I'll tell you that these are linked to the Earth element, with their functions being tied to the imagery of earth: As the source of sustenance, as the "mother" nurturer. Oddly, the emotion linked to this in Chinese medicine is called "pensiveness" or "over-thinking". It is often equated to worry and anxiety. And because the organ-emotion relationship works both ways, people who are doing a lot of thinking or worrying while they eat are actually impairing their stomach and spleen functions. Hence, when we worry, we often say we "feel sick", or that our stomachs are "tied in knots". In fact, for all the goodness you're getting from your food, you may as well not be eating most of it.
Meal times are a natural pause in the day, a time to down tools and switch onto another frequency. A time to come together and socialise and share. I don't know about you, but I have yet to work in a school environment which is conducive to that. In fact, I've heard arguments for ever shorter lunch and break-times based around the fact that "the kids will get out of control". And so we as teachers have to take another hit to our health, sometimes on a daily basis. I know that doesn't take much to distract me from eating at lunch.
Similarly, how many of us go home at night and start back on the work straight away? How many of us literally get up from the dinner table and start thinking straight away, or marking? What digestion time does that afford us? And did we even have time to savour the meal we've just eaten to give us sustenance? Did we even cook it? Or did we trust Messrs Sainsbury and co to do it for us and all we have to do is bung it in the microwave, because it's "convenient" and gives us yet more time for that all-consuming work? Because we know how much the supermarkets prioritise our health over their cheaper, more profitable ingredients...
Working with our bodies
Much of what working with our own bodies is about concerns obeying their natural rhythm, but there is more to it than that. As bi-peds, we have been walking on two legs for a long time now, and our spines, bones and musculature have aligned themselves to work optimally that way. Go ask a chiropractor how much harm we are doing ourselves sitting down for such long periods each day, leaning over the books. And it's not just your back: This constant slumping, and allowing the shoulders to hunch inwards constricts the lungs, and squashes the heart. As someone who is used to breathing very deeply, the last few months of unconscious stooping have resulted in a tangible shortness of breath. How do I know? Because we used to do one exercise based on holding one's breath years ago, which I used to be able to do for over a minute. Last week I had trouble getting to thirty seconds. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Our constant availability to students means we take few breaks, and when we do get time on our own, we tend to plonk ourselves down and power through as much work in one sitting as we can while there are no distractions. So far, since this shock diagnosis, I have taken a break very consciously every ten minutes while writing this blog. I can't say I've done anything less than an hour of sitting at a time over the last year.
Not only that, but the "work hard" attitude means we innately know we are missing out on life on some level, so we adopt a "play hard" attitude. I know teachers who glug a bottle of wine and half a kilo of chocolate on the sofa on a Friday night, because they've "earned it". Don't get me wrong, I don't object to alcohol and chocolate. But the lack of moderation is a ticking time-bomb if it becomes a regular part of your lifestyle and is, I would contend, a direct result of our working habits, and that's the root cause of the problem.
By the way, in case you're interested, in TCM the Liver is linked to the Wood element: It's function is the even distribution of energy throughout the body, and the smooth expression of emotions: If you have sudden mood swings, or energy blockages (highs and lows), then they can often be attributed to damage to the Wood element.
Working with our emotions
Which brings me nicely to emotions... In Chinese Medicine, there is no separation between the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional. All are linked, and therefore you can work out your own diagnosis from looking at the types of emotions you display regularly more than others. Or don't display. Because in Chinese Medicine, everything is about balance, and the lack of expression of emotions is as noteworthy as their over-expression. Controlling our emotions as "professionals" may also, believe it or not, be damaging to our health.
My teacher always used to explain it to me like a pressure cooker: You can keep the lid on as long as you like, but if you don't vent steam sometimes, you're heading for an almighty explosion! Repressing our emotions is unhealthy, but at the same time we have to be careful about being cavalier with wilfully expressing everything and damaging our students' sense of self-confidence for life! I'm not advocating that. But on the other hand, did you know that based on population averages, there is a disproportionate number of primary school teachers who die of heart attacks? I got this from a couple of doctor friends of mine who have both noticed this pattern during their careers. My acupuncture friend explains it thus: The heart is linked to the Fire element, which is in turn linked to the emotion of joy. The constant (and sometimes false) expression of joy in some these teachers, she reckoned, places a huge burden on the heart's function, until... Same thing happens to comedians I am told. The healthy solution is to be true to your emotions, and not repress them. Easier said than done in our job.
Working with our spirits
Nourishment of the spirit is one area which on the surface of it, we would seem to be getting right. After all, the spirit is nourished by giving, and we do that every single day: It's why we call it a vocation and not a job. We are dedicated to giving to others. But the spirit needs to be nourished as well. And I've noticed that if I'm going to give a great deal every day of my life, then I work best when I surround myself with people who also nourish me, who are positive and don't act as a drain on my energy. That support mechanism is important, but even more important is to give myself time for nourishing myself. "Take a moment", as my wife says. Taste and savour the food and wine, smell the flowers, feel the sunshine on my skin. Open my lungs and breathe fresh, ion-y air. Laugh at the tiniest of silly things my daughter does, and join in, because the marking can wait. Be. And ignore the nagging compulsion to Do.
We have developed in our profession, and it may be in the modern world as a whole, a high-tempo lifestyle which is always switched on and has become the norm to us, so much so that we don't even realise the changes which have happened to our working patterns over the last few decades. I didn't anyway. Now I'll be honest and say I thought that I was doing all of the right things to look after my own health, as I've always taken it as my responsibility, and refused to abdicate responsibility for my health to someone else (I've yet to find anyone with as much of a vested interest in maintaining my health as I have for starters!). But the prognosis this week tells me I haven't been doing it well enough clearly, and I wasn't aware of it. I am losing my own sensitivity to my health, apparently through over-working. That's a shocking fact. I realise that I am complicit in this society's increasing distance from natural rhythms by virtue of not doing anything to oppose it.
So what is the solution, and what is the point of me writing this? Well, like many of you bloggers out there, I'm writing it to crystallise my own ideas, and to work out what I do about the problems I'm identifying. I realise this blog has offered no solutions, and I'll be honest and say that I don't have them as yet. But I am looking for them, and I will be testing them, and if they work, trust me, I'll be on the blog immediately with findings! Above all, however, it is NOT a call for sympathy: It is an externalisation of a thought process I need to work through for myself, and for those I love. I would partly be grateful to know that it's not just me who feels this, and I would be even more grateful for any answers. But above all, it's for me, so I hope you'll forgive me indulging myself this time out.
Hopefully you'll notice that the publication of this blog, my last for a while I think, is timed as a deliberate reminder to us to be good to ourselves as we start the new term, and as we re-calibrate our professional courses in accordance with our personal values and priorities. And as a reminder to myself, should I continue to work towards a leadership path, to think about how I set up a working environment which nurtures the bodies, minds and souls of every single person in that establishment, over and above the exam factory requirements. This I do solemnly swear...