Educators often sacrifice personal time and energy to their students’ and school’s needs but when these sacrifices outweigh personal care, both teacher and student suffer.
Today on the podcast, we’re bringing you a special preview chapter from Colleen Cruz’s new audiobook, Risk. Fail. Rise.: A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes.
In this excerpt from her book, we hear Colleen read the first half of the essay, “ Martyrs Make More Mistakes.” She writes how the sacrifices educators make not only depletes their personal energy and goals, but also increases the frequency of harmful mistakes made in the classroom.
Read along with Colleen below...
Every career has its hero archetype: the rags to riches banker, the angelic nurse, the therapist bartender. This is no different for teachers. The teacher savior-martyr archetype appears in an endless stream of films, television, and books—from Mr. Thackeray in To Sir with Love to Miss Honey in Matilda to Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. We have been fed the story of the self-sacrificing teacher who works themselves to the bone for the good of their students. And through that sacrifice, only because of that sacrifice, they transform their students’ lives. Outside of that problematic archetype, momentum within the job itself can push teachers toward that identity. We are often the first ones on the scene when our
students need something education related—or in many cases, not education related. We are first responders. When we rush to assist a child, whether the very young or those on the edge of adulthood, we often put our own needs aside to make sure they get what they need. As teachers, we are caretakers by the nature of our positions. Our instinct almost always is to care for our students before we care
This is a noble ideal.
But it is also impossible. Children will always need more, so there is no clear end to the amount of giving a teacher can do. And when teachers give teaching their all, they often end up depleted, drained of the physical and emotional energy to be the sort of skilled practitioner we’d all like to be. Let me say that another way: when educators give so much to their students that they are feeling empty, they do not have the ability to do the sort of high-level thinking and creative work, let alone have the physical stamina to be the excellent teacher their children need. The heroic martyr teacher might make for great film, but it does not make for great instruction.
This can be a hard thing to hold on to when we are not only romanticized when we act as a martyr but are also encouraged and expected to do so. Many teachers report that they are gaslighted by everyone from their administrators to their colleagues when they raise the question of addressing their own needs. They are repeatedly told how important they are and how they should prioritize their well-being, and then asked to do the exact opposite. From being told they can’t leave a professional development session to go to the bathroom to being expected to use their own money to create classroom libraries to being reminded to only take thirty minutes for lunch during online pandemic learning, these “little” things can collectively destabilize a teacher to the point of burnout. Each of these things feel normal, somewhat doable, sometimes inspirational . . . in theory. Sometimes they come with bragging rights, like “I haven’t peed since I left my house this morning!” or “I can’t remember if I even ate today” or “My family conferences went so long the custodial staff kicked us out.” And administrators or peers impressed with our dedication or commiserating in good-natured ways about the lack of time for ourselves can make it hard to see just how unhealthy these practices become when they become an expected and accepted part of the way teachers work.
Teachers are told to take care of themselves, but then promptly told why they can’t. One teacher was considering taking a day off for a doctor’s appointment and their principal’s response was, “The students need to see your face. And when you aren’t around, those kids don’t learn. When you get back it’s such a mess that you’ll make yourself sicker just trying to catch them all up.”
More often than not educators hear that by prioritizing their own needs they are somehow harming children or doing something wrong. Many of us are already prone to putting others first, so it does not take much gaslighting to convince us that putting our own needs off for as long as possible somehow makes us better teachers.
The Teacher Martyr Makes Mistakes, Avoids Risk, and Observes Less
I know this, preach this, and yet am also terrible at following my own admonishments. You may know that I have a disability. It’s a congenital one whose only long-term solution is two major surgeries that the doctors want to put off for as long as possible. It’s mostly manageable if I take care of myself. I need to balance between regular exercise and rest, stretches and physical therapy to stay mobile. I’ll never be a sprinter, but if I take decent care of myself, I can still be fit enough to teach. My doctors and physical therapists have always been crystal clear—if I want to stay in education and be as active as I am, I need to prioritize my health.
And yet, it is so easy to fall into the habit of doing everything else that seems more important than taking care of ourselves. Day after day on social media and in the news, we hear of teachers martyring themselves for the good of their students and their profession. Those are the teachers whose social media posts we share and inspire us. So, by ignoring my own needs and focusing solely on my students, I found myself crawling out of a New York subway train, across a Brooklyn platform, and dragging myself to a bench. It was a busy work week. There was a family night and grading and an end-of-unit celebration. I was staying at school every night until at least 7:00, then getting home and not eating dinner until nearly 9:00, doing some planning and grading before I’d finally collapse in a heap only to repeat the same self-punishing routine the next day. I did this day after day for over a week. No time for healthy eating, resting, stretching, or gentle exercise. Or so I thought. It shouldn’t have come as a shock when I stood up to leave the subway car at my stop that my leg suddenly protested with agonizing pain and an inability to hold my weight. I had no choice but to crawl off. Some kind New Yorkers who saw me crawling helped me find a bench and stayed with me until the school secretary could come pick me up. I don’t know how or when I got to the emergency room, but I do remember my principal standing over me, after he was assured I would be OK, his finger pointed in my face, saying, “You can’t do this.
It’s not good for you. And it’s not helping anyone.”
You probably know all this. You have probably either lectured someone else or been lectured on how important it is to take care of yourself. Maybe you even have your own version of my subway crawling story. Perhaps for you it was pneumonia, bronchitis, or dizzy spells so bad you were hospitalized. You promised yourself you would never let it get that bad again because you saw how bad it was for everyone. But you might not have been considering how not prioritizing selfcare affects the topic we’ve been considering throughout this book: mistakes.
When we are depleted, we are so much more likely to make mistakes we regret. These mistakes might just be the sloppy ones like leaving the cap off our beloved whiteboard purple marker or forgetting our keys in the teacher’s lounge.
But they can also be very high- stakes mistakes—ones that can dramatically affect children’s lives. We might not have the capacity to write all of the letters of recommendations our students request. We might not carefully read the accommodations on a student’s individualized education program and miss key provisions. As you listen to this paragraph, you might be thinking about mistakes you have made recently, or maybe ones you made a long time ago that still haunt you. Before you begin to flagellate yourself for that error that just bubbled up again, is it possible that when you made that mistake, you hadn’t been your best self in terms of self- care? That you might have been tired, hungry, stressed, overwhelmed, or all of the above before you made that regrettable error?
When I look back at the mistakes I made in my own classroom or with teachers in theirs, I have to admit most of them wouldn’t have happened if I had taken care of my physical, mental, and emotional state a bit more. I know that I can never hear too much about how the best defense against mistakes is a good offense. If I want to be the best educator (parent, friend, spouse, citizen) I can be, I need to take care of myself first. All other tacks and strategies will be useless without those things.
I know you know this. And, if you spend any time on social media at all, you have no doubt seen the countless memes and articles extolling you to focus on self-care. If you are at all like me, you swing from rolling your eyes at people’s self-centeredness to working so hard you hit a point if you don’t do something (like have a bubble bath, a sip of tea, or just one night of eight hours of sleep) you feel you will implode. That said, we are human and our souls and bodies need to be fed. We need time to laugh with loved ones, fill our minds with rich ideas and art, yes, and even time to rest and recuperate. Even lying on the couch losing ourselves in a great binge-watch can be soulfeeding self-care. Pleasure is more than a treat. As the legendary performance artist Penny Arcade says, (quote) “Pleasure is a radical value” (end quote). It is a value that goes a long way toward helping us to lead meaningful and joyful lives. If we do not do the work of prioritizing our own mental and physical health outside the classroom, there might be a time where we start to look for affirmation, connectedness, and care from the students in our own classrooms. As Jaleel Howard, Tanya Milner-McCall, and Tyrone Howard wrote in their book No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (full disclosure, I coedited this book with Nell Duke), (quote) “Teachers need to share themselves with students but have their emotional needs met elsewhere” (end quote). We should not expect our kids to make us feel good about ourselves. If educators are spending all day with students and then every waking moment preparing to work with them again, there is no way we can prioritize our other adult relationships. And that need for connection may unconsciously lead us to seek affirmation from our students. Even if it’s just feeling good whenever we go above and beyond. Although it might feel right or somewhat saintly to give everything we’ve got to our students, in the end if we do not care for ourselves outside of the classroom or are not bringing our best selves to the classroom, we might instead feel bitter and taken for granted. Or, even in some cases, we might become emotionally needy around students, seeking their approval, comfort, and affirmation, which sets up an unhealthy dynamic where kids are unknowingly trying to fulfill an adult’s emotional needs and also developing an unhealthy sense of what a healthy teacher–student relationship should look like.
Although it is completely understandable to realize after the fact that the likely cause of an error was that we were not taking care of ourselves the way we should, it is less understandable and yet still very common to then not try to prevent another error by taking steps to put ourselves first. It feels strange. It feels selfish. Even our own mentors and teachers were probably models of martyrdom, and although they very likely encouraged us to take care of ourselves, they probably rarely if ever modeled it. The script everyone shows us to follow is teacher martyr.
Yet, we know in our marrow that our last regrettable mistake was very likely made because of our lack of self-care. The thing is, not prioritizing ourselves doesn’t just make us vulnerable to regrettable mistakes. When we are depleted, we are also much more likely to not take the risks we need to take to make the good mistakes.
Think about it. Think about your limited energy and the level and depth of energy it takes to try something new, be creative, or take a pedagogical risk. When you do not prioritize your own health, rest, and happiness, you are less likely to have the energy to take the sorts of risks that lead to our aha moments or stretch mistakes. When you spend hours reading through summative assessments without a break, racing against the clock to get them all marked in time, you are significantly less likely to decide now is the time to try some of the latest ideas around high-quality and growth mindset–based feedback. That sort of work
requires energy to take a risk as well as time to fix any trouble spots. So instead, you might do a quick online search for “great feedback for students” and click on the link that offers “100 positive phrases to use when giving student feedback.”
Contrary to popular belief, stretching past our comfort zones for most of us requires a calm, rested, focused self. Very few of us are tempted to push ourselves and our thinking and to challenge our most dearly held beliefs when we are feeling bad emotionally and physically. Those stretch mistakes that we encourage our kids to make require a basic foundation of self-care to be practiced.
We are also significantly less likely to be able to catch and marvel at the unexpected treasures that come up when we make aha mistakes. You might show your students a map, realize that somehow when you were prepping for the lesson last night the image on the slide got stretched and shifted, making Africa larger on the screen. If you were rested and relaxed, you would have used that moment to talk about the differences between the more accurate Gall-Peters projection and the long used and not as accurate Mercator projection.
This likely would have led to a whole discussion about colonialism and perspective and how the people with the most power preferred to show their lands as bigger than they were and more centered, even if those projections were less accurate. And how, as people are getting more and more access to information, it is getting harder and harder to put forward such slanted views without criticism. Who knows where the entire map discussion could go? But, because you need to finish this lesson right away, and you’re tired and a bit embarrassed, you don’t do that. You fumble a bit. Apologize for the mistake on the slide and then keep going. Teachable moment lost.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
If we acknowledge we’ve been influenced by the legend of the martyr teacher, then a logical next step is to look at the ways that our own actions in self-care can be an influence on our students’ lives. There are countless mental, physical, and emotional ways to practice self-care. But all of them require us to begin from a place of healthy boundary setting. We cannot make time for so much as a deep breath or a cup of tea if we have no clear delineation between our own time and space and our students’ and schools’ demands.
At first glance it can feel rogue and selfish to contemplate what our particular boundaries are. But when we discuss our boundaries openly, and in healthy ways, we are not only setting them more firmly and giving ourselves public permission to take care of ourselves, we are also modeling for our students the ways healthy boundaries can and should be set. If we can set boundaries, they can too. Here are some examples of boundaries we might share with students along with the connections to healthy risk-taking and learning practices. As you listen to these examples, consider if any feel like something you could say or, if not, what about that statement doesn’t feel like something you would say:
1. “I won’t be able to meet with you during my prep period. That’s the time I have my second cup of coffee, sit for a minute, and do a little professional reading before I work on my planning and other schoolwork I need to get done. If I don’t do that then I am not as strong a teacher the rest of the day because I haven’t gotten a chance to take a break or get ideas. I would love to meet with you during class time.”
2. “Thank you so much for inviting me to the school basketball game! You know how much I love going to the games when I can. But this Friday I have plans with my family to order pizza and watch movies. I haven’t spent a Friday with them in a while and my family and I feel better when I do.”
3. “I know some of you were hoping I would have your exam results back to you by today, but last night as I was sitting down to grade, I started to feel my head nod and I realized I was far too exhausted. I knew that for one thing I wouldn’t be able to give the processes you tried as much feedback as you deserved. And I knew that if I tried to push through
anyway, I wouldn’t get enough sleep and wouldn’t be a very good teacher to you.”
It is difficult to give a blanket statement about what constitutes a healthy boundary for each person. There are professional considerations and community norms to keep in mind as a starting point. But it is also true that what feels like a healthy boundary to one person can feel stifling and disconnecting to another. I am the type of person who does not answer emails after a certain time of night. I also rarely give out my cell phone number but freely give out an email address that is dedicated to correspondence with students. One of my colleagues does zero work during the weekend. Another never gives up their lunch hour.
With each of these boundaries also comes a package of areas where there is a certain level of accessibility. If I choose to not work during my lunch hour nor stay late after school, it might mean that I am all in during the school day. For others it might mean they are more likely to arrive early in the morning or bring work home.
Often when we don’t have time to take care of ourselves, it is because our boundaries are not healthy, clear, and firm. When we share our boundaries with our students and their families, we might consider the language we use. We don’t necessarily need to say, “I have firm boundaries so don’t try to cross them!” but rather, “Family time is important to me so I don’t respond to emails after 6:00” or “I’m a better teacher when I have quiet time so I have a no students during lunch hour policy.”
Self-Care Habits That Give Students Our Best Self
We all know self-care is important for many reasons. For example, self-care helps us to ensure we are at our most optimal health without health care interventions, according to the World Health Organization. If health for health’s sake isn’t enough, studies tell us that health and happiness are connected. According to 2005 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the happier you are, the better your heart rate and blood pressure and less of the stress hormone cortisol you have in your body (which can lead to diabetes and hypertension). Even in professions outside of teaching, studies have shown the power of self-care. In a journal for social workers, Social Work Today, Karen Fliny Stipp and Kyle Miller wrote, (quote) “Self-care is not a luxury ancillary to our professional assignments but a professional activity that makes being present and empathic a possibility. Ongoing self-care boosts our capacity to build healing
relationships time and again with clients who live in trauma’s wake” (end quote).
Many of us can hear that quote and replace the term clients with students and their families and know that when we are well taken care of, we are able to better respond to students who have experienced or are currently experiencing trauma.
But few, if any of us, have spent time calculating the cost in terms of mistakes. Both being more likely to make bad ones and less likely to have the ability to reap the rewards from good ones.
To prevent mistakes, there are some things we need to acknowledge from
1. Tired and hungry people make more mistakes.
2. Multitasking people make more mistakes.
3. Unregulated emotions can lead to mistakes.
4. Making assumptions (that something is a fact, our judgment of a person or a situation) leads to more mistakes.
There are of course things missing from this list. Often more than one thing is in play. But chances are, if you think of the last mistake you made, you can recall that at least one thing on the list was present. I am going to suggest you look at your current teaching life and realities. Sleeping enough, getting enough nutritious food, pruning our to-do lists so that we feel less pressure to multitask, proactively exploring and tending to our myriad emotions, and moving through the world with the knowledge that what we think we know is true could very well not be will go a long way toward preventing the most common mistakes.
To say this more strongly, despite the repeated proclamation of how teachers have the best job in the world and staunch belief that we get paid back 100-fold in knowing we’ve helped others, teachers need to take care of ourselves first and foremost. When considering the martyr teacher narrative, the consequences are often left out. Mr. Thackeray gave up his dream job of being an engineer. Miss Honey gave up her inheritance. So seriously, and I say this as much for myself as for anyone listening to this book, if you incorporate nothing else, please consider this—take care of yourself. When you do, you will be doing right by not only yourself and those closest to you but also, importantly, your students.
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In addition to being the author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several other titles for teachers, including Independent Writing and A Quick Guide to Helping Struggling Writers, as well as the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. Colleen was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Colleen presently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant. Fine Colleen on Twitter @colleen_cruz.