For my students who struggle with anxiety, I teach them the DARE method.
I confess to my teens that I came across this when I was struggling with anxiety-based-insomnia last school year. For many nights, I was unable to fall asleep until 3 or 4 most mornings. I then would have to wake up at 7am to take my son to school and go to work. At one point, I went for 6 days on 1 or 2 hours of sleep each night.
That’s around the time I came across Barry McDonagh’s book, “DARE”. It taught me, not to get rid of my anxiety, but how to work with it in a more skillful way. I use it each day and encourage my students to do the same.
So what does the DARE actually stand for?
The D is for Defuse
Most of our anxiety is future-based, where we worry and ask ourselves, “What if?” What if I can’t fall asleep tonight? What if I fail this test? What if I have an anxiety attack and pass out? What if my friend ditches me? What if my parents get divorced? What if I don’t get into a 4-year college.
The defuse is the response to the “What if?”. Answer with this question-“So what?”
What if I can’t fall asleep, so what? I can still get out of bed, go to school, and try to teach. I may not be at my best, but at least I can try.
What if I have an anxiety attack and pass out, so what? Someone will pick me up and help me.
What if I lose my friend, so what? I’ll make a new one.
What if I don’t get into Chapel Hill or Duke, so what? I’ll go to a cheaper college and have less college debt after getting the same degree.
The A is for Allow
Even after you defuse the anxiety, there will still be some residue left over. Accept it as a sensation, a part of the human experience. Remind yourself that this is natural and be willing to work with it.
The R is for Run To
The instinct is to stay in bed, vape, or isolate yourself-essentially to run away from your anxiety. But the best way to work with it is to run to it.
I use the example of Rocky when he faces Apollo Creed. In one of the final rounds, you can tell this underdog has been beaten up by his opponent. His eyes are nearly swollen shut. There’s blood coming from his nose and bruises forming all over his body.
He gets knocked down and the crowd thinks it’s over, but Rocky pushes him up and stands. Despite his bruises and pain, he rises and signals for Apollo to bring more punches, lunging towards his adversary. This broke guy from Philly survives all 15 rounds against the champion of the world.
It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. He survives.
I remind my students that you don’t have to beat your anxiety. You don’t have to win the battle, but you can stay in the fight. You can run to the fear. I don’t care how big your anxiety is, you CAN go the distance.
The E is for Engage
I view the 4th step as a reward for completing the 1st 3. You engage in something you enjoy where you can be fully present. For me, it’s playing Mario Kart or Yoshi’s World on our Nintendo Switch, spending time with my family, singing to my favorite songs, or reading a book.
There’s a misconception about anxiety-you can just eliminate it. In reality, it’s not that easy. No matter how hard you try, it comes and goes.
It sucks, but it’s manageable, treatable, and it absolutely makes you stronger.
Get out of bed. Take that test. Speak up with confidence in class. Make new friends. Try something new. Play your heart out in that game.
Be brave! I DARE you. This is what I tell my students. This is also what I tell myself as a teacher.
Since I went to rehab for depression, anxiety, and prescription drug dependency in 2014, I believe I’ve done a decent job of managing my propensities.
I joined a boxing gym, went to counseling, got completely clean from the pills, began teaching effectively again, and fully repaired the damage I had caused to my family.
For the last few years, my life has been good, but for the last few months, my life has been hell. I have experienced a resurgence of depression and anxiety, perpetuated by a new challenge-insomnia.
I’ll get in bed, toss and turn for a few hours, fall asleep around midnight, then wake up between 2 and 3 am, unable to fall back asleep. For 5 to 6 nights every week, this is my night. And then it’s zombie mode throughout my days. I feel like it’s Hell Week rushing for my old college fraternity, except now it’s Hell Months.
This has been extremely frustrating because I’m doing all the right things now.
I eat healthy
I work hard at school
I take care of my kids
I support my wife in her career
I’m not doing drugs
I’m not drinking alcohol
I’m way more physically stable than I was 5 years ago, and yet, emotionally, I’m right back in the same place I was in when I checked into rehab.
I’m working with my PCP, a sleep doctor, and I’ve even read several books and research studies about sleep. Based on this research, I’ve been following a sleep checklist that would probably help most normal people sleep better. I get out of bed each morning, and from the moment my feet hit the floor until the moment I return to bed, I’m doing things that are supposed to bring about a good night’s sleep. It hasn’t helped. The harder I’ve tried to fix this, the worse it’s gotten. This is my conundrum and I can’t run from it any longer, so I’ve just had to accept it. All of it-the insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
It’s about a woman in a field, who happens to be spotted and chased by a pack of tigers (This is not a story about the Alabama and Clemson College Football National Championship Game😂).
She runs and she runs, but the tigers still get closer. She eventually reaches the edge of a cliff and notices a few vines there. She climbs down and holds onto one.
Whew! She’s safe for now.
But then she looks down, and there are more tigers below her! Even worse, she looks back up and there is now a tiny mouse, gnawing away at the vine she’s clinging to.
In desperation, she looks to her left, and she notices a bunch of strawberries that have grown out of the grass above.
She looks up-tigers above her. She looks down-tigers below. She looks to her left, she grabs a strawberry. She eats it and enjoys it thoroughly.
This resonates because this is my story. I can see the tigers above, snarling at me. I can see them below, salivating and just waiting for me to fall, just like they were 4 years ago, but my solution has changed-it’s not more pills. It’s not suicide. It’s not running any longer. It’s simply staying in the moment, staying in the breath, accepting my suffering as reality, but also seeing this strawberry here in front of me. Choosing to smile in my struggle. Counting my blessings in my pain.
This clarity, this peace, has come to me, only through prayer and meditation. Talking with God and using Headspace off and on throughout each day, has changed my perception of suffering and life.
And while I love this story, I would actually like to add an alternative ending to it-
After eating one of the strawberries on her left, the woman looks to her right and notices several others in the same predicament-men and women, boys and girls-holding on to their own vines for dear life.
She reaches back over to the strawberries, picks a few more, and begins to pass them down the line.
I’ve been trying not to be so wrapped up in my own pain that I can’t see others who are suffering, too-from addiction, stress, fear, cancer, body-shame, inadequacy, and divorce.
I want to help them stay in the breath and enjoy what they have within this moment. That’s why I’m writing this post. That’s why I’m giving out a lot of hugs lately. That’s why I’m playing basketball with my son and barbies with my daughter. That’s why I’m doing laundry for my wife. That’s why I’m holding the door for strangers, tipping my servers 30% at restaurants, and complimenting my students at my school.
This moment is painful, but also my moment to teach, share, and love. I’m not the only one who could use a strawberry right now.
In closing, please remember my friend, that the past has already passed. The future may never come. All we are guaranteed is this breath, this moment, and no matter how fucked up our situation is, we need to simply eat the strawberry and savor each bite.
It was, surprisingly, a cold day in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center.
Adults and children from all over the country were on the edge of their seats for what they were about to witness: Christa McAuliffe becoming the 1st teacher to enter outer space, along with 6 other astronauts from NASA.
The countdown ensued-”T minus 10.9.8.7.6. We have main engines start. 184.108.40.206. And Lift off. Lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission!”
The ground shook as the spaceship separated from its base. The nearby crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
73 seconds later, those cheers turned to screams.
The rocket boosters veered off to the left and right. Then, a giant explosion and ball of fire in the middle. Debris began to fall through the sky as a nightmare became a reality. The Challenger had exploded and all 7 astronauts were dead.
Why did the Challenger turn into a disaster? It was the O ring in the right rocket booster.
Because of the low 53 degree temperature, there was a break in the ring. It let out pressurized burning gas into some of the hardware and external fuel tank.
In essence, fire spread and the result was catastrophic.
A LEADERSHIP LESSON FOR PRINCIPALS AND SUPERINTENDENTS
If you are a school or district leader, a big part of your summer is visioneering and prepping for the upcoming school year-hiring, budgeting, scheduling, and mission statements.
This year, I encourage you to plan with the Challenger Disaster in mind. There is a lesson in leadership to be learned from this tragedy:
You can’t reach a big goal if your staff isn’t built to withstand the conditions.
NASA and the spaceship were not prepared for the change in weather. Similarly, there may be many teachers in your school who are very passionate, but not fully equipped for the education climate ahead of them. Many of us start each school year with big dreams to reach the stars and we end up in flames a few weeks after blast off. It’s been estimated that up to 50% of us quit within the 1st five years of teaching.
Think about the fiscal cost of consistent career casualties-the cycle of recruiting, hiring, and retraining teachers.
Burnout is expensive, time-consuming, and debilitating for school leaders and the overall goals in education.
So how can an administrator create a more survivable and sustainable working environment?
A CONTROLLED BURN
For the Challenger, the problem was caused by an uncontrollable fire that spread and consumed it.
In a school setting, if you want your spaceship to make it to the stars, it’s going to be because of your teachers. You have to help contain burnout.
So that’s the solution to the problem of teacher burnout-a controlled burn.
I truly believe we should begin looking at teacher development more expansively. There are a lot of PD’s out there to help teachers become better teachers, but none that help teachers live better lives. We should care as much about the wellbeing of teachers as we do students, because the two are intertwined.
As school leaders, you can help teachers set boundaries this school year so that they can continue to soar with kids. This can be done by helping them pursue effectiveness and happiness in every domain of their life, not just in teaching. There are 4 domains in all:
Social happiness, when you have a network of connections that includes your spouse, children, friends, fellow teachers, boss, and students.
Career happiness, when school is meaningful and enjoyable. You feel like you are using your gifts to serve others and contribute to a cause bigger than yourself.
Physical and emotional happiness, when you are getting enough food, sleep, exercise, and time for thought.
Financial happiness, when you can provide for yourself and your family. You have a positive mindset about money, and you are smart about spending, saving, and investing.
HOW THE BALANCED TEACHER PATH BOOK AND PD CAN HELP
This is a deeply personal book, where I confess my own battle with burnout, depression, anxiety, and a prescription drug addiction, which ultimately landed me in rehab at the end of the 2014 school year after serving as the North Carolina History Teacher of the Year in 2013.
The meat of the book gives practical strategies I learned from recovery and research that could help any teacher. A few of the current favorites teach readers how to…
avoid vampire teacher attacks
be Wonder Woman and not Superman
swallow feedback from the principal
take family field trips
deal with discipline issues quietly
find your teacher flow
reclaim your recess
survive the zombie teacher apocalypse
set up a ‘step below’ budget plan
I’m getting testimonies from teachers and administrators across the country who calling it an all-time favorite and using it as a spark for life change. It’s restoring health, marriages, finances, and improving teacher effectiveness. It’s keeping teachers in the classroom with a smile, and happy teachers make happy students.
If you are interested in purchasing The Balanced Teacher Path, it’s available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. My publisher is running a discount on bulk purchases if you want a copy for every teacher at your school or in your school district.
Once Christa McAuliffe made it into orbit, she was planning on using videos to teach students about outer space, from space. Tragically, she never got the opportunity.
Looking back, there may have been some teacher casualties under your leadership, some school years that were disastrous and out of control for you and your staff. You had several teachers quit or transfer. Your proficiency or growth scores dropped dramatically. The achievement gap widened. Discipline issues skyrocketed, etc. etc.
Whatever the failures were in past missions, if you help your teachers with work/life balance now, you can give them better odds to withstand adversarial conditions and carry out the school vision in the future.
Almost 3 years after the Challenger exploded, the Discovery Space Shuttle was launched from the same site in Florida.
As it neared the point in the sky where the Challenger took a turn for the worse, I imagined the astronauts and NASA staff flash backed to that devastating day in 1986, fearing they would fail again, but the spaceship kept soaring. It kept climbing higher and higher, all the way to space.
Why? For starters, the weather was warmer. Also, technological adjustments had been made. Lessons had been learned and applied. Essentially, they were now built for the conditions they faced.
As the school leader, you are at the helm. You are in charge of the controls. Teachers are on your spaceship. There’s students, too.
My hope is that your upcoming school year will be your Discovery, and not your Challenger.
During a quick break or while eating lunch, plan out an out-of-town adventure for the upcoming weekend and put it on your calendar. One study showed that just planning and thinking about your next family vacay can raise your endorphin levels by 27 percent.
Buy your custodian or cafeteria lady a soda from the teacher’s lounge.
Research has proven that buying stuff doesn’t make a lasting difference on our mood, with one exception-buying stuff for other people. This makes us happier than buying stuff for ourselves. Tis’ better to give than to receive.
3. Tell your class a funny story.
Your kids don’t want to just hear about the curriculum. They want to learn about you! Think of a story from your past that’s gotten laughs before. Tell them a silly story about yourself to get them giggling and lighten the mood in the room.
My middle schoolers like hearing about the day I proposed to my wife. We both threw a penny in a fountain and made a wish. My wish-her hand in marriage. Her wish-A raise at work.
When I taught elementary school, my kids loved to hear about my 1st visit to the zoo as a 5 year old boy, where I got too close to a fence and was attacked by a monkey, after I smiled at him. Never smile at monkeys. Never.
Start your lesson off with an inspirational video.
Find a Youtube video that’s motivating. Something that lights your fire and gives you chill bumps. Here’s one of my favorites…
Leave your phone in your purse or workbag.
It’s no secret that compulsive phone checking is damaging. It moves you away from your present environment and even further from each present moment. Check your phone between blocks, on breaks, or at lunch.
Before the morning bell rings or during your planning, set aside a few minutes to get your mind right and meditate.
Don’t know where or how to start?
Try downloading this free app, Headspace. This chill dude with a British accent will walk you through it. All you have to do is put your headphones in, turn off the lights, and find a chair. It’s that easy.
Make a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.
Write them down and read them aloud. Here’s 3 of mine:
I’m grateful to have a job that’s also a calling, where I get paid to do something I enjoy doing.
I’m grateful to live in a democratic country, where I have guaranteed rights listed in my country’s constitution.
I’m grateful to pay my taxes, because this money makes better roads, better emergency services, better schools, and a better community. (*This last one’s a stretch. I know.)
Try a simple breathing technique periodically throughout the day.
A recent study showed that war veterans who suffer from PTSD could significantly reduce their cortisol levels (stress hormones) simply by using deep, slow breathing techniques. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is the easiest, most effective one I’ve found:
Inhale for 4 seconds
Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Exhale for 8 seconds
Try this a few times when you feel stressed and see if it helps.
Put motivational quotes cards on your desk.
Use some index cards and google inspirational quotes or order some off Amazon and put them on your desk. Verses of scripture could also work. Read a few at a time for encouragement.
10. Write thank you cards to students or compliment them with a sticky note.
Pick out a kid or two in class, students who are working really hard, and write them a little note of recognition. We have a tendency to instinctively spot the negative, but make it a point to point out the positives, too.
11. Smile when you greet and talk with students.
Smiles are infectious (mirror neurons), so smile when you they come into your room. Positive classroom culture starts and ends with you.
Set a fun short-term goal.
Come up with a small goal. Not a SMART goal or some big resolution, just something simple, but exciting. It should take 13 weeks or less, so you can finish it by the end of the school year. After tomorrow, continue doing one thing each day to reach it. That’s what I did with my kids to make STRAIGHT INTTA OREGON, a music video about Westward Expansion that went viral. Check it out!
Thank your principal.
Drop in their office or stop them in the hallway and tell them thank you for something they did recently. Maybe they helped you out with a resource, or stuck up for you when a parent complained. You might be a little down that Spring Break is over, but they were probably working during most of it. Thank them for what they do behind the scenes on the daily.
Exercise with kids at recess.
Join in on in the fun outside. You deserve a break, too. Walk the track with your students. Kick or throw a ball with them. Jump rope with them. Research shows that 30 minutes of exercise improves your mood for up to 4 hours after. 15. Do some spring cleaning.
Purge some of your school files. Get rid of old resources. Set up a new filing system. Minimalism is a really neat documentary on Netflix that shows how liberating it can be to simplify your environment.
Dress super nice.
Professional attire means more respect. Kids notice that you take the job seriously. It also feels good to get hat-tips from teachers and administrators. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
***Bottom Line-There are small things we can do to live healthier, happier lives today and tomorrow. Some are about the external (changing our actions and environment), others internal (changing our thought patterns).
We don’t have to wait until the summertime to be happy. We don’t have to count down the school days to each Friday. We can be happier, tomorrow and today.
Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Suceess and Performance at Work. New York: Virgin, 2011. Print.
Seppala, Emma. “The Happiness Track – Emma Seppala – Hardcover.” HarperCollins US. Imprint: HarperOne, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
The saddest part is a lot of that phone time is spent in the company of others, especially our family. How does this addictive phone checking impact a teacher’s family life at home?
Imagine a student with their phone in class…
responding to texts every time it vibrates while you’re teaching
sending silly selfies through Snapchat during group work
playing Candy Crush during the test
That distracted kid might pick up on some of the content being covered in class, but there would be a lot of gaps in their learning. The impact for teachers at home is no different.
For students, too much technology distracts them from learning. For teachers at home, it distracts us from loving and connecting.
How You Can Fight It
Take all email off your phone.
Scrolling through your inbox on the couch may not seem like a big deal, but what if you read a spiteful message from a parent that gets you fired up? Or what if your principal asks you to turn in something by the end of the week? Then what happens?
That email can drop your mood, increasing your anxiety for several hours while you’re with your family, when you really shouldn’t be worried about it until you are back at work the next day.
Check your email 1st thing in the morning when you get to school and before you leave each day. You don’t check for mail from the post office 20 times a day and you don’t have to check your email more than once or twice either.
Have designated storage spots in high-traffic rooms of your home.
If you keep your phone in your pocket or sit it beside you, you are going to be more likely to pick it up. Out of sight, out of mind, so have a place picked out in each room to place it while you’re cooking or helping your kids’ with homework.
If you are in the kitchen, put it on the counter by your keys. You can still keep it in the same room in case you need it, but make accessing it just a little more inconvenient than normal.
Make Screen Swaps.
I learned from a movie called Screenagers that the reason we check Facebook every few minutes is because we are craving a boost in serotonin via new notifications-comments from friends and personal messages.
So cutting down on phone checks is just half the battle. We also have to replace them with a separate activity that provides the same serotonin boost.
In Reset Your Child’s Brain, Victoria Dunckley suggests a tip that can benefit adults as much as kid-stocking up on kinesthetic, tangible things-board games, comic books, magazines-and having these on hand throughout the house. Pick these items up instead of your phone and you still get that jump in happy juice.
Use wallpapers, backgrounds, and screensavers as redirections back to your family.
My wife recently gave me an Apple Watch for my birthday. I love it of course, but I was checking ESPN a lot, receiving text messages, and scrolling through emails, even at the dinner table.
I realized it was getting out of hand and decided to delete all the apps from my watch, except for one-the Photo app.
I made an album with 100 photos on my phone of my all-time favorite family pics (at the beach, graduations, basketball games, and on our wedding day) and linked the album to my watch-making it the Watch Face.
That’s the only purpose now for the device. Every time I bring my wrist up, a picture from the family album pops up. It makes me smile and redirects my attention back to the people around me, the most important part of my life.
No messages. No emails. No distractions. Just fam.
Sometimes I also check the time, but that’s it.
I read a book by Richard Freed, called Wired Child, where he shared a prophetic quote from John F. Kennedy about technology. He said technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.” (and woman)
By strategizing and limiting your phone use, you are using it to your advantage rather than giving it power over your personal life.