My Work Habits Landed Me In The Hospital; How Yoga Improved My Life And My High School Classroom

This pattern landed me in the hospital for four days.
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Jess Burnquist
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This pattern landed me in the hospital for four days.
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Sometimes I imagine thought bubbles attached to fellow participants in my Tuesday night Yoga class. The class is compiled of a lot of teachers. When we are told to “sink into our calm” I wonder if other teachers begin to roll their eyes. Are you kidding me? When the yoga instructor directs us to inhale the ‘now’ and exhale ‘the day’ it is hard for me not to laugh because there is just not enough breath to exhale a day in the life of a teacher. Our days don’t end with the bell. Our days carry into our every aspect of our lives. I have considered my students in dreams. I have reviewed data while brushing my teeth. I think about vocabulary exercises and writing activities I will do the following week before I even reach the freeway. On the way home, I leave reminders to myself on my phone to write requested recommendation letters and grade late papers. During our last family vacation, I picked up trinkets for my classroom and several books that would serve as enrichment. There is no exhalation to let go the day because each day relates to the next. Yet, detaching from the day might be the very best skill for teachers to practice.

After the recent economic crisis in the United States, I began to notice a phenomenon. It seemed that anyone with a job was becoming increasingly accessible to their employers — as though if we were always “on” or “plugged in” our jobs would become more secure and we might become more valued by our employers. I’m not sure if job insecurity or technological advancements have fueled this need to constantly demonstrate one’s commitment to his or her work. I do know that I was part of this culture — sometimes leaving work three hours after my scheduled time, only to go home, make dinner, tend to my children and then work on curriculum and planning late into the night. I stopped exercising. I stopped getting regular rest. I began to feel run down. I ignored my increased resistance to regular medications for manageable conditions and put off yearly doctor visits and lab tests because I had so much work to do — so many essays to grade, so many young minds to ready for state testing and why pause? I was functioning, right? Last year, this pattern landed me in the hospital for four days. I ignored a flare up of asthma attacks during the week, worked an event on a Saturday, and was gasping for breath at work the following Monday. I was so disconnected with my discomfort that I went to work practically unable to breathe. Our school nurse was appalled. She called my principal and told her I was being sent home. When I made it home, my husband insisted we go to the emergency room.

After an hour of supercharged breathing treatments I was admitted. Somehow, I lucked out in that my assigned hospital pulmonologist spent considerable time with me. He and his wife were new parents and he was already thinking about schools for his newborn son. I teased him, but gave him some suggestions. He sat down and asked about my schedule, quietly jotting down notes as I explained my daily routine. After I finished explaining a typical day, he wheeled his chair to my bedside and said in a near whisper, “You’re not to continue this way. Your first order of business is to learn to say ‘no’. Think about your creative pursuits beyond teaching. If you don’t, you will die before your time.” He then wrote a note to my principal (one that I never had to forward because I have a supportive administration) which read that I was not allowed to continue on this or that committee because it was detrimental to my health. I was scared as well as ordered into making changes. Before he left, he recommended yoga and that I throw away my cell phone.

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Slowly, I began to dial it back and my health and quality of life started to improve. Better yet, I think my instruction improved too. Being attentive to my needs and establishing limits helped me to tap into the needs of my students differently. It helped me to have more fun with them. Learning should be fun is a great maxim, but there are an awful lot of pressures working against it these days. It occurred to me that if I was susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by external pressures, then certainly my students were too. Scheduling a Free Read or Write day helps them recharge their learning batteries. Taking our learning outside on a beautiful day and playing an impromptu game of basketball probably doesn’t address a common core standard but it does help us bond as a class and such bonds add to future discussions and collaborative activities.

Furthermore, teachers are viewed as models of behavior. Why would we want to model to our students how to work ourselves to death? Why not model how to enjoy a beautiful day, take advantage of a healthy whim or indulge a sideways-but-engaging tangent in a group discussion? Why not model how to value one’s health and time on earth in addition to a love of learning. I don’t want to give the impression that these changes have been easy. It’s incredibly hard to make time for self-care. A school day is loaded with unexpected demands, and no day is the same. It’s what makes teaching equally delightful and stressful. If a student arrives in my classroom with questions about a lesson when I’m scheduled to go home, of course I will delay my departure in order to help him or her. It’s easy to succumb to my exhaustion from the daily grind and skip an evening walk. Often, I have a mountain of laundry in my closet because I would rather be still than try to create a perfectly clean and tidy home. I’m grateful to my family for pitching in and forgiving our mess. I realize how lucky I am that my children and husband care enough to be sure that I have down time. My daughter sometimes says, “Be one with the couch, mom”

A few other things have really helped me let go of old habits in addition to leaving school as often as possible at my scheduled time. I have removed email notifications from work on my phone. I set reasonable grading goals and I have learned to say no to things that will distract from my classroom time and my personal time. I am not the most consistent exerciser to be sure, but I do pack my lunch and cook more meals than previously. My students act equally fascinated and disgusted by my leftovers when I mention them — and I do. The other day a student interrupted his own part in Taming of the Shrew to ask what I would be eating for lunch. Students, especially the new drivers, also seem to appreciate my stories about rushing through freeway traffic so I can make it to yoga to relax. In class, I find I myself repeating to students things I learn in yoga. I ask them to set their intentions to focus on a given passage or to breathe in their knowledge before answering a test question.

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It is hard to ignore the nearly full parking lot when I leave work on time. I’m sure there are those who now wonder about my commitment to this profession which requires so much presence and awareness, but I am learning not to care about those who doubt my passion for teaching. Instead, I think about the way my life has improved as a result of small decisions related to taking care of myself. Making my health and time a priority hasn’t made me more selfish. It has extended my joy and my ability to give in meaningful ways.

My favorite thing about yoga class is the attention to breath. Having nearly literally lost mine, I try, now, to never take it for granted. When my instructor says exhale the day, I no longer worry about suppressing my giggles. I just do — and then I let go of other things no longer in my control. I think all teachers deserve to breathe — to stop and tune into their needs and to model to their students how to do the same. It can be life changing. Actually, it can be life-saving. Namaste.