By Heather Hintz, NDU member
A normal school year can be like baking a cake. Each class brings its own unique set of joyful and challenging ingredients together in measured doses and “bake.” Something delicious always came out. Since the outbreak of
COVID-19 in March of 2020, we’ve all had to reinvent the recipe for getting through each school year. Looking back to the first school year back in our buildings, in 2020-21, the recipe looked a little less “normal,” and a little more like a recipe for disaster
• Forget to preheat the oven.
• Mix together a class of 24 students, ½ at a time. Make sure that at least 1/3 have tier 2 or 3 behaviors.
• Add masks and additional cleaning or safety measures.
• Separate 1/3 of your trusted colleagues for virtual learning.
• Use supportive administration sparingly.
• Add ingredient after ingredient until the mixing bowl is full, stir madly.
• Slam the bowl on the counter a few times just to make things messy.
• Throw it all in the oven and see what happens.
• To make the frosting, use whatever is going on in your personal life. Daycare closures, sick kids, spouses in quarantine … those are just icing on the cake.
All jokes and baking puns aside (although I will continue to use them for the duration of this article), I suffered through a mental health crisis, which started during that school year. Now that I am on the other side of the worst of it, I feel compelled to share my experience so that I can hopefully prevent another educator from going through it. Now, back to the recipe. For me, it was a perfect mix of some terrible ingredients: the pandemic, personal struggles and work issues. Everything blended together like mixing expired baking soda and rotten eggs.
I started to feel like something was wrong around November of that year. I remember thinking, “I am not okay; this is not normal school-year tired.” But Christmas break was just around the corner. I would get some rest, and recharge, and if I stuck to the recipe, everything would turn out alright in the new year. However, 2021 started and my broken-down batter continued to mix, until I had a big, unrecognizable glob in the bowl. You see, what’s not okay is heading to bed at 7:00 each evening because you are so exhausted that you can’t function. What’s not okay is being sick every Sunday night or in the school bathroom in the mornings. What’s not okay is being afraid of your students because of their escalating behaviors. What’s not okay is to feel invisible in the hallways and believe no one would notice if you were gone. What’s not okay is to feel empty when you should feel joy. What’s not okay is to think about stopping your car on the railroad tracks on the drive home.
Then, a new ingredient was thrown into my already failing cake recipe. Walnuts! Just kidding. It was mandated trauma training at my school.
I won’t delve into personal details about my past, but let’s just say that I’m not baking with a shiny new cake pan. My pan is more like a chipped lasagna dish, with a little bit of crusty stuff from the last meal still hanging on the sides. It adds flavor, but the presentation isn’t always the best.
The trauma training was more than I could handle in my already fragile mental state, and it shattered my metaphorical cake pan. Now, if you’ve ever botched a recipe, you know it is hard to find a way to salvage it and have something left to serve that’s edible. page.
I started having anxiety attacks at school. I would sleep for long stretches of time, or barely at all. I didn’t eat, rarely laughed, and I fell deeper and deeper into depression. I avoided meetings, colleagues and family, but amazingly went to work the next 2½ months, never missing a day, despite my declining physical, mental and emotional health. I detached to survive. My plan book was empty, and so was I. I would love to tell you that two years later, all is well and I have perfected my cake recipe, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth is that I am still using the same chipped lasagna pan, although I’ve been able to scrape a few of the crusties off the sides, thanks to a good therapist and medication.
I have also learned that sometimes, a simpler recipe is all that you need. There are lots of ways to bake a great cake without all the “normal” ingredients. Finally, I’ve found that the frosting isn’t to cover up what’s on the inside, it is to add to the overall flavor and design of it. Oh, and by the way, the cake is best served with supportive friends and the best recipes are the ones you share.
1. Preheat the oven. Be open about where you are at with your health. Don’t ignore the warning signs in yourself or others.
2. Make sure the ingredients go well together. Take time to connect with your colleagues on a personal level. You will find support when you have mixed your lives beyond the classroom.
3. Use the best ingredients. Mental health problems and depression are not something you can just wish away or ignore. Often, it is a chemical imbalance in your body and brain that requires medication.
4. Get help from a professional baker. Seek out a counselor or therapist. Use your employee assistance program if you have one. Make going a priority.
5. Don’t add too many ingredients. You must leave room in your bowl. Learn to say “no” or “I can’t handle that right now” or any other phrase that gives you space in your life to take care of yourself. Then, don’t feel guilty about it.
6. Don’t worry if things get messy while you bake. That is half the fun! You will make mistakes, learn and grow from them, and then make more mistakes. If you feel that you can’t fail, closely examine the recipe you are using. Something isn’t working.
7. Everyone’s frosting is different. That is what makes the cake beautiful and adds flavor. But don’t judge a cake by its frosting. We all know that it is what is inside that truly counts.