Friday, October 19, 2007

You Deserve a Mental Health Day

Today I didn't go to school. Today I took a mental health day (MHD). While I'm not on my death bed, I have had trouble sleeping all week and am emotionally and psychologically drained. I talked myself out of taking a day off all week: "I have a department meeting tomorrow," "I need to be here to teach that tomorrow," "if I can just make it through today I'll be fine," were some of the weak reasons I forced myself to go to school through Thursday.

The problem was, my mental state was steadily deteriorating by the day. To do a good job on any given day, I have to be:
  • well-rested
  • able to concentrate
  • patient
  • quick-witted
  • able to adapt on the fly
I was none of these by Thursday. I was experiencing some level of burnout--not totally uncommon when there's no break between Labor Day and Thanksgiving--and decided to take today off to recuperate. Perhaps that's why the World Federation for Mental Health declared October 10th as World Mental Health Day? In any case, I knew I was doing a disservice to my students, my school and myself if I didn't do something to repair the state I was in.

There are rules, however, to make the most of your Mental Health Day. If you deviate from these three simple rules, you won't be any less stressed or tired and will return to the same rut when you get back to school. You AND your students will suffer.

Rule #1: Do not do ANY school work.

This is the most important rule. Don't grade papers, plan lessons, or fill out administrative paperwork. If being behind on your work is part of the reason you are stressed out, you will be more productive after you have recharged your proverbial batteries.

What you can do, which will take all of a few minutes, is to make a "to do" list of what you need to get done after your MHD. Split this list into two categories: things to do tomorrow and things to do soon. This type of prioritizing is probably the most common advice you read in articles about getting organized and reducing stress. Be sure that this task is the only school-related thinking, if any, of your MHD.

Rule #2: No appointments!

Your MHD is not for doctor or dentist appointments, bringing your car in for service, or any activity that involves spending most of the day in a waiting room. While these are legitimate reasons to take time off occasionally, they don't count as MHDs, for the simple reason that more often than not these activities are more stressful than school!

Rule #3: Do something relaxing and/or fun.

This is where you can be the most creative and spontaneous. The object of this day is to escape your ordinary routine, leave stress behind, and wake up refreshed tomorrow. Here is a list of low cost (because we're poor teachers) ideas to get you started:
  1. Sleep late. How often do you get to do that?
  2. Sit down for breakfast. See #1.
  3. Go to the movies or have a movie day at home.
  4. Go outside. Some of us get very little sunlight most weekdays, which studies repeatedly suggest are at best affecting our mood and at worst affecting our health. Getting outside can be as simple as sitting in the backyard or be part of a real getaway (see #5).
  5. Day trip. If driving is not on your personal list of "most stressful activities", visit the nearest natural wonder--beach, lake, river, mountain, etc--and choose the appropriate level of activity for you (from reading a book to a challenging hike, run or water sport). Alternately, this is your chance to visit that local museum, restaurant or tourist attraction you've been dying to see.
  6. Work on your pet project. For example, writing an article for your blog!
There are no limits here, besides your budget and desired level of activity. The keyword is escape.

The Three Day Weekend vs. the Mid-Week Escape

I think it's safe to assume most teachers who take a MHD do so on a Monday or Friday to create the always popular three day weekend. They may even incorporate some travel which, while often expensive and stressful in its own way, is perfectly okay.

However, I think the benefits of the mid-week escape--Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday--are often overlooked. First of all, Mondays are often easy because the kids are recovering from all the fun you wish you were having. On Fridays the kids are indeed overexcited for the upcoming weekend, but so are you! The hardest days to get through, more often than not, are those middle three.

Thus these are the best days to plan a true escape. These are also the days when it is least difficult for the school to place a quality substitute in your room because fewer teachers take these days off. I know one reason good teachers avoid taking days off is an overwhelming sense of responsibility to avoid leaving the kids with a bad sub or leaving the administration scrambling to find a warm body to cover your class. Think of the middle of the week as your path of least resistance.

In terms of your mental health, what better way to break out of a rut than to break up your routine on a Tuesday or Wednesday? It is more than likely out of the ordinary for you to not be in a classroom or doctor's office in the middle of the week, making it that much more exhilarating. Use this day for a day trip, day spa or anything else that feels like the exact opposite of your daily routine. You'll return the next day more productive and effective than you were in days (probably weeks) before.

Coming soon: Avoiding burnout on a daily basis!