Some time ago, read a story about a village where the women all washed clothes together at the river.
One day, their fortunes changed and they all got washing machines. The depression rates in the village went up drastically. No one could initially figure out why.
It wasn’t the technology or owning a washing machine that was at fault, but rather the sense of isolation that these women felt because they were no longer spending time together down by the river.
Their sense of community had disappeared.
The Invisible Load
This really resonated with me. At various times in my life and career, I have felt this sense of isolation and loss of community too.
The first time that I can recall, was when I took a break from teaching to welcome my first child into the world. I went from being part of a busy centre team to being a stay-at-home mum. I love being a mum, and I really wanted to love being a stay-at-home mum. However, I missed the sense of community that my job had given me. Along with all the hormonal things that were going on, the absence of adult company took its toll on my mental and emotional well-being.
The second instance that I can remember feeling this way, was when I decided to become a home-based educator for a brief stint when my children were preschoolers.
When I was promoted from being a teacher to became a centre manager.
Now this one came out of leftfield. I was part of a team. I was surrounded by people, some of whom I called friends. However, the feeling of loneliness and isolation I experienced was profound.
I know now, that this is something that many leaders struggle with. It is often lonely at the top – especially when you work in a small stand-alone centre and you don’t have other centre managers to talk to.
This can become an invisible load of stress and emotional labour that only we can see and feel personally.
This load can have a damaging impact on our feelings of belonging and well-being in our own centres. This is ironic because the leader so often feels responsible for building a culture of well-being and belonging for the people around them. Yet many of us do this from a place of lack and loneliness.
We’re “fine,” we tell ourselves even when in reality we’re depressed, we’re overwhelmed, we’re lonely, and we’re hurting.
“I’m fine, I’m just too busy right now,” we say as days turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” It’s so easy to say even when it’s not true.
We’ve become so isolated that it’s hard to know how to even begin to build the kind of relationships our hearts need – the types of deep connection that could mean the difference between thriving and surviving.
And, as a result, we shy away from the very thing we are wired to do – connect.
We live in a culture where we have our own “washing machines” and we don’t depend on each other for much of anything if we’re being honest. We hide behind labels, titles and roles as a way to keep ourselves separate and safe. All done in the fear that we will need to have a difficult conversation with someone in the future and this will cause us emotional discomfort. Frightened by the messiness of human relationships, we isolate ourselves behind our “management” armour and keep our “professional distance”. Consequently, this has a detrimental impact on our own levels of joy sense of belonging. Our team cultures and children’s experiences are poorer because of it.
In Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, she likens the damaging effects of being lonely on overall wellbeing and even the length of our life expectancy to be similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. I don’t say that to freak anyone out, but to let you know that the longing for connection is REAL.
A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.Brene Brown
Building a Community
We all need it, belonging. It is a vital ingredient to holistic, wholehearted living.
There are three types of belonging that we need as a person.
The first type of belonging is to feel part of a family. The second type of belonging is to feel is the belonging found in friendship. And the third type of belonging is to feel part of a community.
Feeling part of a community – having a genuine sense of belonging isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
I have noticed the alarming trend in early childhood education, where teachers and leaders judge, put each other down and compete.
Part of this trend is due to the fractured nature of our sector. There are so many ECE centres being run as businesses within close proximity to each other – competing for teachers, children and livelihoods.
The rising demands on our time and energy is also a contributing factor. Stress drives our survival instincts and diminishes our ability to connect.
However, I see this “us” vs “them” attitude in centre teams too. If you are a teacher reading this, look out for each other but also check in on your leaders. They are people first and foremost and they might need a little help and support too (even though they might not ask for it.)
Also, remember that we are all part of a wider teaching community.
It is our community and it is our responsibility to strengthen and uplift it. We can so easily get caught up in the trap of waiting for someone else to fix it, for something outside ourselves to save us. We are the heroes we have been waiting for. It only takes one small step – one gesture, one conversation, one phone call, one smile, one act of kindness and compassion. One “No, how are you really?” to start breaking down the walls we have built around us.
It is very likely that there are many other teachers, leaders, owners and centre managers in your neighbourhood that are feeling a similar sense of isolation. Why not reach out and get to know them? Pop around with some baking. Invite them for a coffee.
Be independent. Be proud of it. But be an independent person who realizes the value and the importance of opening the door to other good people.
You can do it alone, but you don’t have to. Islands are only fun for so long.
There is true magic when people come together and share ideas, share stories and struggles. You use your gifts, and I’ll use mine, and then we’ll invite the person over there who brings a completely different set of skills to the “whāriki” we are building. Together we’ll watch as something miraculous unfolds.
I’d like to hear what you have to say
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about community and what a community dedicated to the wellbeing of ECE leaders might look like. If you are a leader in this space I would love to hear from you.
I have created a short confidential survey to see how leaders in ECE are feeling and to find out if there is an interest and a need for this community and what leaders might like to see included.
If you would like to add your voice to this research please click HERE to let me know what you think.