Mind Those Unrealistic Expectations

Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services

Teacher well being has been in the media a lot lately as well as many self-care ideas and strategies that we can utilise to look after our own well being.

These are all fine and well, but what I am finding more and more when working with tired teachers and managers are that these strategies are great and are something that can benefit us all…. But they don’t address some of the important issues at the heart of teacher and manager stress and burn-out.

I am talking about the unrealistic expectations that we place on ourselves and others.

Our Expectations at Leaders

Let me share this example with you:

Lani is a teacher in an early childhood centre, she has 16 children in her portfolio group and her centre requires each kaiako to be responsible for leading an in-depth internal review during the year.  Lani is also completing her induction and mentoring programme towards her full teacher certification, as well as overseeing the health and safety of her room.

When she first started at her centre she used to get 2 hours a week to complete her planning, children’s learning stories, internal review and health and safety paperwork.  Getting everything done in the allotted time was challenging, but through innovative thinking, self-discipline and by implementing time management strategies, Lani made it work. 

During the year she has noticed that things at her centre things have changed.  The centre manager has created a new assessment system with the intention that it will make children’s learning more visible and strengthening practice but is more time consuming for teachers.

Added to this, due to the changes in employment law around compulsory tea breaks the centre owner has decided to cut teacher non-contact time to one hour a week in order to mitigate staffing costs to the centre. 

Lani does her best, but she is getting further and further behind with her planning and admin tasks.    She doesn’t want to take her work home with her but is finding that she is having to do this more and more.  The stress of this is getting to her and her colleagues and it has gotten to a point where this issue is all that they speak about with each other. This constant negativity has seriously impacted the team’s emotional hygiene. This is also causing tremendous stress and frustration for her and her fellow kaiako which is impacting on Lani’s health, her confidence as a teacher and her overall enjoyment of her job.  Lani is becoming so disillusioned with teaching that she is considering leaving teaching and retraining in another field.

If you are reading this, you might feel for Lani as this might be something that you are currently experiencing as a teacher or leader in early childhood education.

I know that there might be some of you that might be thinking, well that’s just part and parcel of being a professional teacher. 

This is a complex issue however, Lani’s example illustrates how expectation sometimes does not align with reality.  Her manager made a well-meaning decision which was intended to improve outcomes for children. However, when we look at the above example we can clearly see that the expectations on Lani – the amount of work that she is expected to do in the time that she was given to do it, is just not realistic and in many ways, she has failed before she has even started. 

We know through research that stressed out, distracted, over-scheduled teachers adversely affects learning outcomes for children, as teachers are focused on meeting compliance and admin expectations and worried about how they will do this. This distracts them from being emotionally available for children and they find it challenging to be attuned to the children’s needs. 

Your Expectations of Yourself

The other expectations trap that we can fall into is trying to live up to our own impossible expectations. 

Let me give you an example:

Mira is the centre manager of a large centre.  Her centre is licenced for 100 children and she has twenty kaiako in her team.  Mira’s role is very demanding, and she often feels like she is just treading water and putting out fires.

Often when she is busy on the floor in her centre, kaiako will come to her and ask her for advice or ask her to do things for them.  Mira doesn’t want to disappoint anyone or let anyone down, so she says “yes” to everyone and all requests that come her way without considering if she can realistically follow through with all of them or not.

Mira has so much to do that she often forgets what she has promised to do, so things don’t get done. The kaiako feel frustrated that she hadn’t followed through with what she has said that she would do.  They start talking amongst themselves and gossiping about how unreliable and incompetent Mira is a centre manager. They feel that she doesn’t value them and can’t be trusted to keep her word.

In the account above Mira over committed to the people in her team and then under-delivered. This caused the people in her team to lose trust in her and to doubt her integrity as a leader.  Mira’s expectations and what she could realistically do were out of kilter. 

 

Beware the “Expectation Trap”

Other “expectations traps” that we might fall into that can be destructive to us and our relationships are:

The expectation that we can control life and every situation or person whom you encounter. 

The expectation that we have to be perfect or do everything perfectly and never make any mistakes.

The expectation that things, events and other people will make us happy.

The expectation that we will be or have to be right all the time, or that we will have or are expected to know all the answers like some amazing, all-knowing, all-seeing oracle.

A big one for a lot of us is the expectation that we are “superhuman” – you might know this one….

You (like me) might expect that it is realistic to run on full energy all the time, always busy always rushing- giving, giving, giving without any time to relax or to take care of yourselves.

Or we expect that we have super immunity and we are never going to catch a cold or a virus or need a sick day.  Not only this, but we put ourselves down for being “weak”, getting tired or needing a bit of recuperation time. 

I was extremely disheartened and saddened to see a Facebook poll recently where the question was asked of early childhood teachers:  “Do you feel that you can take time off when you need to when you are sick?

There were about a hundred respondents and most said “No”. 

Now I know what this feels like and a few years ago I probably would have said “No” too.  

From my own experience, I know that I would have answered “No” because I didn’t want to let anyone down. Or, if I would have taken the time off and I would have been so wracked with guilt about not being at work and would have phoned my centre several times a day to make sure that everyone was okay.  I know now how counter-intuitive this as to why I would have needed the time off in the first place…. 

Yes, my expectations of myself were out of whack.  Thinking about it rationally now,  I realise that I deserved to take time off to meet my needs and that there were amazing teachers in my team who were perfectly capable of running things smoothly while I was gone.  I know now that my worrying while I should be resting and ringing into the centre was not only damaging to my wellbeing but that I was also sending a message to my teachers that I didn’t trust them or doubted their capability which was not my intention. 

I can now see that I was a victim to some more subtle (but equally destructive) unrealistic expectations.  I am talking about my expectation that I could control every situation, by not taking time off from work or phoning into the centre while I was away.  I was also of the disillusioned expectation that I by being a martyr, I could control people’s perception of me.

Kindness and compassion starts with how we treat ourselves. You are person first with human needs, however our unrealistic expectations stop us from tuning into our bodies and meeting these needs for ourselves.  When we treat ourselves badly we unknowingly perpetuate a cycle of unrealistic expectations self-abuse through our role modelling. 

When our expectation doesn’t align with reality this erodes the love and passion that most of us felt when we started teaching, breaks down our confidence (we all want to do our best), our self-esteem and ultimately we pay the price with our health and wellbeing.  We are losing great teachers and leaders in our profession because of this.

Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services

So what can we do about it?

Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t have high expectations for yourselves or those around you, what I am saying is that we need to check to see if our expectations are realistic.  Here are some ways that you can achieve this:

Be realistic – Consider, “can this task realistically be done in the allotted time?” This applies to our expectations of ourselves and others.  Be honest with yourself and others.  We are all human beings and we need to have balance in our lives order to stay healthy.  We are all given the same 24 hours and there is only so much that we can realistically do.   

Before you make changes think them through – how is this going to impact on you or the people in your team?  Will you be able to give your kaiako enough time to accomplish this?

Also consider how realistic your expectations are on individuals, bearing in mind that we are all at differing stages of our professional journey as teachers and we have varying strengths, skills and abilities.  Encourage open and honest feedback with-in your team.  Let your fellow teachers know that it is okay to say if something doesn’t feel realistic and that you are open to creative ways to overcome barriers.

Work smarter not harder – Do you or someone in your team have the mindset that things always have to be done a certain way because that’s the way it has always been done? Or, do you promote a learning focussed culture where teachers are encouraged to think outside of the square and come up with simpler, smarter ways of doing things?  Is there a way that we can support each other to be more efficient with our time and energy?  Can we use the same bits of paperwork in multiple ways?  Are there apps or computer automation systems that we can use that can make our lives a bit easier?

Prioritise – If you have a lot to do try listing your tasks in order of priority.  Or if you are short of time ask yourself, “what is causing me the most pain?” or “what is the smallest thing that I can do that is going to have the biggest impact?” and do this first.

Beware of self-imposed stress – So often we play the mind-reading game were we presume to know what other people are thinking of us and this can create self-imposed stress.  I know how difficult this next line is going to be for some of you… but, stop worrying about what other people think about you!  The majority of the time it isn’t even real it is just our perception.   

Set boundaries and say “No” – I know that this can be challenging for all of us “people-pleasers” out there.  I feel your pain! You might not like saying “No” as you feel that you are letting people down.  However, the truth is if you say “Yes” and you can’t deliver you will let people down anyway.  I am not telling you to stop helping others, but I am advocating for being realistic and selective of what you say “Yes” to.

If you are truthfully being honest with yourself you can’t and shouldn’t do everything for everyone.  This behaviour can rob someone else from an important learning experience and you of your emotional and mental health and can be another source of self-imposed stress.

Perhaps it is time for a bit of introspection – how realistic are your expectations of yourself and others?

I would love to hear your story and some of the things that have worked for you.

Until next time,

Pause for the Applause – Taking Time to Celebrate the Wins

wine glasses toasting

It’s that time of year again… Time for prize givings, awards ceremonies and year end functions.  There is merriment, gift giving and recognition for all the great things that have been done and achieved through-out the year.

2018 is fast coming to a close and December might have been a joyful yet frantic, busy time of the year for you and those around you.  If you are anything like me you are stressing out, thinking about all the things that you haven’t done or still need to do before you can have some much needed time to relax with family and friends. 

You might be beating yourself up about all the things that you haven’t achieved yet; that learning. story that you still need to write, the self-review that still needs evaluating or the teaching inquiry that you still need to write reflections for.  There might be a family corner that needs a bit of love or an area in your centre that needs a jolly good clean.

Honestly, we can be our own worst enemies, our harshest critics and we can so easily get caught up in a negative mind loop.  If we look for it, we can always find more things to do, or things that we could have done better.  However, there comes a time when you just need to say to yourself, “I have done enough and that is good enough.”

Often we find it so easy to praise others around us for all the fabulous things that they do.  However, how many times have you stopped this year to give yourself a well deserved pat on the back for your achievements and your wins big or small?

Yeah sign and confetti

Celebrate the wins

Now I know that you might need a bit of encouragement to do this for yourself. We are not programmed to sound our own trumpets. 

But I urge you to sit down today (with a cuppa or maybe something a bit stronger) and write down all your wins and achievements big and small. Here are somethings that might get the ball rolling…

Write about obstacles that you have overcome this year about how strong and resilient you are – Yeah!

Write about ticking something off your bucket list. Yeah!

Write about the days when you felt that you couldn’t face the day, but still found the inner strength of character to get dressed and get out there because you knew that someone else was depending on you. Yeah!

Write about being a good friend, colleague, partner, sister, daughter, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather and all-round good person. Yeah!

Write about the families that you connected with, the children’s lives that you have made a difference in and are forever changed because of who you are. Yeah!

Write about how amazing you are for juggling a career and being someone’s parent and managing to finish assignments and bossing them. Yeah!

Write about how you inspired and empowered others and how they grew as teachers and people because of your feedback and encouragement. Yeah!

Write about your failures and mistakes, the lessons you learnt along the way and how you grew as a person. Yeah!

This might feel a bit strange at first, but once you get going you will be astonished by just how much you have accomplished in your personal as well as your professional life.   

And then it is time to take a moment to reflect on your list of achievements, pause for the applause and celebrate all the amazingness that is you!

Thanks for reading.  I wish you an amazing 2019 – Here’s to more of those wins!

What to do when you are feeling blue?

teacher depression

I was saddened last week to hear about the unexpected death of news reader, Greg Boyed and his battle with depression.  His death has renewed conversations about depression and mental health and has made me reflect on my own battle with depression and the battles of those close to me.

Depression is an old friend of mine that has come to visit me during various periods of my life. I am sure that there are many of you out there that are fighting your own battles with this familiar foe.

In a profession where we give so much of ourselves to so many, the needle on our emotional tanks can so easily point to empty.  In a sector with alarming burnout rates due to stress, high child to teacher ratios, mounting paperwork, and the challenges of working in close proximity with others with differing beliefs and pedagogy it is easy for us to feel a bit disillusioned and sometimes even depressed.  Yet we often feel pressured to put on our “happy face” and to be there for others when we are feeling really low inside.

What we are not talking about….

I belong to many of the online ECE social media forums and I often see posts from teachers who have “lost their spark”, feel unsure how to deal with challenging behaviours and who are stressed out by the demands put on us by teachers.  I recently surveyed 100 teachers at random about their satisfaction in our sector. I was saddened to find that only 26% of teachers who took part in the survey where happy in their current job.  That is 74% of teachers who were somewhat happy to not happy at all.

Some teachers wrote about working in “great homely environments with supportive management” and “working for fantastic owners with great ratios…well-resourced and great remuneration”.  However, many teachers wrote about feeling unsupported by their leaders, or feeling the strain of quality vs budgets. Many teachers spoke about the pressures of never-ending paperwork and being expected to work unpaid overtime. A high proportion of teachers reported to work in centres with high child teacher ratios or in centres where the ratios “on paper” did not match what happened in reality.

Teacher mental health and the effect on children

The survey results saddened me on many levels, but the thing that saddened me the most was the children in the middle of all of this.  The children who do not have choices about which setting they attend or the people that they are around.  It saddened me that our children are around so many stressed out, unhappy people and spend sometimes 8- 10 hours in sometimes emotionally toxic environments.

There are many brain development studies out there documenting the effects that educator/parent mental health has on the developing child’s brain and mental health. In fact, a study undertaken by Ohio State University in Columbus across 15 American cities found:

a direct relationship between teacher depression and “externalizing” problems in children, such as anger and aggression, as well as “internalizing” problems, such as anxiety, sadness or withdrawal.

Walter S. Gilliam, the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Gilliam’s research found that “prekindergarten teachers and child-care staff who report elevated symptoms of depression are somewhat more likely to engage in child-care practices that are rated as less sensitive to children’s needs, more intrusive, and more negative.

The reason for this is that our children are constantly downloading from us.  Our mood, our emotions, how we are responding to them and to others around us.  Our youngest children, our infants and toddlers are designed to learn by being in a dyadic (two way) relationship with a receptive, in tuned adult.  Teachers who are depressed and unable to emotionally connect with themselves cannot emotionally connect with others.

Our children are spending longer hours in early childhood settings and are often in ECE centres for more waking hours in the week compared to being at home.  What emotional frequencies are they picking up on?  How can they become happy, fulfilled, intrinsically motivated, resilient collaborative and successful human beings if they are not having this modelled to them?

This is only learnt through having relationships with happy, fulfilled, intrinsically motivated, resilient adults.

 

What can you do?

Let me start off with saying, your mental health is important.  You are not alone in this, one in six New Zealanders (more common in women than men) experience some form of mental disorder including depression.

Some of the symptoms of depression that you shouldn’t ignore are:

  • constantly feeling down or hopeless
  • loss of enjoyment or interest in doing the things you used to enjoy doing
  • negative thinking and sleep problems
  • You may even feel so bad that you have thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.

If you notice that you are suffering from these symptoms it is important that you get help.  I know from my personal journey with depression that this is very difficult.  We often don’t what to “burden” others with our problems.  Or we don’t like to admit vulnerably, but the sooner you find help, the sooner you’ll start to feel better.

Some of the ways that you can do this, is by talking to someone you can trust.  Your GP is a great place to start.  Your GP can check to see if you are deficient in certain vitamins or minerals such as iron, vitamin B or vitamin D (especially in the winter months), help you with regular check-ins, medication (if you need it) as well as coping tools or a referral to a counsellor.  In most cases this is free.

  • Get Support – You can also speak to a friend or a trusted colleague, ideally someone who has known you for a while and can help you put your current situation into perspective – after all a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s natural to want to dive under the covers and hide when you’re feeling depressed. Avoid feeling isolated by reaching out if you are able. Make a coffee date, invite a friend over for take-out pizza.
  • Talk about it – Speak about your feelings and avoid keeping things that are bothering you bottled up inside. Remaining silent or bottling can cause you to wage a war within yourself.  These conversations might feel challenging at first, but they do get easier with practise.
  • Consider your environment – are you in the place that is the right fit for you? I know that you might feel guilty about leaving the children and families or letting your team down, but if your own happiness is suffering because of it you are just adding to the bad “emotional hygiene” of the setting and doing your team, children and families a disservice.
  • Focus on today – When we focus too far in the future it can be very overwhelming.  Instead focus on what you can do today.  About 99% of what we worry about in the future never even happens, all you truly have is today.
  • Get moving – Dust of your walking shoes and get out in the fresh air for a walk.  It sounds like cross purposes but even though you might not feel like have the energy to exercise, participating in regular exercise can boost those “feel good” chemicals, your energy levels and your mood.  You are never going to feel like it, sometimes you have to push yourself do it, in order to make yourself feel better.
  • Know your triggers – Think about the children in your settings, through time and careful observation you get to know their behaviour triggers.  You know that the wheels are going to come off if you ignore the tired or hungry signs.  Or that behaviour is going to escalate if you don’t take time to give the child who is feeling hurt or upset a much-needed cuddle.  We are no different, we “play up” emotionally when we are not meeting our own needs.
  • Take care of yourself – Be vigilant about your self-care.  I am not talking about a trip to the spa of a candle-lit bath here (although this is a lovely way to treat yourself).  By this I mean be mindful of your nutrition, unplug from screens and the internet and create a sleep ritual that ensures that you are getting the rest that you need. Be careful with your personal boundaries, create a healthy space for yourself away from external negativity – beware of those energy pirates!
  • Pay attention to yourself talk – When we think negative thoughts we cannot expect to have positive results. Our negative thoughts become “negative affirmations” holding us back and leading us to repeat the same behaviours over and over again, this can become a habit loop.  We need to pay attention to our thoughts and intentionally replace the negative affirmation with a positive thought.  This can be can be hard work, but it trust me it does get easier.
  • Become mindful – Gift yourself a bit of time in the morning to practise, gratitude and mindfulness and set yourself up for the day. Meditation has been shown to reduce levels of stress and perceived stress.   Meditation and mindfulness have been proven to change the structure of your amygdala which is the part of your brain that controls feelings such as anger, fear and anxiety. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build stronger relationships.

Realize that it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Make a habit of noticing the goodness that is already yours first thing in the morning, and you will see more goodness everywhere you look throughout the day.

Marc and Angel.

  • Find yourself in the service of others – Looking for a natural “high”? Helping others or doing kind things for others can have a positive effect on your happiness and well-being.  Studies have shown the just witnessing acts of kindness produces Oxycontin, the ‘love hormone’ which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving our overall heart-health.  Oxycontin also increases our self-esteem and optimism.  Kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical which helps to heal your wounds, calm you down, and makes you happy! Being kind to others reduces pain, can reduce the stress hormone cortisol by 23%, anxiety and depression.  Being altruistic is linked to lowering blood pressure and increases heart health.
  • Rekindle a passion – Think back to a time when you were happiest, what things where you doing that you no longer do?  What passion or leisure activity can you rediscover? Create a network of people who have similar interests and whom you will look forward to meeting up with on a regular basis.
  • One step at a time – Remember that only one little step is all that is ever needed.  There is always hope, you won’t always feel this way.  One day you will look back to this day and realise how far you have come.

Knocked down,

But not out;

Crying but still breathing;

Broken

but Brave;

I’m strong

Enough to survive this

– the love yourself challenge.

 

Thank you for reading my blog.  If you or someone you care about is suffering with depression please reach out to Lifeline on 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO), or www.depression.org.nz for online resources as well as Depression Helpline, free phone 0800 111 757 and Anxiety Line 0800 ANXIETY (2694 389).

Kia kaha,