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4 Ways To Put Your Life Vest On First

Take Care of You or You Won’t Be Able to Take Care of Others
Aug 19 2014
Nicole Black

I can’t lie. I used to be a classroom teacher and I completely, 100% burned myself out. I seriously broke down in a staff meeting and was hysterically having a tantrum over new English Language Learner paperwork. I lost it. And now as a parent of three kids under 7, I want to have tantrums nearly every day.

Life is hard. Being an educator is hard. Being a parent is hard. But we have to, we must, take care of ourselves; because if we’re in the fetal position or locking ourselves in the bathroom and counting that as “me time,” we are not able to fully serve the people in front of us: our students, our children, our spouses, our friends. And if we’re not firing on all cylinders, giving those that matter our very best, that’s when the good stuff falls between the cracks.

Here are 4 simple ways to take care of you so that you can still take care of others.

1. Plan Ahead: Don’t Leave Your Peace Of Mind To Chance

I get it. Your life is busy and you need to make use of every free moment you have. It could be recess, or your kid’s naptime, or the second your respite provider walks in the door. It’s your cue to automatically kick into gear and get as much done as humanly possible in as little time. But the stack of papers to grade and IEP paperwork to finish can wait. The mound of laundry and the sink full of dirty dishes can stay exactly where they are. Your sanity is on the line. It’s time to put the multi-tasking function on pause and mute the constant To Do List running through your mind.

Stop yourself. If this is your only time for you, take it. Unapologetically. Sit and read a gossip magazine. Call your best friend. Chat with a colleague about anything that is not related to school or your students. Reignite the love of an old hobby. Or just stare at the wall.

It doesn’t matter what you decide on, as long as you pick something that’s just for you. Give yourself 5 minutes or give yourself a whole hour. It doesn’t matter. As long as you choose you.

And protect your “Me Time” by spending that time first, or else something will inevitably come up. It always does, right? Someone will need you, a nap will end early or a student will be hurt on the playground. And you’ll jump back in, feet first, and your time will be gone before it even started.

2. Anticipation: Give Yourself Something To Look Forward To

Life really is a mental game. It’s all in how you look at things and your perspective can make or break your day.  Some days I laugh it off when half a box of cereal is dumped on my floor and some days I stomp and yell as I clean it up. Perspective. And on those stomp and yell days, sometimes an iced coffee really can turn my day around.

If you know you’re going to have a really hard day next Wednesday, plan something that gets you through the day. It could be lunch out at a restaurant, it could be meeting up with coworkers after work for mango margaritas, it could be watching your favorite movie that evening. A little sunshine at the end of the day to “reward” yourself is always a good thing.

Pick a day—or several days—that you don’t bring work home. Or pick days that you consciously ignore the dirty floor. Maybe Friday can be the “No picking up the dog poop day.”

During an IEP Meeting, treat yourself to that iced coffee. Or a Diet Coke. Or a double chocolate cupcake. Choose something that will make you really look forward to it. And. Then. Enjoy. It.

Plan a date with your significant other or with some friends. Hire a babysitter or swap babysitting duties with a friend if you can’t afford one. Take a “mental health day” and play hookey. Shhh. I won’t tell. But I will tell you that you deserve it.

And go for the big shebang if you can: plan a vacation away for yourself. It can be a girlfriend trip to a winery, a guys-only fishing trip or a romantic getaway. But only invite people that don’t suck. Surround yourself with people who will not make your life harder for that one trip. It can be a grand tour or you can escape to the hotel down the street. But you will come back more refreshed and ready to tackle your multitasking, crazy busy, overworked life. And, incidentally, whoever “covered” for you will have a newfound respect for all that you do. (This is especially effective for spouses)

3. Choose Your Environment Wisely: Go Somewhere That ‘Fills You Up’

Where you spend most of your awake time greatly influences your mood, and therefore your drained or cheerful attitude. Personally, fluorescent lights and stark beige walls, give me a headache. Create your classroom or office space to be a place that visually and emotionally pleases you, since you’re the one who’ll be there the most.  Buy plants, hang up art, rearrange furniture. Personalize it. Do something. Anything. And while you’re at it, turn off those darn fluorescent lighs when you can.

My home is a different story. I feel like I have no control over it now that I birthed three hurricanes. They can destroy a room in 5 minutes flat. When it is clean, I take pictures as proof that we sometimes can see the floor.

So I’ve had to create my happy place. And everyone’s happy place will look different. For some, it’s a dark, quiet bedroom where little people are forbidden to enter. For others, it’s a big comfy bed with top of the line sheets. For me, it’s being outside, sitting in my swing. Whenever I’m feeling incredibly overwhelmed and like I just want to run away, I take my grandma’s old advice: I go outside and I “blow the stink off my tail.” Being outside, automatically makes me drop my shoulders, take a deep breath and smile.  

Find your “go to” happy place in your home and/or at your school. Maybe it’s the school’s garden. Or maybe you were a jock as a kid and you love the sounds and smells of the gym. Or maybe you lock yourself in your car and blare your favorite music. No judgement. Physically move yourself somewhere that makes you feel more whole.

4. Be Grateful: Turn Inwards and Find What Makes You Happy

Some days are going to be better than others. That’s life. So on some days it’s harder to be grateful for the things and people in your life. But forcing yourself to find gratitude even on the hardest of days, will remind you how lucky you really are. That, in and of itself, is a good thing. But it will also take care of your soul. It will fill you up emotionally after those really hard days.

On those great win days, when your child reached a milestone that those ridiculous doctors predicted they would never reach, it’ll be easy to write what you’re thankful for. Or when the student who couldn’t hold their pencil was finally able to master it. Those are easy days to be grateful. It’s clear that you’re awesome, they’re awesome and the whole world is awesome.

Other days aren’t so easy. Like those days when your student pees on the rug and you sit in the exact same spot (I swear, this really happened to me). It’s times like those when it’s harder to find things to be grateful for. But this is when we have to try harder than ever. Because these are the moments that will define you.

On that fateful “pee on the rug day,” I was grateful there were no afterschool meetings so I could go home and change out of my pee-jeans. I was grateful to be reminded how embarrassed and uncomfortable kids feel when they have an accident. I was also grateful that it was just pee and not poop.

Sometimes you need to force yourself to remember all the good things. Because if you focus on the yuck, if you focus on the stuff that’s so hard it makes your teeth hurt, you won’t be able to function and tackle it. You won’t be of any help to anyone.


At the end of the day, self-preservation is one of the greatest acts of kindness you can do for the people in your life. Because as the old adage goes, it’s impossible to save others from drowning unless we put on our own life vest first. It is justified selfishness that not only gives us the emotional and physical strength to be the amazing person we were meant to be, but the courage to help those around us become who they were meant to become.

But it starts with you. Today. In this moment.

Go ahead and ask yourself this one simple question: what fills you up, brings you back to a place of calm and peace? Restores your spirit? Once you have your answer, put down your phone, your tablet or your computer and go do it. That’ll be your life vest and you need to wear it…every day.

Your sanity is counting on it.

Nicole Black is a credentialed elementary school teacher, tutor and substitute teacher. She is raising her 3 awesome kids, volunteering in their classrooms and is just trying to make it to bedtime. Her hobbies include attending IEP Meetings, sleeping in and searching Pinterest for inspiring recipes that she may or may not ever make. Oh, and she also likes to write.