By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
Recently, my youngest child learned how to ride a bike. Again. You might think riding a bike is something you do once and never have to relearn. Well, for him it’s been a different process. He tried it last spring and had the main idea. He could ride independently, yet in a straight line only. He couldn’t turn. He couldn’t stop. He panicked if there was any sort of pebble or crack or bump. And he wobbled the whole time, because he was afraid of pedaling too quickly. He was trying to control everything. He was hyperfocused on watching the tire in front of him and would stare at the handlebars, overthinking what he needed to do. He worried that going too fast would cause him harm, when really going too slow was what caused his loss of balance and ultimately led to repeated spills and crashes.
After a few of those crashes, he declared his undying love for his scooter and took a break. And so we allowed him to return to something he felt confident about and enjoyed. But as summer came to a close, we knew that riding a bike was something he indeed could come to love, and the rail trail at the end of our street would provide endless enjoyment for him and our family. Yet we were aware that he required a lot of support to truly master this skill.
I am happy to report that he ultimately succeeded in learning to ride a bike! And my reflection on this process revealed a parallel to understanding the importance of work-life balance. Let’s take a look at what I noticed and how we can use these observations as educators.
Don’t watch the tires . . . or the handlebars.
You cannot ride a bike by focusing your attention on the individual parts of the bike. You must be able to trust that the wheels are moving the way they need to, that your hands are where they need to be, and that you are in control of what is happening. Fixating on one piece of the bike or pouring too much focus and energy into each small part of the process can throw you off.
As educators, things like testing, data, lesson planning, policies, and curriculum are vital to our practice, but I encourage you to trust that you know what you are doing. Hyperfocus, rather than reasonable attention, on any one of these educational components can be cause for instability and wobbles. Trust that your bike and your systems will come together to support you. Let the bike do what it is designed to do and look up! You are doing it! Reframe your perspective and look out at what is happening around you.
Stop trying to avoid the potholes.
Accept that you are going to face uneven terrain sometimes. That is the life of an educator. You cannot always slow down to anticipate bumps in the road or navigate around them. Things will happen. You will have to get through it. Your bike may wobble, and you may even fall off, but you will get up. Students and families have crises, and we must respond and support. Kids will struggle emotionally, behaviorally, and academically, and we don’t always know why. Testing mandates may reframe our experiences with teaching and learning in stressful ways.
Difficulties can feel extra challenging to educators—but this is because we care, and that is okay. It’s important to remember that we cannot control the terrain, but we can learn to hang on and push through it. Often, pushing through it means accessing support. Perhaps you need to talk to your colleagues or administrators and simply name the problem. Consider using the school counselor or other community support staff. Try to create spaces for dialogue in order to obtain more professional development around whatever is challenging.
Moving through bumps in the road sometimes means accepting and leaning into the adversity in order to get through it. Understanding how you choose to manage difficulty can make for an easier path in the future.
You must keep pedaling.
When my son was learning to ride, he was terrified to pedal “too fast,” afraid to feel out of control or unsafe. We explained to him that by being afraid to move ahead confidently and holding back his speed, he was in fact less safe because he could not maintain balance without a continual pedaling motion.
The same is true of educators. Know that you are doing the best you can and that’s all you can do. There will always be something you didn’t finish, something to change or create, something you forgot to do, a child you are worried about, and on and on. It’s just how it will be. However, if you allow anxiety and stress around this educational reality to hold you back from being fully present in your life outside of work, your bike will wobble. You will fall and it may be hard to get back up. Pedal confidently away each day. It’s going to be okay.
Turn to avoid crashes.
Navigating a bike requires us to turn so we can go where we want to go. If you choose to make work your one straight path in life, you will crash and burn out, and I don’t think that’s anyone’s desired destination. Making turns allows us to search out new routes to explore. Create ample space for things outside of school that can keep you moving along the path to staying whole and balanced. Consider what comforts, excites, motivates, inspires, entertains, and satisfies you. Some folks find these things in exercise, knitting, sports leagues, sewing, scrapbooking, family game nights, spontaneous nature walks, television shows that induce laughter or thought, book clubs, bubble baths, church or community groups, reiki, baking, volunteering, a girls’ night out, yoga classes, or live music events.
Attending to the space that exists outside of work doesn’t have to always consist of activity; finding quiet time to recharge matters as well. Really, what matters most is that you are giving yourself permission to enjoy life outside of teaching. You are mindfully allowing yourself to be a more whole, healthy, and interesting version of yourself, and this often enhances your effectiveness at work.
What you do professionally is not all of who you are. Make some turns to get to where you need to be.
Don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
The first time I heard my son yell out “This is AMAAAAAZING!” while he was riding, I laughed and beamed. He was doing it. And he reached the point where he was finally looking up, riding over the bumps, and making turns. He was not afraid of speed. He simply surrendered to the joy of the experience.
I encourage each and every one of you to do the same. You get to be an educator! How awesome is that? Remember that kids can either light up or cower in your presence. Make your presence positive. Have fun, sing made-up songs, be weird and authentic, do cartwheels. (There is a teacher at my school who does cartwheels when she is pleased with the kids in some way and the children delight at this!) Feel the awesomeness of the work and be in the moment while you are there, and then, when you go home, be there too. Quite intentionally, I have not synced up my work email to my smartphone so that it doesn’t just show up whenever it wants. Rather, I have to make a conscious choice to go to the school website and log in. And most often I will pause before logging in and say, “Do I really want to read work email right now?” Sometimes depending on my mood or what I am currently engaged in at home, I will actually say “Nah” and be okay with that.
This is your bike ride, and you get to control the choices that are essential to staying safe and happy on your bike. Embrace it all, and ride on.
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.
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