As an educator, you never know what your day is going to look like as you try to balance the different learning styles and needs that your students bring to the classroom. We far too often are tasked to consider – in addition to these diverse learning needs – that many students have experienced trauma and/or stress, which they innately bring with them to school. As such, we sometimes find ourselves in a position where we’re unable to discuss these experiences due to their sensitive nature, which can lead us as educators to self-internalize these traumas and negative emotions that our students are experiencing.
Still, we push through and continue to put a smile on our faces while keeping the day moving along as smoothly as possible for our students’ sake. Why? Because we care for our students and want to protect them, which is part of the trust-based relationship that we work hard to build with each of them. However, when we suppress our natural and innate responses by merely “pushing through,” we aren’t allowing our bodies to feel and respond naturally. For me personally, in continuing this pattern of putting on a smiling face for my students, my body eventually found a way to let me know that I wasn’t okay – voice loss.
WHAT MY BODY WAS TRYING TO TELL ME
I was experiencing voice loss almost monthly. I was unable to socialize with friends and unable to be a vocal part of my family. It became overwhelmingly clear to me just how much my voice loss was affecting my ability to participate in day-to-day events. At my son’s soccer game, all I could do was sit – which meant no cheering and no conversations with other parents whom I normally spoke with. I quickly learned that voice loss is a very isolating experience.
As a Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT) my voice is an important part of my job. As I was losing my voice so often, I also had to miss days off work. It was at this point that I decided that I needed to seek medical help. I wasn’t sure what to expect and nothing could have prepared me for the verdict on what would be the true cause of my voice loss. After consulting with my family doctor, an Ear-Nose-throat Specialist (ENT), a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP), and a counsellor, the verdict was that I had experienced voice loss due to Vicarious Trauma (VT) and Stress. I remember thinking, “That can’t be right!” I always knew there was stress in teaching, but I wasn’t aware of the toll it could end up having on my own physical health.
I had no idea just how much time, energy, and vulnerability it took to become well again. To begin my healing journey, I reduced my workload to half-time. Part of me felt ashamed for missing work for something that didn’t seem to be a common problem among my colleagues. Why weren’t they losing their voices, too? I was scared to tell my coworkers the truth about my voice loss, and so I lied to everyone by instead saying that I had “voice strain.” Above all, what I truly wasn’t ready to share was that my voice loss had really meant that I was stressed out and traumatized.
Throughout my journey, I’ve realized that listening to my body and taking a break to look after myself does not make me weak. This realization, along with the wonderful support I’ve received from my family, my counsellor, my SLP, and my friends, gave me the confidence to be more open and equipped to share my story. While I was initially terrified of what my colleagues would think, I soon learned how fortunate I was to work with an amazing group of people. As I continued to share my story, I realized just how many of my coworkers have had similar experiences of stress in the workplace – that I wasn’t alone.
HOW I’M REGAINING CONTROL OF MY WELLNESS
In an effort to build a work culture that promotes wellness, I’ve taken part in creating a ‘Wellness Committee’ at our school. The Committee has done several things including providing a snack bowl for staff, putting plants in the staffroom, celebrating staff members’ birthdays, sharing daily uplifting quotes, organizing team-building activities, and creating a space known as the ‘Rejuvenation Room’ for staff and students.
As I look back at the journey that has brought me to where I am today, I at times debate the future of my career. After yet another visit to the clinic due to voice loss, my family doctor had straight-up asked me, “You’re not giving it up yet?” What’s more, after I had disclosed that I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, even my counsellor had challenged my belief that I am “living my dream.” To be honest, I do debate my future in education. I never would have thought I’d receive a diagnosis for Vicarious Trauma and Stress in direct relation to my work as a SERT.
So many things are out of our control in education, but what we do have control over is our wellness and ourselves. Voice loss has shown me that I was giving too much without adequately looking after myself. At this point, I’m able to better listen to my body and identify when my stress level is getting too high. I feel more in control of my wellness than I used to. I’ve been able to find joy and happiness throughout this experience and I’m thankful for what I’ve learned and continue to learn, and how I feel right now in this very moment as I continue to teach.