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The Life Lesson a Teacher of the Year Learned in Rehab

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It's no secret that a lot of teachers end up quitting within their first five years in the classroom.

I was recently reading an article that explained why teachers burn out so quickly. It's simple, really: We don't see teaching as a career. We see it as a calling. And unfortunately, this is exploited by the powers that be. When asked or told, we will do more with less. We try to help everyone: students, their parents, principals, and fellow teachers. We say yes to everyone, but there are only so many yeses to go around.

We've got to start setting some boundaries. No more giving 'whatever it takes,' but giving 'what I can give within the context of my health, finances, and family.' Treat teaching as a calling and a career. This is sustainable. This is how you last.

Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way: through a trip to rehab.

For seven years, I had poured my heart and soul into teaching. "Whatever It Takes" was my slogan. I was recognized as a Teacher of the Year—first for my school, then for my district, and then for the whole state of North Carolina in 2013.

By the end of the 2014-15 school year, however, my wife was on the verge of leaving me. I was nearly a stranger to my son, I had less than $100 in my bank account, and I was hooked on prescription pills: Adderall for focus, Ambien for sleep, Xanax for stress.

The school year had just ended. I had the whole summer ahead of me. I had reached the pinnacle of my career. I should've been happy, and yet I was miserable. My world was unraveling.

So, what does a lonely, dead-broke, burnt-out, pill-popping Teacher of the Year do on the last day of school? He checks into rehab.

My 'Aha Moment' in Rehab

Throughout the week, I received great treatment from the staff, but I was still feeling very hopeless. That all changed when I went into group therapy and learned a lesson that changed my life forever.

The counselor asked us to start with introductions. Each patient was asked to give his or her name and share one thing that made that person proud.

First, a golf club manager told us about his rise to the top of his industry. Then, a landscaping business owner told us he was proud for starting his own business. Later, a young woman, in her late teens or early 20s, spoke up: "I am a student. I go to school. I also work a job. But, more than anything, I am a mom. A proud one. I've heard a lot of people talk about their jobs and successes in their careers. I am not rich. I am not a boss. But I am a mom. More than anything, that's who I am, and that's what I'm proud of."

In that moment, it hit me. Everyone else had talked about their jobs—that's where their accomplishments were. That's where their treasure was. But this girl's perspective was different. It was being a mom; it was her son—that's where she placed her pride and identity.

I am a mom. Something within me clicked when I heard that. When trying to decide what to share about myself with the group, I hadn't even thought about my son or my wife. My only instinct had been to talk about teaching.

After a few minutes, it was my turn to speak. I cleared my throat and said, "I was going to introduce myself as Justin, an American history teacher and North Carolina History Teacher of the Year, but the Mom of the Year changed my perception."

I raised my voice boldly like she had and continued: "I am Justin. I am a proud father and husband."

Ultimately, my identity was completely wrapped up in the teacher persona. Mr. Ashley. Mr. Ashley. Mr. Ashley. But what about Justin? What about Husband? What about Daddy? What about me?

That college kid taught me the lesson of a lifetime: I've got to take more pride in who I am outside of the classroom than who I am in it. Teaching is a part of me, but it's not all of me. This was a new beginning for me. If I was going back into teaching, I was going to do it on my terms and no one else's. That would be my new focus: learning how to teach and still be happy.

The Four Domains of Happiness

After I got out of rehab, I took part in a lot of therapy and read over 50 self-help books.

This is what I learned: The secret to happiness is to find it in every domain of life. We look at happiness as something singular (you're happy or you're not), but it's plural. There is:

1. Social happiness, when you have a network of connections that includes your spouse, children, friends, fellow teachers, boss, and students.

2. Career happiness, when school is meaningful and enjoyable. You feel like you are using your gifts to serve others and contribute to a cause bigger than yourself.

3. Physical and emotional happiness, when you are getting enough food, sleep, exercise, and time for thought.

4. Financial happiness, when you can provide for yourself and your family. You have a positive mindset about money, and you are smart about spending, saving, and investing.

There's a saying, often misattributed to Benjamin Franklin: "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."

I think the secret of catching it is by pursuing happiness in all four domains, and not just in the classroom. It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing less on your career and more on your personal life ends up making you a better teacher. Happy teachers make happy students, and you carry your quality of life with you into the classroom every day.

Five Ways to Be a Happier, Healthier Teacher

Here are a few practical strategies that can help teachers live a life of joy:

1. Take field trips with your family. During a quick break or while eating lunch, plan out an out-of-town adventure for the upcoming weekend and put it on your calendar. One study referenced in the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor found that participants' endorphin levels rose by 27 percent after just planning and thinking about their next family vacation.

2. Write student thank-you cards. We have to write students up for bad behavior. Why not for good behavior, too? For a few dollars at Target, you can buy a stack of colorful appreciation cards. When you notice a student who's working extra hard on an assignment, asking and answering a lot of questions in class, or helping out another kid, write them a note that uplifts their spirits.

3. Avoid 'vampire teacher' attacks. Associate with positive teachers at school. Stay away from negative teachers who seem to suck your joy.

4. Take school email off your phone. A recent research study revealed that on average, adults check their phones 85 times a day. 85! Scrolling through your inbox on the couch may not seem like a big deal, but what if you read a spiteful message from a parent that gets you fired up? That email can drop your mood, increasing your anxiety for several hours while you're with your family. Check your email first thing in the morning when you get to school and before you leave each day. You don't check for mail from the post office 20 times a day and you don't have to check your email more than once or twice, either.

5. Take your own recess. I practice boxing every day after school. Find your favorite form of exercise and stick with it—basketball, soccer, jogging, yoga, nature walks, whatever. Research shows that 30 minutes of daily exercise has the same positive effect as the strongest anti-depression medications on the market.

Learning Kintsugi

If you are a teacher who's feeling broken, whether it's because of burnout, depression, anxiety, or an addiction, I want you to know that this does not have to be the end of your story.

Have you heard of the Japanese method for repairing broken pottery? They call it kintsugi, where they take the shattered pieces and put them back together with a golden lacquer. They literally repair it with gold.

If you are willing to pick up the broken pieces of your life and pursue happiness across the domains, I believe you can create a life that’s even more beautiful than the one you envisioned when you first started teaching.

What you'll find is that when you start taking better care of yourself, exercising, and spending more time with your family, your passion for teaching will reignite. Creative lesson ideas will begin to flow again. Student relationships will begin to build. If you live an adventurous and balanced life outside of school, that positive energy will spill over into the classroom.

And before you know it, your once-fragmented, -shattered life will be completely pieced together...with gold.

Portions of this essay were adapted from Ashley's first book, The Balanced Teacher Path (Free Spirit Publishing, 2017).

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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