Most teachers choose the teaching profession because their personality traits allow them to be dedicated to their pupils. They put their students’ needs first, and they are proud of becoming educators and attentive caregivers to the children placed under their care.
Recently, I found a description of a personality that matched my image of an ideal teacher. I was reading a book titled The Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté. He listed distinctive personality traits that undeniably characterized my professional behaviour throughout my teaching career. I identified with all of them:
• an automatic and compulsive concern for the emotional needs of others while ignoring one’s own;
• rigid identification with social role, duty, and responsibility (which is closely related to the next point);
• overdriven, externally focused multitasking hyper-responsibility, based on the conviction that one must justify one’s existence by doing and giving;
• repression of healthy, self-protective aggression and anger, and
• harbouring and compulsively acting out two beliefs: “I am responsible
for how other people feel” and “I must never disappoint anyone.”
The Myth of Normal, p. 101
I highlighted the parts in the quote that I believed were positive features of my character. The problem is that, according to Gabor Maté, people who identify with these characteristics are prone to suffer from chronic illnesses.
The stress that teachers in Canada are going through in our classrooms is recognized by the media and many boards of education. There are programs in place to support teachers who ask for help to manage their students’ conduct more effectively. In my last two years of teaching, I requested a team of experts to work with my class to address the behavioural issues of my primary students.
I knew how to contribute to these programs as a classroom teacher, but I didn’t fully acquire the skill of balancing my true dedication to my students with the necessity to care for my own health. I blamed my chronic fatigue and nagging pains and aches on my age. I even rationalized my shortness of breath as low-level anxiety.
A couple of visits to my family doctor’s office weren’t helpful because I didn’t try to advocate for myself, and I gladly minimized the symptoms to make sure that I could go back to work. Eventually, I decided to retire earlier than I had planned. My strong belief that rest and exercise would restore my health turned out to be just wishful thinking.
Instead of enjoying my retirement, I was diagnosed with a rare inflammatory disease called PMR (Polymyalgia Rheumatica) and Severe Aortic Valve Stenosis. It took at least a year before I felt like myself again after an aortic valve replacement and before the symptoms of PMR subsided. At the same time, I was learning how to take my health into my own hands. Gabor Maté suggested this in his conversation with Steven Bartlett, the creator of the podcast The Diary of a CEO on November 7, 2022; (I am paraphrasing):
If I have any illness, I don’t put my health in the hands of the physician. I listen to the doctor’s advice, but I am the one who makes decisions that seem right for me.
Thanks to the very impressive progress in cardiology, and collaboration with many specialists who were involved in resolving my health issues, I finally consider myself to be a healthy retiree. However, I regret my lack of dedication to my own health during the two decades of teaching.
My heart problems started many years before they became life-threatening. Earlier diagnosis would have allowed me to get the TAVI (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation) done during my active professional years of working as an elementary school teacher and would perhaps have extended my teaching career, adding more quality to my day-to-day work with young children.
I should not have agreed to just an ECG (electrocardiogram) at my doctor’s office; instead, I should have insisted on getting a requisition for an ECHO (echocardiogram). ECG never showed any irregularities in my heart, while ECHO led to a serious heart malfunction diagnosis.
I regret blaming my age for the aches and pains I was experiencing during the last few years of teaching. Specialized blood tests for autoimmune diseases would have shown the CRP (creatine reactive protein) and ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) levels higher than normal, and appropriate treatment could have been put in place long before I reached unbearable levels of pain.
If I could talk to my younger self, with all the knowledge and experience that I gained and went through after I retired, I would say:
• be equally dedicated to your students’ and your own needs,
• pay attention to your body,
• don’t let anybody, including yourself, minimize your symptoms,
• research what tests can help to diagnose your illness,
• be your own advocate and insist on getting a proper medical evaluation,
• believe that other teachers can temporarily replace you, and they could be as helpful and dedicated to your students as you are.
The teaching profession is a calling. We know what impact we can make on children and how much their future depends on what we can offer to them, not only as educators but also as human beings. In the process of serving the younger generation, we tend to forget that our responsibility is to model for our students a healthy balance of how to treat ourselves and others.
If we can’t care for our own needs, our ability to help our students decreases significantly. Ignoring our health issues in the name of helping children does not characterize us as dedicated teachers. It only shows our desire to please others. It is time for me to change my ideal image of a teacher that I had in mind for years into someone who respects and meets their own needs as much as the needs of their students.
Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté, The Myth of Normal, Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto, 2022.
The Diary of a CEO Podcast with Steven Bartlett, Interview with Gabor Maté, YouTube, Nov. 7, 2022.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Nike Leskowsky
Anna Nike Leskowsky was a journalist in Poland. After immigrating to Canada in 1990, she worked as an elementary school teacher until she retired in 2018. Her articles and essays written in English have been published in Canadian Teacher Magazine, Canadian Art Therapy Association Online Magazine Envisage, Canadian Immigrant Magazine, The Toronto Star, and college textbooks. Anna Nike Leskowsky lives in Toronto.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s 2024 Winter Issue.