It was just cold enough for the rain to turn to ice. The slushy, wet thing meteorologists call a "wintery-mix." The kind of weather January in Baltimore is known to produce. The kind of weather no one really enjoys.
It was the morning I knew my marriage was over.
I had no idea what to do next, so I drove along the wet roads in a daze and went to work. I sat at my desk, student voices echoing up the hallway and carrying through the building. As I waited for my assistant principal to arrive in my room, I was at an absolute loss. A loss for words. A loss for emotions. A loss of heart and soul.
As she sat in front of me, I took a deep breath and said, "I am getting a divorce," and then I whispered, "and I don't think I can teach today."
In seven years of teaching, I had never let my personal life interfere with my profession. I had compartmentalized for eight to twelve hours each day, no matter what. I thrived at work when my own emotions and health weren't in balance. Throwing myself into teaching when I felt sad or angry or overwhelmed. I found great comfort and reward in pushing my own needs aside to focus on my student and my school and my work.
But not today. This was too big to leave outside in the cold. If I couldn't leave it out there, then I had to ask to not come inside with it. I had to ask to leave and deal with it somewhere else.
Over the next four months, my assistant principal remained the only person in my school that knew what was unfolding in my life. I took two days off and then returned, with no explanation, jumping right back into teaching.
And everyday, for the next four months, at 2:45pm, I closed my classroom door, pulled down the window shade, and cried. I would sit at my desk and become absolutely unhinged.
Things got easier, or rather, a new normal emerged, slowly but surely. But it was hard every, single day. Over those four months, I knew I needed to care for myself in ways I had never expected would be vital to my wellbeing. I decided I needed to seek therapy. Sorting through the enormous shift that was taking place in my life would not be able to happen otherwise.
It was four months before I told anyone I worked with what was going on in my life. Another twelve months before I finally started therapy. And even longer before I began to understand how to take care of myself.
Through that time, I sought hard to figure out how to use my mental health benefits. Baltimore City, unbeknownst to me, provides us with incredible mental health coverage. What isn't provided is anything more than that. Great coverage. Zero support for using it. I flipped through pages of therapists. I googled their names but found no real details of who they were or how they could help me. How was I supposed to choose who to tell my story to if I had to randomly select someone out of a book?
Finally, after months of writing, on what felt like a thousand sticky-note-reminders, "FIND THERAPIST," I began to cold call. I started with the closest available providers in my network. I left three messages. Two called me back that week while I was teaching. One never even responded. Once I finally got one on the phone, we chatted briefly and it sounded like a good enough match to make an appointment.
"Great," she said, "Right now I can see new patients on Tuesdays at 9:30 or Wednesdays at 10 o'clock in the morning."
That was never going to work, and what I began to find is that I didn't have a job that allowed for me easily access these services. Over the next few months, I spoke with a handful of other providers that said the same thing. How was I ever going to do this? It seemed impossible.
I finally got brave enough to ask a few teachers I knew if they had ever tried to use our mental health benefits. I knew someone out there had to of figured out this system. Over and over, they told my same story: It was confusing to get information about individuals, hard to connect with them, and impossible to find an appointment time outside of a 7-5pm work day.
I became fascinated with this very obvious problem that was so widespread across so many of the teachers I talked to. Taking care of ourselves was really hard to do as a teacher. Not just mental health, but overall wellness. The average teacher I talked to hadn't been to a dentist in over two years. Teachers wanted to workout more, but adding more thing to their daily agenda seemed impossible most days. Flu shots were pretty much only received if the grocery store was offering them for free while we were there.
The problem was apparent. Teachers find it extremely hard to access their health benefits. But more than this, we find it damn near impossible to find the time or energy to engage in the type of wellness activities we want and need in our lives. I began to imagine what it would be like if I could solve this problem.
A small seed began to grow. An idea of an organization that empowers schools to provide the services needed to foster healthier, happier, and better-balanced teachers. When we talk about what it means to be a teacher, what our teachers need, we aren't addressing the whole story. Our educators need more than just professional development, they need cultures of care, too.
The Whole Teacher is finally starting to take form.
Although it's a nonprofit in the early stages, it is also a budding movement that I believe will help to transform how we define healthy schools. Together with schools, we will design individualized wellness programming that meets the unique and specific needs of each school we work with. Wellness programs that make services such as preventative care, exercise, and mental health providers more accessible than ever before to some of our most dedicated and selfless public servants- our teachers.
As we begin to grow, I encourage you to think about why schools don't offer the kinds of embedded wellness services that other companies offer. And then, imagine what would change if teacher health was valued as much as professional development or test scores. Would teaching feel different? Would you teach better because you felt better?
I think it's worth finding out.