I began my teaching career with absolutely no experience. I hadn’t completed a single education class in college or an internship. One of my local high schools simply needed a teacher and I needed a job. Luckily I had the right degree, and miraculously I was hired. Little did I know I was in for the shock of my life. It was utter chaos. My naive hopes of eager students gazing at me wide-eyed while I expanded their minds were quickly dashed. Every class was the same. I would have some kids sleeping, some on their phone, some shouting across the room, and others throwing things. There was cursing, crude drawings, consistent "I hate you and your class" comments, and only a rare few students actually did what I asked.
I fought the good fight though. I felt like maybe my calling was to be a teacher, and I really didn’t want to lose this job. I tried my best to whip everybody into shape with a little "Lift your head up Karina! Watch your mouth Harrison! Where is your book Trevon? Go get it! Keep it down, people! I can’t hear myself think!" I was fighting 50 battles at the same time and not winning any of them for more than a few minutes. It was exhausting and so discouraging. I was sorely tempted to quit. The scope and quantity of the problems plus a keen awareness of the sheer energy it would take to tackle each one left me feeling paralyzed.
I finally saw things turn for the better when I decided to choose just one thing I wanted to change and focus on making that one thing happen. I started with the sleeping. Maybe I couldn’t stop every f-bomb or paper airplane, but this was a real class and not nap time. I made sure that no one slept in my class, ever, and I could feel a small change overall because of it. Since students noticed I took sleeping seriously they tightened up ever so slightly in other areas too. There was still cursing, flying objects, and a general sense of apathy towards my teaching, but they were one notch less than before.
After a few weeks, when I felt like I was consistently winning the sleeping battle so that it wasn’t really an issue any more, I moved on to the phones. It’s not like I didn’t care about kids drawing on their desks or cursing, I just wasn’t going to die on that hill. I was, however, going to die on that cell phone hill with the numbered bushes. If someone cursed in my class, I would let them know that it wasn’t ok and that it needed to stop. It generally didn’t, but at least my students knew where I stood. If someone used a cell phone on the other hand, I was taking that cell phone to the office, writing referrals, talking to kids after class, and calling home, whatever it took to get them to stop using their cell phone during my instructional time. I continued in this manner for the rest of the year. It wasn’t perfect, sometimes I slacked off and had to go back and regain ground already won, plus I’ve never fully figured out how to keep kids from talking across the room, but it really helped me to make significant progress in the classroom and get through that first year.
I tell you all this because I think that there are a lot of parallels to the fight against depression. For many of us all of the issues we have to deal with are swirling through our heads and can leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to fight against any of them. When we do gather up the strength for battle, we take too many of our issues on at once and are left exhausted and defeated without having gained any significant ground. Even the four fundamentals can seem overwhelming. Everyone knows they should exercise and eat better it’s just incredibly difficult when you’re depressed. Sustainable change starts with choosing one need, and focusing on getting into a healthy, although probably still not perfect, place in that area. Choose the first hill where you’re going to take your stand. "No matter what, I will eat a salad for dinner tonight!"
If your basics are not strong, I would highly recommend starting there. I will give you my recommended order, but this isn’t prescriptive. You know yourself and your habits, so feel free to personalize your strategy of course. To me, the easiest thing to start with is just lowering your stress. You don’t have to add anything to your life so it doesn’t take a lot of time or energy. The beauty of lowering your stress is that it will actually create time and energy so that you can be successful at the other basics. Like we said in the stress article, find things to cut out of your day so that you can have the space to focus on your health. Try to run less errands and avoid unnecessary meetings. Do what you can to come home from work earlier. If you have the means or good family and friends, see if others can help you with house and yard work. Anything that can lessen the load on your shoulders is invaluable. Again don’t forget to express your incredible appreciation for any help.
In the sleep article, I said that it was probably the most important thing for your mental health, and I still feel that way. It’s just very difficult to start sleeping better. Everyone would have a great night’s sleep every evening if it was easy. So after lowering your stress, I would highly recommend focusing on exercise. Exercise gives you a natural brain and energy boost, relieves stress, and helps you sleep. That’s a powerful trifecta. After reducing your daily activities so that you now have time to exercise, simplify your thought process and make exercise the only goal for your day. Let that be the thing that you measure your day by. If you exercised today, it was a successful day. Everything else you do is icing. If it’s getting late and you haven’t done the dishes, returned an email, or exercised. Just exercise and go to bed feeling great about what you accomplished that day. Get to the others when you have time. You can basically stop there and you’re in an excellent place to fight depression. With lower stress and consistent exercise, you should see your sleep improving too. If you need to, try to follow these natural sleeping tips.
I've left food for last because I have fears that you might overly focus on food which will actually do more harm than good. Food is one of the fundamentals because what you eat does indeed affect your mood and energy levels, however there is so much unhealthy self-criticism associated with food and body image that I want you to be careful. The purpose of focusing on what you eat in fighting depression is mainly so that bad food won't keep you from the other positive steps you need to take. For instance, if you eat poorly one night it will be even harder to conjure the energy to workout. Eating healthy on the other hand can help you feel ready for the day. Avoid mixing in societal pressures for how slim your waist line needs to be, though. That's not what you need right now, or ever really.
So those are my tips for simplifying your goals especially if you're feeling overwhelmed. This is one of my first blog posts so I'm not sure how the commenting and replying thing is going to go but please leave a comment with your thoughts if you would like to. I will try to respond to any thoughts directed my way. General comments are also welcome. Take care.