In-Service of Self: This Year Let’s Be Self-Care Warriors

By JaVaughn Hardaway (she/her/hers)

It’s 4:30 a.m. and it’s still dark outside. The rest of the world hasn’t even dreamt of waking up yet. It’s the middle of the week, and on this particular day,  figurative language and characterization are next up in the lesson plans at the time teachers in my building—and across Center Township— begin thinking about their students and heading to the place where so many children and families hang their hopes on the promise of a comfortable life and an empowering education. 

This year, though, just feels different. Days are longer and challenges that arose in February in school years passed are starting to surface before the leaves have even fallen off of the newly crisped trees and the first frost even coats the damp grass. As we settle into the “new normal” of beginning and ending every class with copious amounts of rubbing alcohol passing as hand sanitizer and “smizing” at students through masks while fist-bumping and elbow tapping to affirm our scholars; as our kids sit through classes conducted on Chromebooks and try to put the pieces back together through too- tight masks that, from our collective experience, hurt the back of your ears, let’s keep in mind the ringing words of Audre Lorde, one of the great Black Feminist icons and thinkers of our time, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

In some countries, the calling to be a teacher is as revered and well respected as a life-saving doctor.  In this country, never before has the role of teacher found itself so central and public while shrouded in mystery and confusion at the same time. For me, this has meant reconciling my knowledge of the deep and meaningful work that teachers engage in each day while consuming the harmful (and sometimes downright hurtful) rhetoric and policies that plague us in addition to the Coronavirus pandemic. This year now more than ever, being “warriors for our students” means being warriors for ourselves by recognizing when we feel burnout, stress, naming and honoring those feelings, and rejecting the notion that we (particularly educators of color) have to be everything to everyone. This year, especially, “self-care” isn’t the bubble baths, massages, and fancy food that the self-care industry and “you-deserve-it” culture of those with power and privilege have foisted upon us through clever marketing, capitalism, and co-opting, rather it is the radical idea that sits on the shoulders of Black women that we must survive.  

This year, being “self-care warriors” means keeping our love for our students at the forefront by putting ourselves first. When flying a plane, the pilot encourages each passenger to put their mask on first before helping others. As teachers, this applies to us now more than ever. We have to put our masks on first both literally and figuratively to keep ourselves safe. 

If we want to see academic gains and build strong relationships with our students, we have to prioritize true wellness. What that looks like for each person is different, but for me, that has meant using my voice to lift up the experiences of me and my students and no longer sitting on the sidelines watching the game while closing my classroom door. It continues to mean that I am on a journey of constantly learning and unlearning things about myself through reading and therapy. Finally, sometimes, for me, it means just tickling my daughter and laughing until our bellies hurt and laughing with my students while losing track of time. This year, let’s definitely make that happen. 

Javaughn Hardaway is a 7th Grade ELA teacher at Henry W. Longfellow Medical/STEM Middle School 28