A Self-Care Strategy for Beleaguered Academics

Full vitae kindness folder

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By Pam Whitfield

Ten years ago, I taught a literature unit on the Vietnam era. We read T.C. Boyle’s Drop City and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I invited my colleague Bob to speak to my class. He brought his guitar and sang a song he’d written about serving in the Army. Then he looked at my students and said, "I’ve been asked to talk about my experiences in Vietnam maybe six times in my life. You’re the seventh." And he held us spellbound for an hour.

My students talked about Bob for weeks. I asked them to write reflection papers and letters about the day we spent together. Their statements were raw, admiring, honest. Bob’s vulnerability had given them permission to reciprocate. We decided to photocopy the letters, and I gave the stack to Bob.

Three years later, I bumped into him in the department hallway. He told me that he’d kept those letters. "I carry them around everywhere with me," he said, and held up his old leather satchel. "When I have a really bad day, I read them. They keep me going."

Every teacher needs a magic briefcase full of heartwarming student letters.

As a tenured faculty member at my college, I go through a periodic performance review every three years. For last year’s review, I had been saving materials — documenting my professional service and listing my community work in anticipation of sharing my passion for the profession. The meeting lasted only 20 minutes. My supervisor devoted the first 12 minutes to critiquing my paperwork — pointing out how I’d filled out the forms incorrectly, put things in the wrong order, failed to divide my "toolbox items" by academic year.

That left eight minutes to talk about my job performance. After we viewed my student evaluations, I showed her notes from two creative-writing students whose work had been published while taking my course. I also showed an invitation from another college to speak at its staff-development day, and an email from a suicidal student I’d taught who wanted me to know that she had finally walked across the stage at graduation. She wrote that I was a big reason she’d had the courage to come back, because "you believed in me when nobody else did."

The administrator brushed off those examples and moved on to discuss performance rubrics and websites I could use to better track my effectiveness in the classroom.

I was so disheartened.

At home, looking through my performance documentation, I realized where I’d gone wrong. I’d assumed that what I deemed to be indicators of success would be considered as such by a supervisor. How naïve.

I want to spend another 20 years in this profession. I do not want to burn out, get cynical, or despise administrators (and their processes). I knew I needed a personal survival tool.

So I made a "Be Kind Portfolio" — as a way to be kind to myself and remind myself why I teach and why I serve students. It’s a more comprehensive version of Bob’s magic bag of essays. It’s the material culture we can shove into manila folders or cardboard boxes, the little but tangible things that demonstrate our successes — and those of our students.

All the materials from my performance review went into my new portfolio, organized by semester. Then I dug through my filing cabinet and pulled out nearly a decade’s worth of certificates, letters, conference programs, thank-you notes, newspaper clippings, and fliers for events I had organized. They all went in, too.

It took me an afternoon and two binders, but it became a lovely — and loving — experience. Who knew that I’d done so much work outside the classroom? Or that so many students and colleagues had been kind to me over the years?

I even found a few dozen handwritten notes from a previous president of my college. He was the kind of leader who found out if you’d presented at a conference, made the newspaper, or helped an injured student in the hallway, and sent a note letting you know that you were making a difference. His notes went into the Be Kind Portfolio as well.

Each time I have materials that document my efforts as a professional in higher education, I three-hole-punch them (or slip them into a plastic sheath) and add them to the portfolio. On those tough days, I have a magic bag to dip into, much like Bob’s.

(Bonus tip: You can use your Be Kind Portfolio to update your CV every few years.)

You may be fortunate enough to have supervisors who put process over product, people over paperwork. But if not, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. The trick is not to stay there — not to indulge in self-pity. Choose self-care instead.

Start a Be Kind Portfolio. Fill it with material culture that demonstrates your love for the profession, care for students, and commitment to your community. You’ll fill it up fast. And looking back through your portfolio on the low days will fill you up and get you back on track.

Your students need you to be that teacher: the one who goes the extra step, the one who takes care of herself so she can continue to care for others. Our profession needs your kindness.

Pam Whitfield is a tenured faculty member in English and in equine science at the Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.

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