article banner

Leadership Letter: Working to Stay Well

By Katherine Brown | January 2022

At the end of last year, I had to choose between leaving behind the student and family community who’ve known me their entire school career or staying in a culture that was harmful to the staff and students’ wellness overall, but especially mental health. It felt like burnout was inevitable. Before I even had the opportunity to consider moving to a new building, I had to learn new strategies to care for myself just to survive the rest of that difficult year. It was easier for me to disconnect from those feelings of exhaustion and genuine fear but I know now, I have to be aware of where I really am. I couldn’t work through a feeling without first acknowledging it’s real.

The convergence of pandemic-living, seismic shifts in the world I knew, and dealing with personal tragedy and professional turmoil necessitated a plan, so I tried everything. I journaled regularly, doodled on pages, and documented the last few months with my beloved border collie, Polka Dot. I wrote about snow days, things I baked and friendships that unraveled because it’s not ever neat or easy in community when you find yourselves on two different sides of a public health crisis. Whenever I doubt my memory, I flip my notebook open to the page and remember. I sprang for a new ukulele, a baritone that I would loudly sing along to. I’d play the piano as my children played nearby. I spent a great deal of time and mental energy reframing my thinking around simple things like a cup of hot tea so that everything felt like a gift. I kept a running list of gratitudes. I hiked for miles with my dog trotting alongside me. I raced down our river trails on my bike, loudly screaming along to music in order to calm my nerves after a hard day. Most important, I advocated for things that seemed intuitive and important for our health and safety. I spoke up when things were wrong. There are 25 different examples that may work for me one day and not the next. When I’m paying attention, being aware of how I hold my shoulders or the tone of my self-talk, I understand my feelings. Then, I can make my best guess at what might work best to keep me well.

Our wellness is connected. When I’m doing these things for me, I’m able to show up for the community. Going to bed early means I have greater patience as I stay with a student who’s feeling too anxious to come inside school. Advocacy leads (sometimes) to positive change. Drinking water helps keep me from feeling like garbage. Connecting with good friends outside of work refills my cup so that I can keep showing up, even when things seem excruciatingly hard. At this moment in education, I wonder who will be left in five years. I hope I am but I know now that when it comes to my wellness, sometimes it comes down to the hard decision to leave. I’ll do all I can to build into my day more things I love – board games, group activities, connecting with my school community – to help me continue finding joy in my work.

Katherine Brown is the president-elect for the Colorado School Counselor Association and currently serves as a school counselor at Prairie Winds Elementary School in Pueblo West, Colorado.