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Educators: Put your oxygen masks on first

August 01, 2019

Summer is rejuvenating. While still busy, the warmer weather and the break from regular routines provides educators time to rest, reflect and plan for the year ahead.

One of the sure signs that the summer is winding down is the School Administrators of Iowa (SAI) annual conference. Each year, SAI assembles national thought leaders to give Iowa’s administrators a final dose of insight and inspiration before students and teachers return and a new school year begins.

This year, SAI invited me to host a “fireside chat” with the conference keynote speaker, Tom Rath. Tom is an internationally renowned author whose research focuses on finding and developing strengths in yourself and others, maximizing your contribution to the world, and ensuring your own well-being. Tom’s presentation and the insights from my conversation with him offer a formula for making summer’s rejuvenating properties last well into the school year.

Tom’s primary theme was that each of us should put our own well-being first for the sake of others. Education is a service-oriented profession, so this can be difficult advice to take. Educators are always putting others first; in fact, most of us view this approach as fundamental to the role.

When I asked him about the dilemma this mindset shift of putting self before others might create, he made an analogy to the pre-flight safety announcement we’re all familiar with: In the event of the loss of air pressure in the cabin, please secure your own mask first before helping others. If we don’t put our own mask on first by getting adequate sleep, exercising and moving regularly, and eating healthy, then we simply won’t be able to provide our best level of support to those who depend on us.

Tom also challenged the audience with a question: Is your personal routine set up to maximize growth and well-being? One of the simple ways he suggested doing this is by creating “healthy defaults.” So, for example, ensure the food surrounding us is healthy, so that when we get hungry we’re reaching for fruit and not candy. Tom champions the power of small choices like this, which makes the path to well-being seem a little less daunting.

While Tom’s focus began with personal well-being and finding purpose and meaning in your own life, it was clear that this self-focus is also a means to helping those around us maximize their potential. Tom encouraged the audience to “find hidden talents and contributions in others and challenge them to develop these talents over a lifetime.” Talent finding and development can be an overlooked aspect of our role, so this reaffirmation was a good reminder before the start of a new year.

Tom also touched on two challenges that can make supporting your own well-being and developing the talents of others difficult: negative environments and distractions to our time and attention.

In our conversation, Tom said that just one bad interaction with someone will outweigh five good interactions. While negativity can be ever-present in our world, as leaders we have limitless opportunity to create a positive environment and to minimize sources of negativity.

In addition, Tom reinforced the importance of maximizing our time and attention. We live in a hyper connected world. Technology is ever present, making it possible to simultaneously be everywhere and nowhere. While we might be physically present, are we really giving those we’re with our full time and attention? As Tom said, if you take the time and spend the resources needed to be somewhere, then you actually need to show up.

As we enjoy the final weeks of summer, I hope that you’ll take Tom’s advice and make the commitments you need to put your health and well-being first while also using your strengths to develop the full potential in others as well.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 20, 2021 at 5:12pm.