Baylor professor teaches educators to prioritize self-care

Illustration courtesy of Baylor University

By Jenna Fitzgerald | Copy Editor

In the age of COVID-19, no one is a stranger to Zoom calls. However, for a group of educators led by Dr. Bradley Carpenter — an associate professor of educational leadership — a click of the “join meeting” button is followed not by a lecture or a conference, but by meditation and discussion on self-care.

Carpenter said he began hosting the weekly 30-minute Zoom calls around the beginning of the pandemic. While the number of attendees changes from Sunday to Sunday, he said the participants have included 46 educators from across the United States and one educator from Canada. Carpenter said many of those participants found out about the program through his presence on Twitter and LinkedIn.

In each Zoom call, the first 15 minutes involve compassion meditation, and the last 15 minutes are devoted to a guided conversation on a given prompt.

“The mantra that kind of surfaced in my mind was, ‘Why do we have to choose between leadership and well-being? Why is that a dichotomy? To be a leader today, do you have to sacrifice your well-being?’” Carpenter said. “That’s what I’m focused on now at Baylor: figuring out, what are the interventions for chronic stress, and what can we do to think about self-care, and how do we educate flourishing education leaders so that it’s not an either-or binary choice?”

Whereas other fields like nursing and social work commonly identify and support problems like secondary trauma, chronic stress and fatigue, Carpenter said the field of education has a “major gap” in those areas and wrongly expects its professionals to be “superhuman.”

Dr. Jolene Bruce — a Baylor graduate and assistant principal at Jefferson Elementary School — said this is why programs like Carpenter’s are so important for educators.

“It’s about remembering to find your gratitude, how to find your calm space, how to keep your joy — to still find those nuggets of good things that are out there,” Bruce said. “I think it’s very easy to get bogged down with the overwhelming negativity that’s going on around us, so it’s beneficial to your mental health, to your physical health.”

Carpenter said the stressors educators face have been exasperated by COVID-19.

“It’s always been a stressful profession, but that’s been increased tenfold,” Carpenter said. “If you think about public schools or private schools, they don’t have enough staff to cover the classes or run the buses or serve food. They’re worried about getting sick. Their kids are getting sick. It just seems to be kind of never-ending, so I would say the emotional, psychological and even spiritual status of our educators today is really fragile.”

However, Bruce said the pandemic has also done something positive for the field of education, as it has opened the conversation about educators’ overall well-being.

“For me, it was really focusing on ‘How can I keep myself healthy to make sure I can take care of my family?’ because if my cup is full, then I can take care of other people,” Bruce said. “It’s been fantastic to pass on to other educators. We have moments that we can just sit and have a cup of coffee or just have a conversation and let them cry. I think previously, you weren’t supposed to share those emotions or those feelings; you were just supposed to be stoic and carry on.”

Carpenter said he recommends that educators try to live well, love well and lead well. Living well centers on physical and mental health, loving well involves relational and spiritual health and leading well focuses on time and project management.

“Between live well and love well and lead well, that’s what we’re trying to think about now: measuring those interventions to see which of those really move the needle and which of those things we can replicate with large groups of people to really make a difference,” Carpenter said. “And we’re thinking about too, how do we build these things into our formal curriculum at Baylor? So whether it’s a book that we include in the curriculum or activities or get-togethers, we’re trying to purposefully structure in ways that our students know that the doctorate or the master’s is not the end-all-be-all. It’s important and it’s going to be rigorous and of high quality, but we also want you to be healthy during that process.”

To succeed in the field of education, Carpenter said he urges Baylor students to find a supportive community of those who are on the same path, along with a professor who can act as a mentor.

Dr. April Harris — a Baylor graduate and assistant principal at Midway Middle School — said if future educators have a passion for serving children and watching their success stories, then they should rest assured knowing that leaders in the field of education are working to encourage them.

“If you’re getting into education, your biggest focus needs to be your ‘why,’” Harris said. “If education is where you really want to be, absolutely you need to be there. No matter how hard it is, you have leaders like myself and Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Bruce who are super passionate about the support systems in place to keep you here, support you and make sure you’re successful.”