Why I Do What I Do

WHAT’S THE ISSUE: Ever since I quit my job as a classroom teacher in an IB World School, I’ve been getting the same two types of question from different people in different forms. I’ve seen a lot of shocked and confused looks on people’s faces when they find out that I left (“But why? Were you…fired?”) So to clarify: No. I wasn’t fired. I made a conscious decision to leave behind the safety of a permanent teaching contract in an IB World School. Why? To answer that question, I’d have to explain why I do what I do. I’d have to talk about what it is that’s pulling me to go in a new direction in my career. I’ve also have people saying, ‘I’m a bit confused – so what exactly is it that you now do?’ The purpose of this article is to respond to these two frequently asked questions:

  1. Why did you leave?
  2. What exactly do you (now) do?

"OK, BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS IT THAT YOU DO?"

This is a question I’m getting a lot lately. Just the other day someone said to me: “You know Eleni, I went onto your website, but I didn’t really understand…What exactly is it that you do?” So I’m writing this article to clarify this point by listing the services I provide, in brief bullet points, followed by the products I’m currently working on creating. I will then go on to talk about some of the reasons why I do what I do. 

 

 WHAT I DO: I OFFER PRIVATE AND SMALL-GROUP STRESS RELIEF SERVICES

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WHAT I DO: I’M CREATING EDUCATIONAL PRODUCTS TO HELP SUPPORT

A) Student wellbeing (high school and university students)

  • I’m working on creating a short stress management online course, where students can learn a variety of self-soothing exercises to help themselves focus more, stress less and motivate themselves.
  • I’m also in the process of writing a book on how students can achieve exam success without stress.

B) Teacher wellbeing and parent wellbeing

  • Finally, I’m also working a short stress management online course to support teacher and parent wellbeing. Because I believe that if we care about student wellbeing, it makes sense to also care about the wellbeing of those who come into regular contact with them.

 

WHAT I DO: I CREATE FREE EDUCATIONAL CONTENT FOR NEWSLETTER COMMUNITY 

Generosity has always been one of my core values. As such, producing meaningful educational content through collaborations and through my own creations that is freely available to all will remain an important part of the work I do.  

Traumatic stress is on the rise due to the nature and length of the COVID-19 epidemic. Yet I’ve noticed that most online mindfulness courses fail to take into account the most recent research in the field of trauma when teaching people about mindfulness. I’m also aware that not everyone can afford my services. In the case of schools, cutting down on professional development budgets is something that many private schools have been forced to do, as they make necessary adjustments in order to try and survive this crisis. 

This is why I’m now working on creating a doable, short trauma-aware mindfulness training course for teachers. I will be making this course freely available to my newsletter community of approximately 913 people. If you haven’t yet subscribe to my newsletter, and you’d like to be informed when my new mini mindfulness course for teachers goes live, you’ll find a newsletter subscription box at the bottom of this article. 

wHY I DO WHAT I DO: STRESS RELIEF SERVICES FOR TEACHERS & PARENTS

In the summer term of 2020, it became clear to me that as my business was taking off, it would become impossible to balance the demands of yet another year of teaching 20 periods a week as a middle school and high school teacher in an IB World School on a 60%, part-time teacher contract…AND do what I do as a solopreneur. 

I knew that for me to be able to do what I now do, I had to go full-time as an independent Educational Consultant. There was no way I could extend my stress relief services to parents and teachers, and work on my other projects, while continuing to work the kind of hours I was working as a part-time History teacher. 

The COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 gave me time to reflect on my core values, and how I could come into full alignment with those values both in my personal and professional life. I remembered a Family Values Exercise, recommended by a Life Coach called Nadia Georgiou, which I’d done with my partner back in 2018. What came out of this exercises is that my partner and I discovered that we both shared growth as a core value. Within the stillness that lockdown forced upon us, I started to feel as if I wasn’t in full alignment with that core value. I felt a growing desire to step up and take a firm and conscious stand in addressing the problem of student wellbeing. 

It was also becoming increasingly obvious to me that in order to successfully address the problem of student wellbeing, we must also address the issue of parent and teacher wellbeing. If we care about student wellbeing, it makes sense to also care about the wellbeing of those who come into regular contact with themAt least this is what I believe. If you disagree, think otherwise, or believe that teacher or parent wellbeing interventions are a low priority, then you’ve come to the wrong place. My work is not for you.

But for those of you do value parent and teacher wellbeing, you’re more than welcome to read on! And if you’re happy to read on, chances are you’re probably an empath, which  means you know (from your above-average ability to “feel” other people’s energy) that stress energy spreads. You know that stressed teachers (inadvertently) spread their stress on to their students, and that stressed parents (inadvertently) spread their stress on to their kids. No matter how much we try to hide our true feelings, if we’re feeling really anxious, worried, angry, or scared (the primary emotions you’ll find lurking beneath someone’s stress), our stress energy will spread to others if we don’t do something to try and process it. 

And with online learning and homeschooling becoming a common occurrence, it’s no longer enough to just care about teacher wellbeing; students all over the world are now spending more time than ever trying to learn in their home environment. So their parents’ stress can also impact  their ability to learn. That’s why in my new small-group online tapping workshops for teachers and parents, the primary focus is on releasing your own stress, as that inevitably has a knock-on-effect on the energy you bring to your interactions with your child or your students. 

It’s true that the impact on student wellbeing of an intervention for parent and teacher wellbeing is indirect, and it takes an indefinite amount of time to emerge in the form of tangible results. However, I believe it is wise and considerate of adults to be willing to work on a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the issue of student wellbeing, by focusing first on upskilling themselves. I particularly enjoy working with adults who are warm, open-minded, forward-thinking people. People who understand the value of exploring possible long-term solutions to complex stress-related problems. People who understand that there is no quick-fix, when it comes to releasing an accumulation of chronic stress from the body, so that meaningful change can occur.

My hope for the future is that more and more schools and universities will become safe environments where students can learn how to proactively protect their mental health. Safe places where students can upskilling themselves and be encouraged to make a conscious effort to improve their self-confidence, if needed. This vision of happier, more confident, more emotionally empowered students is one of the reasons why I’m working on wellbeing education products and services that can benefit students, parents and teachers; as we all know, a student’s environment affects their wellbeing. 

WHY I DO WHAT I DO: STRESS RELIEF SERVICES FOR STUDENTS

I’m one of the lucky ones. I went to a High School that employed a professional student Counselor. I remember her name was Debbie McDowell, and she was a warm, lovely lady who worked as the High School Counselor for the Anglo-American School of Moscow during the time I was a student there. Debbie taught me mindfulness meditations and stress relief strategies, well before mindfulness started becoming as widespread as it is in international schools today. So I had someone in the school who had the skills and warmth of heart to be there for me when I needed to find someone who could teach me how to focus more, stress less, and motivate myself in preparation for my final exams. From Debbie, I first learnt how to do success visualisations and the mindful processing of emotions.

I also feel fortunate to have been a Middle School student at the International School of Islamabad from 1996 to 2000. Being a student in a school that has a member of staff who you can trust to go to for advice and guidance is an absolute blessing. It is in the Counselor’s office, during my lunch breaks at ISOI, that I first learned about mindfulness. That is where I first learned about  self-soothing meditations that you can use to relieve stress through: noticing and observing your breath, guided meditations and soothing nature visualisations, and body scan meditations for muscle relaxation. These are all wellbeing skills that continue to serve me well, to this day.

But the vast majority of school-age students around the world aren’t so lucky. Not only do most schools not have a qualified person on staff who can teach students some wellbeing skills, but  many (especially secondary schools) care more about their students’ grades and academic achievement than they do about their health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, they see students as numbers on a spreadsheet, not as whole human beings. 

And even though there are still a lot of schools that strive to care for and nurture the whole learner, times have changed. A lot of private schools are in crisis mode right now due to the pandemic, increased competition from other international schools, and decreased student numbers. They simply can’t afford to hire a full-time school Counselor anymore, as they fight to survive. And even when they do have an in-house Counselor, I still hear of students who fear being seen walking into the school Counselor’s office. These kids have grown up in a conservative culture where going to a Counselor is still sometimes seen as taboo. So they don’t go, out of fear of being stigmatized in the local community, which sees going to a Psychologist as something that so-called “crazy people” do. 

I am not a Psychologist. But I am a professional Emotional Freedom Technique Practitioner, certified and accredited by EFT International. I have specialized in working with individuals and groups who are stuck in stress and overwhelm, because the Emotional Freedom Technique is an evidence-based method that is designed to gently release accumulated stress from the body. As an Emotional Freedom Technique Practitioner, I’ve noticed that what another thing that can hold a student back from getting the professional help they need is a fear of being judged as “weak”. If this is you right now, I want you to hear me out on this: There is absolutely NOTHING “crazy” or “weak” about asking for help when you need it. If anything, it’s a sign of strength. What good is it to keep pretending that everything is okay, when it’s not? Is it fair for people to make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, just because you have the courage and wisdom to seek professional support? If you’re like, “Nope! I don’t want help. I can do this on my own. I still believe that only weak people ask for help”…it looks like you may be forgetting what it means to be human!

We all need help sometimes, because we’re human. We are human creatures. As members of the human race, we have survived because of our willingness to work with other people, by working together in community, by learning from those who’ve been where we’ve been and have come out the other end. We thrive in community. We thrive when we work together to solve complicated problems. 

When chronic stress gets stuck in our body, this becomes a complicated problem that we simply cannot solve alone.  Why can’t we solve the problem of chronic stress alone? Because one of the root causes of student, parent and teacher stress right now is cultural (school cultures focused on grades at the expense of students’ social and emotional needs), and it’s systemic (exam systems like the IB Diploma and IGCSEs that push schools into grades-focused cultures). The COVID epidemic is now bringing all this into question, and shaking this grades-obsessed education system. Schools are being called to reform, and  to make a more conscious effort to care about their students’ wellbeing. 

This hyper-competitive ‘race for grades’ in many schools and universities has gone too far. If you have a Netflix account, I recommend watching a documentary called “Take Your Pills”. In this documentary, you see the role that pharmaceutical companies have had in facilitating college student fears of getting a B (and since when was a B “not good enough”??), and how so-called ‘focus drugs’ are affecting high school and university student’s biology and psychology. These drugs are being marketed as ‘performance enhancing’ drugs, or ‘focus drugs’. They’re being presented to parents and students, who are desperate for solutions, as if they are the only way forward. 

I’ve worked with students who have been diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) in my one-to-one mentoring programs, and you know what I’ve discovered? It is possible to teach students how to concentrate more without giving them chemical pills, even when they have an attention disorder. It is possible to help them focus more in class during the day by helping them improve their sleeping habits. 

There are natural tools and techniques you can teach students, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique, that help them process the pent-up frustration, anxiety and anger that comes as a consequence of having these focus problems. There are alternative, natural solutions available for students to explore and play around with. I want to raise awareness about these alternative options, because I’ve seen time and again that they work (as long as YOU are willing to do the work of changing your habits to change your life).

WHY I DO WHAT I DO: PRODUCTS FOR STUDENTS & TEACHERS

A) PROVIDING EMOTIONAL SUPPORT FOR TEACHERS AND STUDENTS 

Zoom fatigue is on the rise in the teaching profession, and with it, I think we’re also starting to see an earlier-than-usual emergence of signs of teacher exhaustion stemming from the pressure to delivering one live online lesson after another, all day.

And yes (for those who aren’t in the teaching profession), it IS more work teaching classes online than it is in the traditional face-to-face setting. Partly because you’ve also got the technology issues to contend with. Partly because communication, planning, online teaching resource creation – everything requires more patience and perseverance when you have to adapt the curriculum to suite the needs of this new online learning environment. 

This way of working is tiring for both students and classroom teachers. Whereas for people who’ve already developed the self-discipline, mindset and energy needed to be able learn on their own, reading books and doing manageable online courses are ways of upskilling themselves without having to wait around for a live session to start. They can work through the material at their own pace.

As someone who has personally enjoyed investing in more personal and professional development online courses than you can count on your fingers and toes (#ILoveLearning!!), I understand the value you can get out of doing a self-paced online course. What I wasn’t sure of, until the lock down happened, was whether middle school and high school would have the emotional maturity and self-discipline skills needed to benefit from learning in a more self-paced, online course format.  

Between March and June 2020, I explored the following 2 different approaches to teaching students History online: 

  1. I created self-paced online lessons (by creating pre-recorded videos, class discussion forums, PowerPoint lessons, custom-made Google form quizzes, questionnaires and exercises adapted to the online learning environment)
  2. I led live online lessons, both for the lock down phase when we had the whole class online, and for the second phase when we had half the class coming in, on campus, while we live streamed the other half of the class in through video conferencing software, or set them off to work on pre-recorded lesson material and activities.

What I learnt from this experience is that (to my surprise – and delight) there are a LOT of self-disciplined middle school and high school students who not only enjoyed, but THRIVED from working through a self-paced online course on their own! For example, in the end-of-year questionnaires, I had a Year 8 History student who said they loved the pre-recorded videos because they could stop and go back to listen to something again, if they didn’t quite understand it. He discovered that this helped him learn better than the live lessons. This ability to stop a video lesson and go back to listen to something again is particularly useful for EAL (English as a Second Language) students who may benefit from having more time to process what they are learning.

Others said they liked the variety of activity times that were possible in an online course style approach, which is something that’s harder to replicate to the same degree in live online lessons. Yet others said they liked having the freedom to do their own additional research on the topic, which isn’t possible during a live online lesson. They also said they liked the fact that they could just get on with it and start the lesson right away (rather than having to wait for people to arrive at the live lesson, or deal with the frustration of live lesson tech issues and delays). So it’s now clear to me that there are students who prefer to get on with it and learn at their own pace. Students who find the format of pre-recorded lessons enjoyable and helpful.

We sometimes spend so much of our times as teachers focusing on the students who struggle to motivate themselves, that we forget how many students we’ve got who actually like reading books for fun. Students who have an intrinsic motivation to learn (and yes, there is such a thing as an inner motivation to learn – gifts and material rewards are not necessary to motivate a child to study). Students who don’t feel they have to rely on a private tutor sitting next to them to do well in school and get good grades. Since I now know that I can design online courses that work for History learning, I want to apply this knowledge to exploring ways of creating short online courses that work for improving student wellbeing. 

 

B) PROVIDING ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS TO THE LIVE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT SERVICES

I’m also noticing that there are heads of school who are looking for affordable alternatives to live professional development options for their teachers. These school leaders are aware that staff are experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’, and that they need to have less live meetings (whether online or offline) moving forward, what with home-schooling planning and online teaching taking such a hit on their day-to-day time and energy. 

Another problem I’ve found from my experience of running a live staff training session for an IB World School school in Indonesia earlier this month (September 2020) is that it’s impossible to cater for the diverse range of staff skill sets and needs during a live Professional Development session via Zoom. Some teachers are already at a very advanced stage of understanding how to build wellbeing education into the classroom in face-to-face settings, while others need to develop their knowledge of Psychology in order to understand how stress affects our ability to learn. Some teachers already have prior training in mindfulness and simply need a reminder to practice it amidst their busy lives, while others need to be introduced to mindfulness for the first time and reach a baseline understanding of it before it can start filtering in into their teaching. 

I’m curious to see how I can create a baseline of short pre-recorded mindfulness activities that benefits all teachers in a manageable online course format that works. I also want to see how I can include additional resources and links for teachers with experience in mindfulness and wellbeing education who need to be extended and challenged (including being challenged to remember their own emotional self-care in times of crisis! We all forget and need a little reminder, sometimes…) 

The main issue I’m finding is that more and more teachers (who typically start feeling tired or burning out in the last few weeks of a school term) are already feeling tired and showing signs of burnout…and we’ve only just started the new academic year. More teachers are now opening themselves up to new solutions that can help both their students, and themselves, to navigate this turbulent global crisis with grace and peace.

While short online courses won’t be enough to solve all of the burgeoning student and teacher wellbeing issues plaguing schools worldwide [at the end of the day, we are all responsible for working on our own health and happiness, and there’s only so much a top-down intervention in schools can do], my intention is to offer some tools and techniques that people can use whenever they feel stressed or overwhelmed. Because I love supporting people who are ready to start taking better care of their emotional health and wellbeing.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eleni Vardaki Youth Mentor for Stress Relief

Eleni Vardaki offers private and small-group stress relief services online to parents, teachers, and students. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between mainstream education and the wellbeing skills students need to thrive in the 21st century. She believes in doable, sustainable whole-school interventions for student wellbeing that focus on transforming the school culture.

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