What the York University Strike Has Taught me About Self-Care For Caring Professionals

by | March 12, 2015
filed under Can-Con

Photo of building and outdoor stairway on the York University CampusSelf-care is a great feminist idea, but like Virginia Woolf’s endorsement theory that every woman should have a room of one’s own, it’s also an idea that’s easier to embrace if you’re privileged. Many people do not have the time or the money to go to the spa or to the movies or even to get ice cream for a treat when they are overwhelmed with stress.

I’m a caring professional. I teach most days; people of vastly different ages and stages. But that’s part of why I enjoy working in education, because every student is different! Yep, I’m one of those obnoxious people who proudly proclaim at any opportunity, “God, I love my job!” Teaching gives me a rush and a sense of satisfaction that is unparalleled.

I always say the best part of teaching is that when you succeed, that means someone else succeeds too. For people who enjoy caring about others, education is a great career path.

And yet, it can leave you feeling drained some days. I spend so much time advocating for others, that there are times when I forget to advocate for myself.

Things hit a breaking point last night when I literally had a nightmare that I almost died. I was at a hospital, having an emergency operation I’d had no time to prepare for emotionally. In the nightmare, I came perilously close to bleeding to death on the table, but thankfully, a life-saving blood transfusion got to me in the nick of time.

My near-death dream experience scared me, but you know which the part of the dream scared me even more? Which part gave me cold sweats? Which part caused me to wake up shaking? It turned out that in all the commotion of an emergency operation, I had forgotten to tell my students I wouldn’t be in class that day.

Because I was at the hospital almost dying, I hadn’t sent out an email informing people I would be away! My students then showed up and I wasn’t there for them! The guilt of having missed one class just in a dream – and when in said dream I had almost died – terrified me.

Currently, I am on strike from my job as a Teaching Assistant at York University. Being on strike is a hard thing for a caring professional to do. When students email you asking for help with an assignment, you have to say no; you aren’t allowed to help. Why? Because those are the rules of a work stoppage. You care desperately about your students, but you have to commit to the strike in order for it to work.

Lately, many people have said to TAs at York, “Don’t you care about your students? How can you do this to them?” In our society, this happens all the time. We guilt caring professionals, such as teachers, by suggesting if they ever look out for their own interests – and the interests of their colleagues – that they have failed.

Our society has the mantra that “students come first.” I mostly agree with this mantra. I do usually place my students’ needs above my own needs for sleep or a relaxing holiday. I mark throughout winter break, I meet students for extra office hours before term papers are due. In fact, because they want to give their students the best quality of education possible, most TAs I know commonly work more hours than York pays them for.

Having said all this, does the fact that I prioritize my students mean I am never allowed to think of my own needs? Or the needs of my co-workers?

I don’t think it is advantageous to York students to have overworked TAs whose wages are being eroded by inflation. I don’t think it’s advantageous to see their school exploit international students by charging them exorbitant fees. And many of my students also realize it’s unconscionable that the work of graduate research assistants is seen as less valuable than my own as a teaching assistant.

Having said this, even though I think this strike benefits my students too, striking can be difficult for the caring professional. As a teacher, I am invested in my students’ success. I want to give them help. I want to see them develop into the sorts of scholars they want to be, and yet, right now, I also have to stand up for myself, and for my colleagues.

It’s a weird adjustment. Being on strike means I can’t teach. I am limited in the ways I can show I care. And yet I do care. I care deeply for my students, but we can’t expect caring professionals to care to the absolute exclusion of themselves. We can’t expect caring professionals to be sacrificial beings. We shouldn’t chide them for having their own needs.

Going on strike has forced me to confront the fact that my own needs matter too. I want to be the best educator I can be, but I know I won’t do my best if I feel undervalued. I also know I won’t do my best if I’m sad because I know my fellow caring professionals are being forced to impoverish themselves to pay international tuition fees.

Every day when I wake up and feel guilty about the strike, I soothe my guilt by telling myself that while I will likely always care first and foremost about my students, I matter too. I’m co-workers and I are worth something. In fact, I think we’re worth a lot. My self-care has therefore been to go on strike.

Photo of York University by Andrevruas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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