Our high school staff photo, taken as part of yesterday’s PD Day.
MT = Math teacher
DH = Dear Husband
Staff meeting during a PD Day: What does it look like?
Do you remember PD days (professional development days) when you were a student? When you got to stay at home, and your teachers went to mysterious “meetings”? You were probably happy to have a break from school but also a bit curious about what was going on behind the closed doors at school or the board office. Here’s your chance to find out! I’ll give you a peek into a PD Day at the high school where I work.
World Mental Health Day: Our efforts to be proactive
Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, so it’s no surprise that mental health was the underlying theme for most of the workshops and discussion groups that were held for staff at our school. As part of the opening meeting for all of us – I’d say about 100 teachers, support staff, and student teachers – the social worker and psychologist who serve our students gave a presentation about characteristics and symptoms of anxiety, and they advised us about what steps to take when we suspect a student is suffering from it. “Break the taboo about mental health issues in the classroom,” they said in the conclusion to their talk, “and model good mental health for your students.”
My choice to remain silent
That last bit of advice struck me as a bit false. Were we to put on a “I-have-it-all-together” facade? Wouldn’t it be better to model some transparency on tough days? Not too much information, but an honest acknowledgement like, “Bear with me today. I had insomnia last night,” or “Rough start at home this morning,” or “We’ve been told that my dad has only a few weeks left, and it’s going to be a rough road ahead for me.” If we want to create an environment in which students can identify and share their vulnerabilities and learn to manage them, shouldn’t we as teachers model the same? I didn’t say anything. I just thought it.
MT says what I only think to myself
One of the math teachers (I’ll refer to him as MT) raised his hand. “Mental health is like the final frontier,” he said as he stood up. “I mean, someone is way more likely to say ‘I’m gay’ than ‘I’ve got an anxiety disorder.'” Mental health isn’t the final frontier, I thought. People are even less likely to talk about their personal finances than they are about their mental health. MT continued. “I totally agree with breaking that taboo in the classroom, but when you say, “model good mental health”, does that mean when I’m having a bad day, I’m supposed to pretend that everything is fine? Shouldn’t we show our students that it’s fine not to be fine?” You go, MT! I thought.
He is an extraordinarily heart-on-sleeve colleague and teacher. I had the privilege of presenting him with our school’s “Teacher of the Year” award in June of 2013, and this was exactly why he had won it. He says things that others, like me, find too awkward to voice. Students flock to him for math help, academic or personal guidance, and just to hang out. He is authentic, disarming, and a safe place to be. “Like, I just say it when I have to pee. Everyone has to pee, but nobody talks about it,” he said. Laughter broke out in the room. We hadn’t expected that! “All of my students think I have a perfect life,” he continued. “Good job, nice family . . . But I’m in debt, and I tell them about it. I’ve got my credit card debts and my truck debt – I’ve got all these debts and they can’t believe it. I mean, how does a math teacher end up in debt?” Love this guy! I thought as more laughter filled the meeting. The psychologist agreed with MT, and she modified the advice “model good mental health” in light of the point that he had raised.
I felt more than just grateful to MT for challenging what the presenters had said and for getting clarification. I felt more than just surprised admiration about the fact that he has been open with his students about his personal debt. I felt the tremendous satisfaction that comes when you realize you’ve had a positive impact on someone.
My early debt talks with MT
When DH and I first started our journey out of debt, I was in the difficult position of being really psyched about something that I didn’t want to disclose to anyone – because I felt an embarrassed shame about our debts. The few people with whom I shared our situation and our plan to deal with it were those I trusted thoroughly. MT was one of them. His response was along the lines of, “It’s cool that you want to pursue debt-freedom. I don’t see what the big deal is myself, but you go for it!” MT and his wife were not stellar with money themselves, but while there was some stress associated with their finances, he considered it manageable and worth the benefits of buying on credit. Most notably, MT had a truck with monster wheels that was his pride and joy.* Never mind that it was a money-sucker. High gas prices, high insurance, and a constant need for repairs kept the debt train running. But it wasn’t enough to faze MT. “I want to pay off my truck so that I can get a loan for a new car,” he said once. I bit my tongue.
But I didn’t always bite my tongue. Over the months, MT and I would have money talks here and there. He’d ask how our debt-reduction was going; I’d fill him in on our progress, ask about his situation, challenge him now and again; and he’d stand his ground. So I was surprised at the start of this school year when MT told me, “I want to get out of debt. It’s because of you. I just want to pay it all off.” When I asked for more details, he referred to a time a year and a half earlier when he and I had supervised our school track team at an out-of-town regional meet. On the long bus ride, we’d had a lot of time to talk. “You said that you and your husband got to the point where you were more uncomfortable with your debts than you were with not buying what you wanted. I remembered that. And that’s where I am now. I want to get out of debt more than I want the things I want.” Wow! I thought. I could barely remember that bus conversation, and I’d certainly had no idea that it would be influential in any way. But our talks had awakened his awareness of his debt, and he was going to do something about it! What a great feeling!
Exponential impact of breaking the taboo
Yesterday, that great feeling morphed exponentially. MT has the gift of courageous openness when presenting to a group that I don’t have. He has an influence with students that I don’t have. And if he is charging through the barriers against discussions of personal finance and debt – not only with students, but now at a staff meeting too – then you can bet there will be a powerful ripple effect. A ripple I could not have effected on my own. But I recognize my role in initiating it – by breaking a taboo and disclosing my debt to a trusted colleague.
“I would die before I would reveal to anyone IRL (in real life) that I have a debt problem,” reads an anonymous comment to a post I wrote a couple of months ago. The hidden shame with which most debtors carry their secret is so unfortunate. I can’t help but think that every person who acknowledges a money problem knows at least one trust-worthy person. And if each of us decided to confide our situation to that one person, just imagine what the combined ripple effect would be! It’s one thing to share online; it’s another to do so face-to-face. In real life. My own reluctance to initiate discussions about personal finances has all but disappeared. I now have to rein in and remind myself, Oh right. This is out of most people’s comfort zones. I believe it could be that way for everyone, but for now, I encourage you to take a deep breath and have that discussion with your most trusted person. IRL.
What has been your experience with opening up to people about your personal finances/debt? Have you ever witnessed a positive ripple effect?
*(Fun fact #1: MT’s monster truck is featured in the 44-second video “Cuttenfreuden” that DH and I created in response to Visa Canada’s 2013 ad campaign, “Smallenfreuden”. Don’t blink. You can see it between the 14 – 16 second mark. Fun fact #2: MT plays a part in the video.)
Comments are Welcome!