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We’re all familiar with the concept of having a lot on our plates. In fact, protecting the space on my plate is something that I am really thoughtful about. I also encourage others to guard their plates too. An example of this is the “Full Plate Protocol” I have used with people in the past. This protocol can be used professionally, but also personally. Here’s how it works.

  1. Write down what is on your plate using a separate sticky note for each item on the plate.

  2. Take a paper plate and put the items that only you can do on the plate. This means there will be items that do not make it to your plate.

  3. Look at the remaining items and determine who the item can be delegated to keeping in mind the things that are already on that person’s plate that only they can do.

When you take the time to really itemize what you have on your plate, you can see that there are many things that should really be on someone else’s plate. What’s more, if you absorb the tasks that others can do, you do not have room for the things that only you can do. Or at least, you don’t leave room to do the things that only you can do well.

It was certainly not uncommon prior to the pandemic to hear people talk about what was on their plate. In fact, the first time I did the Full Plate Protocol was years before COVID. During COVID, however, many people expressed that they felt like their plate was going to break because it was so full. Health care workers had full plates with trying to get basic equipment to do their jobs. Airplane workers had their plates full with trying to figure out how to get people safely to their destinations given rampant testing, a decline in the workforce, and reductions in flights. Food service workers had their plates taken away from them because they lost their jobs as a result of restaurants being closed. The industry I know best, education, had remote and hybrid instruction added to their plates without real models, training, or experience to support how to hold the plate up. This was all so stressful.

I have to say, I’m not sure that the pandemic made me feel like more was added to my plate, even though there certainly was added. Rather, I felt like my plate shrunk. In other words, I didn’t feel like had the same capacity to attend to what was on my plate as I once had. I could certainly chalk that up to COVID, but it could just as easily be my age or the chapter of my life related to what my kids need from me right now (I may have less to give professionally because my kids need me personally). Whatever the reason, I feel like I used to have a dinner plate and now I feel like I have a salad plate. I’m sure I’m not alone.

I’m a member of a regional group focusing on teacher recruitment and retention. The subgroup I work with is in the teacher retention arm and one of the things we talked about recently was how well-meaning administrators are creating opportunities on Superintendent Conference Days or in Faculty Meetings to do things like practice mindfulness, yoga, or other self-care experiences. The feedback from the participants is that these opportunities, while fine on paper, feel a little like Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake”—because it conveys a tone-deaf response to the feeling of burnout or exhaustion teachers are feeling. People who are expressing that they are overwhelmed want time to get the job done and then time to spend doing whatever they feel provides self-care. They want relief from the work by removing it or giving permission to take things off. In other words, doing yoga or meditation is great for people who want to do that and, as adults, we all know that these are options but they’re not helpful to all people. This is not to say that the intention of trying to show the importance of self-care is off or bad, but the execution is probably missing the mark.

I wonder if my plate feels full because I'm not taking the time to put things on there that I really enjoy or things that give me fuel. I am guilty of falling into the cycle that Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy share in their books ( Big Feelings and No Hard Feelings. It can be hard to find time to do those types of things when I am haunted by the work that it taking up space on my plate.

I also sometimes I wonder if my plate feels too full because I hear other people talking about how full their plates are. When everyone else talks about how challenging things are, I can often get caught up in their feelings even if I didn't actually feel that way until I heard them. Getting sucked into the mood of others is a good thing when people are talking about good things. This can be dangerous, though, when the conversation is not as positive.

All of this makes me wonder what causes your plate to feel full, what strategies do you use when you find that your plate is overflowing, and what would be helpful for you from those around you when you feel that way?


P.S. This week’s Catch of the Week is the 2022 Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Released on August 8, 2022, this book:

describes how children in America are in the midst of a mental health crisis, struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels.
This year’s publication continues to present national and state data across four domains — economic well-being, education, health and family and community — and ranks states in overall child well-being. The report includes pre-pandemic figures as well as more recent statistics, and shares the latest information of its kind available.”

Since kids whose mental health concerns go untreated are likely to become adults with mental health concerns, it behooves us all to make sure our kids' mental health needs are met.

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