Self-Care For Teachers

On airplanes, we are instructed to put our own oxygen masks before we help those around us. Why? Because we cannot help others if we ourselves need help. Teaching is the same way. When a teacher is stressed, overwhelmed, or tired, he or she won’t be able to be as effective in the classroom. It’s tempting – and even natural – to put others first, but doing so constantly means you’ll be drained of the very things you need to teach effectively.

Read on to find tips, expert advice, and courses that help self-care for teachers become an intuitive and habitual part of your life.

Why is self-care difficult for teachers?

Teachers know that their jobs don’t start when the morning bell rings and don’t stop when the afternoon bell rings. There is a seemingly never-endicycle of lesson planning, classroom organizing, grading of tests and papers, professional reading, and interaction with parents and other school staff. Whthere’s a little down time, thoughts turn to continuing education and professional development. All these things feel like they come first. But when 1percent of other people and responsibilities come first, there’s no time left for teacher self-care.

“Michelle Obama affirmed, ‘We need to do a better job of putting ourselves at the top of our own 'to do' lists’,” writes Jon Harper, an assistaprincipal writing for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) website. “Her words may sound counterintuitive to people who spetheir lives serving others. But we can't serve our students well if our own energy is being critically drained by stress and fatigue.”

And that’s not even counting the extra stress teachers have been managing due to the pandemic. Indeed, the Rand 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey said that 23 percent of teachers – nearly one in four – are considering leaving their job after the school year ended; in typical years, the number is one in six. One in five teachers said they were not handling job stress well, and half reported feeling burned out. And while the typical rate of depression is about 10 percent, the rate of depression among teachers was reported at 27 percent.

What are some self-care strategies?

The ACSD article offers a few specific self-care strategies for teachers and educators in K-12:

  • Make a better list. It’s too easy to believe that everything matters equally, but it’s not true. Prioritization is the magic word here. Look at your list and decide 10 things that take priority over other things. (They need to be specific, not general, such as “finish science lesson plan,” not “work harder on science.” You want tasks you can finish.) Of those 10 things, decide which are the top three. And work on those. If you finish them, you can move on. If those three things are all you complete, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that the most important items were completed.
  • Take a brain break. Look for the places in your day when you can tune out and take a break. Maybe it’s a five-minute walk during your lunch break, or five minutes listening to a podcast with your earbuds while your students complete a task. The break gives your brain the signal that it’s ok to relax once in a while. And that can help refresh your mindset.
  • Seek out experts. When you don’t know how to do something, you have two choices: continue trying to figure it out on your own, or ask for help. Whatever it is that’s slowing you down, chances are that one of your colleagues or someone in your network has encountered it before and knows their way through. Find that person and save yourself the time and anxiety.

Edutopia is a website dedicated to improving K-education. When it asked the teaching community for ideas on teacher self-care, it divided the responses into strategies for the school day and strategifor unwinding once you’re home. Some of the suggestions:

During the school day: The key is finding small ways to stay in touch with yourself throughout the day. You can keep tea bags, protein bars, or chocolate in your desk drawer. Keep a stress ball handy. When you have two minutes to yourself, do a few stretches or yoga poses, meditate on your breath for a moment to create mindfulness, or try to get a little fresh air.

After the school day: Think about finding a creative pursuit, such as knitting, quilting, baking, or writing that novel. You can increase your health afitness with a well-paced walk (get those steps in!), a trip to the gym, or a 10-minute dance party in your living room. Read something for fun; sit outsiwith a glass of iced tea; binge-watch a favorite television show; make a phone call or write an email to a friend.

How do you teach students about self-care?

Teaching students about self-care strategies can become part of your lesson plan. When you need a minute for mindfulness, teach your students to breathe and focus quietly too. (One teacher uses the picture book The Lemonade Hurricane by Licia Morelli to teach the subject; in it, one sibling learns the value of meditation from another.) Use vocabulary lessons to make talking about feelings a common event in the classroom. Encourage everyone to stand up and stretch before and during a test.

And to take it a step further, take a wellness course for teachers that will help you in the classroom as well. EDS offers a series of Self-Care for Teachers courses on Teaching Life’s Essentials that includes compassion, curiosity, growth mindset, inspiration, tolerance, and including the excluded. Each course is one credit. The mission:

“With the guidance of the courses in this series, you can take your teaching to a new level; one that brings the highest degree of satisfaction to yourself and your students. Great teachers are remembered not for the knowledge they impart but for the way they encourage and lift their students’ achievement, not just in a subject, but in the important skills of living a fulfilling life. These skills of happiness, of inspiration, compassion, curiosity and resilience are essential for both the learner and the teacher.”

Need more self-care tips?

Simple. Go to Pinterest and type “teacher self-care” in the search box. You’ll find dozens – maybe hundreds – of creative ideas from those who have been there.

A few examples:

  • Leave all of your ungraded papers at school for one night.
  • Start a gratitude journal, jotting down three things you’re grateful for each night.
  • Unplug from social media for a day or a week.
  • Find a non-education audiobook and listen to it on your way home from work.
  • Schedule a massage. Just one. That hour will make a huge difference.
  • Organize something. Clean out the junk drawer. Toss all the old spices. It doesn’t matter what you organize, you’ll feel good when you’re done.
  • Give yourself 15 minutes to talk about work when you get home, and that’s it
  • Schedule time to do something that brings you joy. No matter how small.

Experts have devoted self-care strategies into six main areas: emotional (journal writing, dancing, seeing a therapist); practical (getting active, taking care of your home); physical (exercise, eating well, getting a massage); mental (journaling, reading, gratitude); social (keeping contacts with friend, making time for family); and spiritual (meditation, yoga, or your faith). Devoting some thought and time to each area will help you feel more rested, relaxed, and ready to take on new challenges.