Whether caused by the stress associated with an election year or the COVID-19 pandemic, Google searches for “self-care” generally trended upward beginning in early 2020 compared to their five-year history. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), self-care is any action that improves a person’s health or well-being. Unfortunately, self-care is frequently associated with the more negative concepts of self-indulgence or frivolity. In reality, self-care practices are necessary for most people, especially those with stressful or emotionally intensive professions — like educators.
Teachers struggle to make time for self-care for a few reasons. First, education is often cast as a “selfless” profession, one in which teachers are expected to give of themselves without question. Second, teachers have busy and rigid schedules. Finding even 15 minutes a day can feel almost impossible. Third, many teachers accept high levels of stress as “just part of the job.” Fourth, many schools do not build time for self-care into teachers’ schedules in a way that supports their mental health.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dramatically change teachers’ jobs and routines, it is in everyone’s best interest for them to practice self-care. Teachers who take the time for self-care are not only helping themselves stay balanced, they are doing right by their students, colleagues, and school communities.
Here are a few self-care strategies for both teachers and schools:
Divide Work from Not-Work
Over the past pandemic year, lines between home and work have blurred, if not totally dissolved. Like many other professionals, teachers have found it challenging to put work aside when there is no physical separation between workspace and home. Because the planning and grading materials are within reach, teachers find it difficult to “go home.”
Brittney Newcomer, director of instructional design at Understood for Educators and a former educator, recommends setting “when, then” boundaries related to work; for example, “When it is 6 p.m., I will eat dinner with my family away from my computer and phone.” Schools should also make it crystal clear that teachers are never expected or encouraged to work all day every day.
Build in Breaks
As teachers know, schedules rule the day. So it is important that you build in small increments — as little as 10 or 15 minutes — to let your mind relax. If these moments are on the schedule, you are less likely to skip them. Take your dog for a walk, write in a journal, or spend time watering and pruning houseplants. All of these can be accomplished in less than 15 minutes but give your brain a break from work and social pressures. According to NAMI, taking a break from “caregiver mode” for even five minutes “can be a meaningful reminder of who you are in a larger sense.” Once again, administrators and educational leaders should accommodate and encourage these types of breaks when possible.
Talk It Out
Teachers need emotional support from each other more than ever. Administrators and supervisors must build time into regularly scheduled meetings to allow teachers to discuss emotional concerns. This encourages peer support and demonstrates that teachers are not alone.
Giving voice to stress and exhaustion may reveal which teachers are struggling the most and why, so supervisors can address the issues in a more private setting. The mental health needs of some teachers may rise to a level beyond normal stress, in which case professional counseling or support might be necessary.
Share the Good
Similarly, teachers need to share successes and small triumphs. Especially as the pandemic presents new challenges, it is important to take time to celebrate student progress and recount the smallest of pleasant accidents. Emphasizing collective and personal joy builds morale and acts as a buffer against stresses.
Build Self-Care into the Classroom
NAMI lists “making time for self-reflection” as one of the tenets of its self-care inventory. When teachers integrate self-care and self-reflection into lesson plans, they encourage themselves as well as students to take time for these essential activities. Asking students to think about how a certain topic makes them feel or what it means to their lives can open the door for a conversation. The entire class can discuss shared concerns or take time for individual journaling. Allowing private time for reflection removes the pressure of social interaction. By participating in these practices, teachers model the importance and value of self-care to their students.
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