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The Importance of Teacher Self Care

Guest blogger Bronwyn Harris, author of Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom, discusses the importance of teacher self care.

Bronwyn  Harris
Bronwyn Harris
Author / <i>Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom</i>

Anyone who’s ever taken a flight knows the phrase: “Secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting children.” This simple phrase that I’ve heard countless times always makes me reflect on the larger metaphorical meaning. My next thought is usually that teachers are the group of people least likely to take care of ourselves first, simply because we care far too much about others.

It’s not our fault. We are not set up to prioritize ourselves. Most of us have never had a professional development session on self-care. Many of us have had to resort to “mental health days” because we are too burned out to keep going for one more day. Alternatively, we push ourselves to go to school ill because we feel so guilty about missing a day. And I think it’s safe to say that every one of us has experienced sleepless nights because of the stress of our jobs.

We may think that it’s not affecting anyone else if we’re stressed, but unfortunately, this is not true. Many teachers focus on social-emotional learning for our students but not for ourselves. If we teach traumatized students, this can be even more of a problem. As educators, we often experience secondary trauma and compassion fatigue and need to be able to process all of this in a healthy way.

Unfortunately, because we’re human, we tend to take out our stress on the kids. We’ve all seen a colleague (or been guilty of it ourselves) who teaches their students conflict resolution but then yells at the students, contradicting our overall message. Kids pick up on our stress and tension, and they often feel that they’re to blame. This can erode the student-teacher relationship and create an unhealthy dynamic in the classroom. As every parent and teacher know, kids learn far more by watching us than by what we tell them.

We have to forgive ourselves - what we do is really hard! We’ve all heard friends or acquaintances say, “Oh, I could never be a teacher!” The truth is that many people couldn’t. Those of us who teach work hard and care greatly. Being a teacher is our identity.

Add to that the fact that we usually can’t take a break on a whim. Secondary teachers usually only get a few minutes of passing time, and elementary school teachers don’t even get that. Our prep periods never seem to come at the time when we really need a break. You can have the best pedagogy ever, but if you aren’t able to cope with the realities of the classroom, including stress, it won’t matter.

Nationwide, approximately 8 percent of teachers leave the classroom every year, and most are not retirees. Of course, the turnover rate is higher for new teachers and teachers who work in high-poverty schools. In fact, Alliance for Excellent Education reports that 40-50% of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.

All this may seem dire, but with stress management and self-care techniques, we can keep serving our students in the way we are called to.

There are many possible solutions and a variety of support for teachers. One idea is to build self-care into teacher prep programs. In Alaska, more than half of teacher education programs address self-management skills, including stress. If this spread to all 50 states, we could see a drastic difference in teacher retention, classroom environment, and teacher health. All of these factors greatly affect our students, not just ourselves.

When many people talk about self-care, they mean special splurges, and it is important to treat yourself with short-term self-care. Sometimes this may be things like mani-pedis, massages, and bubble baths. Special nights with friends or partners may help take away some of the daily stress. But we need ongoing solutions. That’s why it’s important to also build long-term self-care into your routine.

Long-term teacher self-care solutions are often harder to implement, but pay off greatly. They include setting boundaries, detaching with love and care, positive self-talk, and building community with our peers. All of these things can be difficult and are easy to overlook or put off if we’re busy or just need to get something done, but are essential if we want to avoid burnout.

First and foremost, set healthy boundaries for yourself and stick to them. You will always have to work long days as a teacher, but you need to set limits. The reality of grading 150+ assignments is daunting. And while you can create shorter assignments and sacrifice longer research papers in our classrooms, you can also consider different ways to grade assignments--not everything needs a letter or numerical grade, such as assignment revisions or homework or first drafts of essays. Implement peer grading if possible. Many teachers have former students who visit and like to help; they may be able to grade simple papers for you. Share lesson plans with trusted colleagues – you can work together to create them or trade-off so that you’re only creating half the work for yourself.

Remind yourself of the limits of your influence. We all want the very best for our students, and sometimes take on a surrogate parent role for those who need it. But we can’t do everything for them. A wise colleague once told me, when I was worried about a former student dropping out of high school, that she makes a point to imagine herself releasing each student at the end of the year. She told me that she gives them the tools that she has, and then she hopes they use them.

Talk to yourself as if you were one of your students in need of affirmation. It may sound silly at first, but writing down or saying aloud phrases such as, “I will provide a loving and safe environment in my classroom today,” or “I have done good work today. I will let it go until tomorrow,” can help remind you of what you’ve done and help you let go until you go back.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have trustworthy colleagues, but if you can, be honest with other teachers. Tell them if you’re struggling, you need assistance in any way, or if you’re having a hard time staying positive. Even a quick, “I’m trying to be positive. How can we help each other?” can go a long way.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of rest. We have to learn to say no and set time boundaries, whether it is with our students, our principal, our family, or our friends. Know what you can do and what you can’t – and sleep! If there isn’t time for a nap, sitting quietly for five minutes after school before you drive home can help – but don’t grade papers at the same time. It’s important to make sure that we have time just for ourselves: walking, meditating, reading, or watching TV, without anything relating to school.

Always remember what Danna Thomas, founder of Happy Teacher Revolution, says: “Self-care is not selfish.”