BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DIANA COLE
If you have ever been on a flight, you have heard the same safety drill: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others around you. Unless you are taken care of, you cannot effectively help others. In a time where teacher turnover rates are increasing and educators are feeling exponentially stressed, teacher self-care continues to grow in importance.
According to a 2017 study by the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of educators find work "always" or "often" stressful, twice the rate of other workers, while 58% of US teachers reported poor mental health. Outside stressors from administrators, students, parents, and our own personal lives take their toll. However, as educators, we also put a ton of internal pressure on ourselves to perform well and help all our students. Teaching is a mentally and emotionally demanding profession where the weight of our students’ problems are often brought home and are on our minds long into the night. So, what can we do about it? How can we save our sanity while still helping others?
We must start to make our own mental and physical health a priority. Who else finds it easier to just go to work sick instead of calling off, hoping there is a substitute available, writing lesson plans, and praying the work gets completed? However, who does that really help? Nobody. We need to change the culture, guilt, and negative perceptions about taking a sick day to recover.
The first step is to be mindful and accepting that stress is going to happen. We can only control what we can control. How we respond and take care of ourselves should be the focus. We can be agents of change to shift school and personal culture toward wellness and self-care.
Individually, we can incorporate short mindfulness activities in our classrooms with students or during our lunch periods. Mindfulschools.org and the Calm App both have great personal and classroom resources. Even YouTube has a plethora of mindfulness activities. Take time for a short walk outside, a breathing exercise, or five minutes of stretching. It might not seem that we have time for this, but taking a few minutes for ourselves can reset our mind and positively influence the tone for the rest of the day.
As teacher-leaders, as we focus more on our own self-care, we can model this for new teachers as well. A recent poll by the National Education Union shows that more than a quarter of teachers with less than five years’ experience plan to leave the profession by 2024 (The Guardian, 2019). Self-care should be part of university education preparatory programs and school districts should include it in new teacher induction programs to increase teacher retention and reduce burn out.
Recently at Edcamp Central PA, I attended a session on Teacher Self-Care. One participant shared that at her school, a new teacher created an anonymous teacher tip line. Through a Google form, teachers could anonymously report another staff member if they knew they were struggling personally or professionally. Then, this teacher wrote a note of encouragement with a treat and surprised that teacher to brighten their day. To this day, the majority of the staff do not know who is doing this, but it has had a huge impact on the culture of the building. You could even create a TLC or Sunshine group so teachers can tackle this together!
We also need to learn to better balance work and our personal lives. Remove work email from your phone and limit the nights you grade or lesson plan. After having my daughter, I have tried to be more strategic about what I assign my students and how I grade, while still keeping things challenging for my students and providing timely and constructive feedback. Can that quick formative assessment be swapped and peer graded together as a class? Could some assignments incorporate student self-assessment instead? By setting at-home work boundaries for myself, I find I am more focused and productive during my planning and lunch periods.
School districts can support self-care by offering mindfulness or team building activities during in-service and staff meetings. Stress-free times during in-service to decompress could include learning mindfulness techniques, wellness fairs with local health professionals, and team building activities such as escape rooms, board games, or even a friendly ping-pong tournament. Something fun to shift the mood! A quick meditation or breathing activity at the beginning of a faculty meeting can make it more productive.
For some additional ideas regarding teacher self-care and mindfulness, check out the following resources:
Remember: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Fill yours first, then give to others. Also, it’s ok to ask for help with tasks. Less guilt, and more self-care. You’ll find that not only are you happier, but others will be, too.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee