Teacher Self-Care 101

By: | 02/16/2021
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

I sat slumped in my chair at my classroom desk, tears of frustration streaming down my face. My classroom looked like a tornado had touched down in its center: chairs misplaced and papers with unsolved math problems strewn about the floor. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon. That meant my students and I still had 30 long, painful minutes until the day was over—30 minutes of me trying to do the impossible: help my students understand four subjects and complete homework while they bickered with one another. Trying to do what I thought was right left me feeling exhausted, defeated, and disconnected.

I did not get into teaching to feel that way, day in and day out. Like almost every educator I’ve ever met, I started teaching because I wanted to help children learn. I became a special education teacher because I was prepared to be the last stand, the educator who swooped in to help students overcome all their doubts, fears, insecurities, and learning disabilities. This is my story, but I’ve heard versions of it from many educators.

If you are feeling like this and not really tuning into what you need, how are you able to teach, parent, coach, be a friend, or show up for your partner at night? Short answer: You can’t. Educators struggle A LOT when it comes to taking care of themselves. Why is this? I’ve heard plenty of reasons. What are yours? Do you believe you need to always focus on helping others? Do you think self-care is selfish or that you don’t have the time? Whatever reasons you give aren’t enough. Putting off this work needs to stop. You need to make yourself a priority right now.

Want more information about educator self-care, well-being, and stress management? Download the complete professional paper, The Connection Cure: Why Educators Need Balance, Laughter, and Community More Than Ever, on our website.

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Time to Change Your Mindset

In 2017, researchers at the University of Michigan found that 93 percent of teachers experience high job-related stress. It is a hard time to be in education. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still take care of yourself. In fact, think of this section as your survival guide. The practices described here are what you need to do each day in order to function, and the goal is to not just survive, but thrive. Let’s decide right now that you ARE worthy of love and care, and you can give yourself that love and care.

Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff (who literally wrote the book on self-compassion, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself) believes that self-compassion is not selfish. Rather, it’s an essential component of being human, and being human means it’s OK to struggle, and we are not alone in that struggle. Neff references three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.

Let’s unpack that. Imagine you are sitting in a staff meeting and you reach for your pen to take notes and you spill coffee all over the place. You are trying to quietly clean it up, but you end up disrupting the whole meeting. As this is happening, you might be thinking, “I’m so stupid. I never do anything right. I’m a failure.” We would never say such terrible things to a friend, so why do we talk to ourselves like that? It’s a hard pattern to stop, but the first step is to give yourself permission to be human and to honor that you are worthy of love and care. Neff would advise that in those moments, instead of practicing negative self-talk, you should take a deep breath and give yourself some grace. Now let’s reimagine the scenario. You spill your coffee. Maybe you think, “Oops! Everyone makes mistakes. There’s more coffee in the staff room.” That’s what you would tell a student or a colleague, right? You need to speak to yourself with the same optimism and kindness.

Make Time to Take Time

We all have the same 24 hours in the day, and if you do not make or take time for you, it will be taken by something or someone else. Even if you need to wake up an hour earlier than your family to exercise, journal, or just have some quiet time, it’s worth it! You are the most important person in your life, and if you are not claiming time for you, then you won’t have it. It is NOT selfish to “fill your own cup”—to take time for you.

Please don’t confuse sitting on the couch, watching the news while also scrolling through social media as self-care; it’s not. Those are examples of checking out. There is a difference between focused, intentional time for yourself and checking out or numbing. Self-care is being intentional about what you might need and giving it to yourself—and about NOT JUDGING what you might need. For example, you love to exercise, but you haven’t “found time” to fit it into your schedule. Change your routine. Start tomorrow by waking up 30 minutes early and going for a 30-minute walk. It does not have to be more complicated than that.


Teacher meditating on a teal rug.

Mindful Breathing Exercise

During moments of chaos, stop whatever you are doing, and do something kind for yourself. It’s easy. All you do is breathe.

Steps:

  • Notice your body.
  • Relax your muscles.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Bring attention to your breath.
  • Inhale deeply and hold for five seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat five times.
  • Ease back into what you were doing before this exercise.
  • Have faith. Keep breathing.
Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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