“One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn was that to practice care for others, I needed to practice self-care first,” an Austin, Texas-based library specialist confided. “It was very hard to give myself permission. But it matters.”
Nobody knows caring, dedication and the power of showing up like teachers. Tasked with passing on everything from advanced calculus and systems theory to the building blocks of reading and social skills like standing in line and asking politely, teachers do so much more than just teach academic subjects: They mold students into successful members of society, often by the dint of their own energy and patience.
The weight of that responsibility can be enormous – and comes with the risk of teacher burnout. Advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education found that 40-50 percent of new teachers left the profession in the first five years on the job, and 10 percent left after the first year. Given the overwhelming demands of the school year – coupled with the type-A passion that drives many professionals to the field in the first place – it’s no wonder that many teachers put work-life balance on the back burner. Or let it fall off the stove entirely.
“I don’t usually eat lunch during the school day,” noted one Atlanta-based high school teacher of the year. “And I don’t generally go to the bathroom, either. Some teachers do, but many of us feel it’s important to be present in the halls at class change, and to let students visit us at lunch. It’s about being present and available to those who need us.”
But as the saying goes, you really do need to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting the children around you. It actually benefits the classroom.
Working ourselves to death and student stress
A 2016 study from the University of British Columbia found a possible link between teacher burnout and students’ cortisol levels, an indicator of stress. When 400 elementary students’ teachers reported feelings of emotional exhaustion, the students’ cortisol levels were elevated.
Those elevated cortisol levels have been linked to learning difficulties and mental health issues in elementary-aged children, leading to concerns about so-called “stress contagion.” Researchers are careful to point out that the causality is unclear: A stressful classroom can cause teacher burnout, or teacher burnout can generate stress in students.
But the link is clear, as is the solution: Stopping the cycle dead in its tracks by prioritizing teacher self-care.
Rediscovering the joy that drives you
"We can't be there in our fullest capacity to teach kids if we're not in our fullest capacity ourselves," Danna Thomas, founder of Baltimore-based organization Happy Teacher Revolution told Education Week. "No matter how strong your lesson is, it could all be perfect, but I personally cannot deliver a lesson to the best of my ability if I don’t get a full night's rest, if I don't eat on my lunch break."
Thompson’s organization helps teachers take a minute and reconnect with mindfulness exercises and support groups. At its heart are what it calls the 12 choices for being a balanced teacher. They include, “I choose to make time for sleep,” “I choose to get outside and get moving,” and “No matter how the school year started, I choose to finish well.”
"Self-care is not selfish. That's something I have to remind teachers because so often we put ourselves last," Thomas told Education Week.
Taking time out to focus on yourself can feel counter-intuitive, especially when you’re an ultra-passionate go-getter. But it’s the kind of professional and personal development that counts: Your classroom will benefit and so will your own quality of life.
Listen Color Relax
Why self-care matters
“Nothing gives a boost like returning to the basics,” said executive coach Amy Jen Su, co-author of Own the Room. She urges clients to make sure their basic physical needs – like eating, sleeping and exercising – are being met, as well as making sure you’re supported by trusting relationships and doing something non-work-related for fun every day, even if it’s brief.
Take a bit of time this summer to craft strong, healthy self-care strategies that can support you and your fellow teachers into the school year and beyond. Need places to start? A set-it-and-forget-it subscription box – delivering self-care to your door even when your to-do list is 100 items deep – is a simple, effective way to help keep your head on straight.
Read something you love
Many educators take choose teaching as a profession based on their own deep love of learning and education – but ironically, it’s all too easy to neglect that love during the school year when lesson plans, grading and your students’ challenges are piling up on your kitchen table.
Remember what brought you here. Take time each month to celebrate yourself as a life-long learner and reader, too. Bustle (perhaps hubristically) offers 8 tips for making time to read during the school year, including “set manageable goals,” “read with friends” (the accountability helps, and the social element enlivens) and “pick something light.”
If your TBR list isn’t already exploding, let the folks at Unplugged Book Box take the wheel. This monthly book box comes with an emphasis on self-care: In addition to a new YA or adult novel each month (your pick), boxes come with treat-yo’self items like candles, tea, bath oils and more to boost mental health and help you unplug.
Dedicate time to unwinding
Sometimes, it’s best to go to the experts. Now, even professional therapists are curating monthly subscription boxes that cut straight to the heart of the matter and address stress and anxiety specifically.
Research-inspired TheraBox delivers a monthly therapeutic “happiness activity” as well as mindful, thoughtful, beautiful gifts to enhance your busy life. Curated by therapists, the box includes aromatherapy, skincare products and other lifestyle goodies. It’s the perfect monthly reminder to slow down and practice self-care.
MindWander delivers self-help workbooks and strategies for managing stress and increasing positivity. If the thought of more work fills you with dread, trouble not – each box also comes with self-care items like luxury bath products, tea, snacks and more. You know. To reward yourself for, well, taking care of yourself.
Treat yourself – whatever that looks like
“Self-care looks different for every teacher as there is no one way to take care of yourself,” Lindsay Thompson wrote for National Education Association Today. Especially when your time and energy are limited, it’s important to find the activities that support and nourish you.
Whether it’s relaxing with adult coloring subscription Listen-Color-Relax, unwinding with a cup of tea from Simplicity Teas or pampering yourself with the bath products and crystals of Feeling Fab – or something else entirely – make sure to build monthly self-care into your routine for well-being and classroom commitment that lasts. Your students are worth it. And so are you.