During COVID-19, teachers are feeling additional pressures on top of their already demanding work lives:
These new job requirements take increased time and energy, and can add stress. Self-care is necessary for relieving stress and maintaining mental and emotional health.
As we say to parents all the time, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first to best support your kids and teens. The same is true for teachers – by taking care of your own mental health and well-being, you’ll have more positive energy for yourself, and for your students and their families.
With competing priorities and never-ending to do lists, self-care may not feel like a choice, but it is! It can take hard work to make it part of our daily lives. Below are some suggestions to help you build self-care into your regular routine.
The 2020 Teachers of the Year share how they practice self-care (Google for Education):
Self-care looks different for everyone, so a good place to start in incorporating it into your routine is to answer a few foundational questions. See a sample list of questions here.
These are questions that only you can answer. Questions like, “How burnt out am I?” or “Am I trying to keep too many balls in the air?” These can help you to figure out what’s causing stress in your life, how you respond to stress, and what changes are needed to make you feel better.
Once you have a sense of your biggest stressors and what things might help you support your emotional health, take steps to make sure you have time to practice self-care.
You know better than anyone that a teacher’s job leads to working unconventional hours – evenings and weekends – in order to prepare lesson plans, grade schoolwork, catch up on e-mail, and more. Even before the pandemic, many dedicated teachers let work spill over into their personal lives at unhealthy levels. Now, amid COVID-19, the lines between professional and personal life feel even more blurred.
More important than ever is to set healthy boundaries for yourself, and stick to them. Just as you might schedule time for self-care, schedule time to be “off the clock.” For example, you might need to be firm on “office hours” you set for students or parents, to protect your time. Remind yourself, you are just one person – you cannot control everything, and education is a collective effort. Remind yourself, too, to take time off when you feel overwhelmed, and know that you are doing good for both yourself and your students when you do.
By setting healthy boundaries for work, you’ll have more time for the things that alleviate stress and make you feel good, whether these are specific activities, or just more time to spend with your own family or friends.
Most of us have a variety of things we want to do for fun and relaxation. But even going over this list can become stressful! In the little time you have, do you want to learn to bake bread, read a good book, take a yoga class, watch TV, or get out for a walk? Keep things simple and doable. In advance, choose a couple of things you consistently look forward to doing and can realistically build into your schedule.
You are a human being, not a machine that can operate all day! You may need to get creative about how you fit in breaks, especially if you are teaching from home and have other family members who need care. But even 10-15 minutes of rest or clearing your mind can make a difference. Take a walk around your block, turn off the lights in your room and close your eyes, listen to a 10-minute meditation on your phone or computer. You can even take a power nap if you have the environment for it. The key is to schedule it into your day. Sometimes building in multiple short breaks is effective.
Staying socially connected is really important right now. In addition to other challenges teachers face during COVID, working from home and being physically isolated from other teachers and staff can add to this stress. Just as you may be doing with friends or family, make an effort to stay connected to the teaching community you used to engage with every day.
Try to schedule a regular check-in with colleagues, once a day or once a week. This can be a way to support each other and talk through common challenges you face, like ways to adapt education plans, or responding to parent communications and concerns. In addition to talking about possible solutions to challenges, simply sharing your frustrations with a trusted colleague may help to release some of your stress. And these check-ins don’t have to be limited to work topics – work/life balance is something many are struggling with right now.
Another option is to form a teacher support group that can meet regularly to share stories, struggles, and ideas. Research suggests that peer-support group discussions can help to prevent and lessen feelings of burnout.
Read more on staying connected and self-care from California Teachers Association.
If you’re working remotely right now, and you have a pet, take advantage of it! Pets can provide mental health benefits to their human companions, and entire families. If you’re teaching from home, just imagine how much your pet will enjoy the extra attention, too. The added cuddles could do you both some good. And your pet doesn’t necessarily need to be a “furry friend” – there’s research to suggest that even pet fish can make a difference.
Managing finances, keeping your home or workspace clean and orderly, and setting up schedules isn’t always included in conversations on self-care. But think about it, especially if you are teaching from home. When chores are in disarray, it increases stress. If it’s a challenge to manage the necessities of everyday life, when will you find the time to relax?
Whether it involves spreadsheets, closet organizers, a rotating cleaning schedule, or prepping dinner in advance for the whole week – finding the most effective ways that work for you to keep your life in order is essential in caring for yourself.
When it comes to self-care, remember self-compassion! Being kind to yourself can help you to control anxiety and remain in a calmer state of being. As a teacher, you play a special role in making a difference in the lives of young people, every day. You support their learning and academics, their social-emotional growth, their self-esteem, and more. Take time to reflect on this.
Even small moments – the student who looks forward to your class each day, or the “thank you” comment you received from a parent – are moments to reflect on and feel good about. You chose this work for a reason, and celebrating your successes is not just well-deserved, but important to your well-being. Remember, too, that your successes go beyond the classroom.
Sometimes it is really important to get a formal consultation. In your role as a teacher, a colleague or more senior mentor might be able to talk you through a specific work challenge you’re facing. But when feelings of depression, anxiety, or stress begin to regularly interfere with work and life, scheduling an appointment with a mental health professional may be extremely valuable.
Many people during this pandemic have struggled with mental health challenges. Asking for help is a sign of strength! Most schools have in-house psychologists or social workers you can talk with for a referral, or you can always go to your primary care physician to obtain a referral.
You can also connect with the SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental health or substance use disorders.