We are in a weird time in education. Not only are the pressures on the profession at an all-time high, but teachers by nature put their heart and soul into their work 24/7 while the school year is in session (and a lot of it often carries over when the year is not in session as well). The teacher burnout signs are there, but way too often educators overlook the basic things they can do to accomplish effective teacher self care and aid in teacher burnout prevention.
I remember learning in one of my first years of teaching that the stress level of an educator is second only to that of an air traffic controller. While that statistic has changed over the years, the job of a teacher is still consistently in the top 5 of the most stressful jobs. This is becoming universal in school systems around the world. People who are not in education (especially if they don’t have young children) often roll their eyes at this. How hard can it be, right? Unfortunately, this mentality is often filtered into our classrooms where teachers are stressed out and support for teacher self-care is intermittent at best. As teachers, we give, give, give and often the return we see in those little moments make it all worthwhile; other times, burning the candle at both ends leads to teacher burnout…and when a teacher burns out, no good comes from it in the classroom.
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Fortunately, we have built in breaks to give us time to recharge. So many people don’t understand (or appreciate) that teaching is a 24/7 job for 10 months of the year. We are educators, life coaches, substitute parents, mentors…the list goes on and on. We are not just teaching our curriculum, but life lessons and soft skills like collaboration and critical thinking. The role of the teacher has expanded to include training that used to be learned in the home and all eyes are on us when a student is not performing where the set standard says they should be (nevermind any of the mishmashes that could be happening outside of the walls of our schools; those elements are certainly not taken into consideration as often as they should be). So yes, as a teacher, you EARN your time off and it is 110% necessary to prevent teacher burnout. Teacher self-care has never been more relevant as it is in this day-in-age.
The counterargument is that we are living in a stressful time and every job is harder than it used to be. While this may be true, some of the statistics are staggering. According to a study by the University of Missouri, 93% of elementary school teachers report experiencing a consistently high level of stress. That means only 7% of the teachers surveyed said they had either lower levels of stress or had coping skills that correlated with the stress level that they were undertaking on a daily basis. In the summarizing article by Tim Walker states, when teachers are given coping skills to help counteract stressful situations, they are incredibly open to the techniques that may help them. One of the researchers of the study, Keith Herman, is often shocked at the number of teachers who are unaware of techniques that he finds to be extremely basic in regards to reacting to stressful situations. By increasing the self-care tools in the teacher toolbox, it can be said that the statistics of not necessarily the high level of stress, but the appropriate coping skills for those stressful situations could be improved. This is not an isolated study. A quick Google search has multiple that pop right up and all state the same thing: teachers are stressed out and the teacher burnout rate is high.
Herman and his counterpart of the study Wendy Reinke wrote a book titled, Stress Management for Teachers: A Proactive Guide to help teachers develop very real, tangible strategies to help in their day-to-day when it comes to a stressful situation. The best part is the focus on teachers, as we do have a different role than so many other professions. There are a lot of books and techniques out there, but when you come across one that is beneficial for a teacher, it is the epitome of a game changer.
We know that teaching is stressful and so much of the overall climate must change for that pendulum to start swinging back to a middle ground. The fact of the matter is, though, that so many teachers trudge on and push forward without taking the time to ground themselves while they are in the thick of everything. I am also guilty of this. We push towards the next break, knowing we can just relax then. Are we truly being the best versions of ourselves (both inside AND outside of the classroom) if we are only taking care of ourselves on the breaks? We know that weekends are often shot as we catch up with the week that has passed and prepare for the week ahead, so it seems like those extended days off are our only chances. Why do we have this mentality? Shouldn’t teacher self-care be at the top of the list for each of us as to prevent burnout? Or do we not recognize this until it is too late? Jennifer Gonzalez has a fantastic article titled: Why It’s So Hard for Teachers to Take Care of Themselves. She states much of what we already know (it’s part of the job, we are in demand 24/7, etc.) but she has a really fantastic analogy she uses with the help of Angela Watson. We know that if an airplane is going down, we put our own oxygen masks on first before we help others. Why aren’t we doing this in our day to day lives as teachers??
So, what can be done in regards to teacher self-care in preventing burnout?
As teachers, we are yes-men.
We so often take on more than any person should because we feel compelled to. It can range from reasons from feeling sympathetic to a particular situation up to being “voluntold” by administration. It is not a sustainable system. We cannot “live for our breaks” or “sleep when we’re dead”. We need to take care of ourselves, but so often we don’t know where to start. The guru’s suggest things like yoga and taking a certain amount of time for yourself every day. That is considered extreme by many in the mindset of, “There aren’t enough hours in the day”. BUT, there are some simple things you can do that ARE more manageable and can lay the foundation for the more “intricate” teacher self-care techniques.
Try a Mindfulness App When You First Wake Up
I say app, but you can find these on YouTube and other such places. When you first wake up in the morning, you can listen to a brief recording that helps correctly “set your mind” for the day. Many people report feeling more relaxed and rejuvenated in starting their day. You have short options, like this one:
Or can take it one step further and sign up for Audible (with 2 free books) and try out one of their mindfulness programs:
Create a Schedule and Stick to It:
This is a hard habit to get into, but it moves mountains once you get into the groove. The best way to do this when first starting out is to get an hourly planner, like this one. You take your due diligence to map out time for everything you need to do. I generally highlight out when I am at work and then schedule everything within (and outside) of that time. If you really find yourself struggling with time, schedule EVERYTHING (meaning, what time you plan to leave to go home, how much time you will allow yourself to work on grades, etc.) and then you STICK to it. Our biggest struggle when it comes to scheduling is that we don’t stick to the things that will lead to teacher burnout (like ::ahem:: leaving on time or only spending a certain amount of time grading). Give yourself deadlines and then make sure you give yourself enough realistic time to meet them. The first piece of this working is holding yourself to the time you allot…if you need more, schedule more at a different time. The second piece is when someone asks you to take care of something, see when you can schedule it. If you cannot schedule it, then just say no or ask if it can be completed at a different time when you do have more scheduling available.
Make Sure You’re Doing the Basics
This one is so simple, but it’s huge….and it’s one that I know I struggle with. Do you get at least 10,000 steps a day? Drink enough water? Eat whole foods? If you do…fantastic! SO MANY of us let this stuff slide because we have too many other things to worry about. If you find yourself in this camp, then SCHEDULE yourself the time to make sure you’re taking care of it….pack yourself the appropriate lunch and a large water bottle, like this one. Use your new Audible subscription and listen to a good book as you take a short walk. These are the basic needs of the human body. If you’re not taking care of them, you’re setting yourself up to crumble at the foundation. Put your body first!
These three things may seem so simplistic, but they are the basic tenants of counteracting teacher burnout and leading you down the path of teacher self-care. If you find that you already do these things, or you get into a rhythm of doing them well, then take it further. Check out that book by Herman and Reinke or start an exercise program (or find a way to multitask, like with this seated elliptical trainer)
If you’re doing ALL of these and you’re still finding you’re overwhelmed, remember the mantra Work Smarter, Not Harder. Look at your teaching style….honestly, how much are you putting unnecessarily on yourself? Student-centered learning in and of itself reduces an EXTREME amount of stress (and busywork grading) and your scores that stress you out will improve because it’s differentiating for the needs of each student. All-in-all, you need to know one thing…when it comes to teacher self-care….
You’ve got this!
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Why It’s So Hard for Teachers to Take Care of Themselves.” Cult of Pedagogy, 20 Sept. 2018, www.cultofpedagogy.com/teacher-self-care/.
Mahnken, Kevin. “61% Of Teachers Stressed Out, 58% Say Mental Health Is Not Good in New National Survey.” The 74 The Problem With Homework Not Much Evidence on Whether It Works Comments, 21 Oct. 2017, www.the74million.org/61-of-teachers-stressed-out-58-say-mental-health-is-not-good-in-new-national-survey/.
Walker, Tim. “How Many Teachers Are Highly-Stressed? Maybe More Than People Think.” NEA Today, 30 July 2018, neatoday.org/2018/05/11/study-high-teacher-stress-levels/.