Teaching: an education in self-care

“Burnout hits one in four teachers” (The Age – October 6, 2013)

“More teachers but fewer staying the course” (Sydney Morning Herald – March 7, 2011)

“The Teacher Dropout Crisis” (National Public Radio – July 18, 2014)

“Teacher Sues Over Difficult Students” (Sydney Morning Herald – October 9, 2012)

Sound familiar? The longer I teach the more I understand the importance of self-care in this profession. I’ve realised how important it is that you know your limits and create boundaries for yourself – lest you become devoid of energy and optimism and completely ineffective.

I’ve been aware of other teachers who have pushed themselves close to the point of breakdown. They haven’t been realistic, tried to take everything on at once and weren’t very kind to themselves. You can’t fix every student or make every class perfect but plenty of teachers seriously put themselves to this very test.

I’ve heard it said that “no teacher is an island”. It’s helpful, a reminder that our work is by its nature collaborative and we certainly can’t be a stranger to our colleagues in order to do our job well. However, it’s a bit of a paradox. We may not be islands, but our job can be incredibly isolating if we don’t reach out often and to the right people. This is especially true for someone new to teaching who could easily drown in the many and varied demands of the highly complex workplace of a school.

At the end of the day, although our roles do require us to work with others, once we step into our classrooms we are, for the most part, the sole responsible adult in the room. For those 45 or 60 or 90 minutes, it’s on us. And once we step out of that room, fumbling with our lanyard to lock the door, hair a little more bedraggled, whiteboard markers out of order, a bundle of mixed up loose leaf and books cradled precariously in our arms, only we really know what is next on the to-do list, what work needs correcting, which parents emailed or rolls marked.

It is essential that as new teachers we learn quickly how to manage our workload and have realistic expectations of ourselves. Because despite numerous very well intentioned attempts from partners, friends, mentors and colleagues, it’s pretty hard for someone to do that for you.

Becoming an expert in self-care will take a bit of time but it is a very helpful transferable skill that will serve you well in any workplace and time after time in your personal life. I will dare to say that this expert status can only be gained through consistently practising the following:

  • Recognising that you need time for yourself, which includes adequate exercise and sleep, to be a good teacher.
  • Allowing yourself to take a mental health day when things start piling up or you can sense that ahead.
  • Removing the ego and reminding yourself that not everything your students say or do is your fault or occurs because of your influence. This goes for both the failures and successes your students experience.
  • Thoughtfully choosing when to pick your battles with a student, being mindful that the time might not be right for them or you, your morale or energy level.

Even in my third year of teaching, I can’t claim expert status in self-care. I still take student behaviour personally sometimes and don’t exercise enough. However I’m becoming more effective and consistent with self-care. That’s because I’ve realised that if I don’t look after myself, I can’t help anyone else. They don’t ask you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others for no reason.

Could you be a bit kinder to yourself?

Do you have a colleague who needs some coaching in self-care?

Is it time to put a sign up at your desk that reads, “is it time for a mental health day?”

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