You Can’t Drink From An Empty Cup

Teaching is an inherently ‘people work’ job that is often stereotypically characterised as selfless. Teachers, time and time again, will put others’ needs before their own, and this can be emotionally taxing. The constant bombardment of social interaction, the need to always be ‘on’, and the endless barrage of professional learning meetings can feel like overload. And so it can be difficult to find the time and space to properly recharge or decompress. It can feel counter-intuitive to be ‘selfish’ and put our own wellbeing first.

It is a sobering fact that more than one in four Australian teachers suffer from emotional exhaustion after starting their careers and expect to leave the profession within their first five years (Milburn 2011; Marshal 2013). As beginning teachers, we hear this statistic early on, but may brush it off with a sense of bravado, a can-do attitude: I can hack it! Bring it on, try me…

But talk to any experienced teacher who has been in the profession for a while. They can attest to the reasons why the attrition rate among early career teachers is 50% (Marshal 2013) as they’ve undoubtedly watched streams of teachers come and go. It is no surprise that in Australia, 41% of teachers report high levels of occupational stress (Milburn 2011).

Clearly, we need to have a conversation around burnout prevention and self-care strategies in order to be a resilient practitioner.

Given the proclivity for people to share their successes and sometimes sugarcoat certain aspects of their teaching experience online, the subsequent silence built around feelings of failure or disenchantment can be isolating.

It may be helpful to bring to light Kristin Neff’s (2010) construct of ‘self-compassion’, which comprises three main components:

  • self kindness: being understanding (rather than harshly critical) towards oneself in instances of pain or failure
  • common humanity: perceiving one’s experiences as part of what it means to be human, rather than seeing them as separating or isolating
  • mindfulness: holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

We need to give ourselves permission to be kind to ourselves, and practice our self-compassion. In times of distress, we should be speaking with ourselves in the same way we would with a close friend. As self-critical people, we need to remember that we are all imperfect and flawed, and note that pain and difficulties will come – and go.

We all owe it to ourselves to carve out some time in every day to focus on ourselves in order to recharge and reflect.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as your caring housemate going out to K-mart to buy you a craft DIY set to ‘make your own paper cacti’ – which turned out to be a perfect after school decompression activity.

Other times, it’s about stopping yourself in your tracks – putting down the papers you’ve got to mark, turning off the emails, finishing up that last phone call, cutting short the whirling thoughts about lesson planning, curriculum and how to revamp school culture – and putting yourself first. Sometimes it means taking a mental health day (see figure below).

Whilst the visual is a tad facetious, it is true that teachers are particularly hard on themselves. We need to be okay with taking mental health days when required. In such a stressful and demanding occupation, teachers should be asking for help, getting the support we need, and building up our protective strategies against fatigue and burnout.

When asked what they do to work on self-care, Cohort 2016 Teach for Australia Associates answered:

  • practicing meditation
  • setting routines
  • spending quality time with my partner by going for walks in nature or watching films
  • taking my puppy for walking and cuddling them
  • playing in a sports team (for fitness and camaraderie reasons)
  • reading
  • take a hot shower
  • colouring in
  • go for a drive out of town
  • going to the gym
  • call a friend on speed-dial
  • listening to loud music in the car or shower
  • walking to work
  • have a drink with friends
  • painting
  • play music
  • leave school before sunset every day
  • surround myself with upbeat people after work
  • not saying ‘yes’ to everything
  • playing dungeons and dragons
  • quality time with best friends – even on Skype
  • work in the garden
  • get a back scratch from someone
  • sketching for even just five minutes
  • giant cups of cappuccinos
  • listening to long podcasts
  • going to the beach
  • mow the lawn or do some weeding
  • taking a long bath while watching Netflix
  • chopping wood
  • writing long letters about how I feel when everything gets a little too overwhelming
  • go to the cinemas and watch a movie alone
  • do a puzzle
  • go to an aerial class
  • cook a new recipe I haven’t tried before
  • watch a movie in the middle of the day
  • sit in a café
  • attend a cultural event
  • yoga
  • lie on the couch in my pajamas and a big blanket
  • have a hot shower or bath
  • go to my friend’s house to play with their dogs
  • drink lots of water
  • feeling connected to country and talking to my mob
  • making political theatre
  • see a psychologist
  • have a remedial massage
  • give myself a work-free day every week
  • watch a cheesy romcom in my onesie with some kind of comfort food
  • work with my naturopath
  • just being aware of my feelings and realising that I need to give myself a break
  • going camping or getting out for a day outdoors with little to no technological connection to the world
  • go with a friend to a new location (like a cafe) for a chat
  • just spend the day letting time slip by and not worrying about all there is to do

To be an effective teacher, we have to prioritise our own well-being. It’s the whole ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ sentiment. We can’t help others when we are not looking after ourselves. This is not revolutionary stuff – however, it remains a hard pill to swallow for dedicated individuals who strive to do their best.

Self-care is not a luxury: it is a priority and necessity in the work that we do.

If you, or someone you know is struggling and you feel that professional support is needed, contact your local doctor, your school’s employee assistance program, or one of the following agencies:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Kids Helpline (5-25 years) 1300 55 1800

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467


Marshall, K 2013, ‘Burnout hits one in four teachers’, The Age Victoria, 6 October 2013, retrieved from <>

Milburn, C 2011, ‘More teachers but fewer staying the course, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 2011, retrieved from <>

Neff, K 2003, ‘Self-compassion: an alternative conceptualisation of a healthy attitude toward oneself’, Self and Identity, vol. 2, issue 2, pp. 85-101.

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