Take Care of Yourself

At our core, teachers are caring professionals who dream of making a difference in the lives of students. We take on the challenge of shaping the future, lighting the spark of curiosity and preparing students for productive lives. The world often sees us in a different light:  teachers are those who can’t do anything else, or teach so they can have a long summer break.

The fact is that most teachers are committed, sacrificial, and hard-working professionals, who defy that stereotype routinely.  Some of us defy the stereotype to our own detriment, running ourselves into the ground while working unpaid overtime on lesson plans and grading papers, taking graduate school courses, serving on committees, volunteering for social causes, coaching teams, or sponsoring extracurricular clubs. Help_Help_small (This doesn’t even factor in family commitments.)  The mental and physical health of most educators is often at risk, and the normal stresses of the job are compounded by the scrutiny of parents, administrators, state & federal mandates.

In his article from Education WeekChristopher Doyle spotlights the decline of teacher health and well-being.  He proposes a shift away from the excellence “rat race” that emphasizes perfection and increasing demands. He espouses that real change will only come from the top down.  Sadly, changes like these may not come in our lifetime.

In the meantime, we as teachers have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves from mental burnout and physical erosion.  Creating a balanced, healthy and restful lifestyle not only helps us, but it sets a great example for our students.

I know that you’re seeing that stack of papers or the unwritten lessons and thinking, no way.  My challenge to you would be to adopt a few personal practices that can bring refreshment and add margin.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Put it on the calendar.  Whether it’s a workout, a fun activity, a day trip, or even a nap, the best way to prioritize it is to put it in writing — when it’s on the calendar and the time is allocated, it’s harder to dismiss it.
  • Get quiet.  I’ve recently begun a daily meditation practice using a smartphone app called Headspace that makes it easy to begin a mindfulness habit. For me, the ten minutes it takes can be hard to carve out, but the benefits are worthwhile.  This simple practice really enhances my ability to focus and relaxes my mind for the tasks ahead.  If you aren’t ready for meditation, spend three or four minutes listening to your favorite song, and give your mind a short escape from the burdens of work.
  • Take a break.  Partner with another teacher and swap responsibilities to create space for a date night or personal break.  (If you have your own young children, offer to babysit for them in exchange for some time off when you need it.)
  • Exercise.  The billionaire industrialist Richard Branson gives credit to fitness as the source of his boundless energy and enviable string of accomplishments.  Working out on a regular basis can pay huge dividends in terms of energy, mental focus, and overall health.  Some experts suggest that the time you spend working out can be subtracted from the amount of time you need to sleep, due to the benefits of a healthy heart rate.
  • Pursue other activities.  If your focus is devoted strictly to school and teaching, your perspectives can narrow.  A well-rounded life that includes other interests and hobbies brings unique perspectives to your lesson plans and presentations.

I know it’s difficult, and I’ll admit I’m no master in this area.  Take a baby step toward treating yourself a little better.  You’ve earned it.  You’re a teacher.

(For more ideas on this topic, see this article Greater Good.)

 

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Squad Goals

The life of an elementary teacher can be a lonely one.  In some schools, a solo teacher may be the only adult in their classroom and have little access to others.  If she or he is lucky, an assistant or college intern may spend some time in the room.  But it’s not uncommon for them to be the only adult in sight for hours at a time. New teachers, take note:  Being proactive in building a “squad” is an essential task.

Your “squad” should be a diverse support team assembled to make life easier, provide encouragement, and keep you sane when the stress of teaching builds.  squad

Look for immediate support in the form of other teachers (in your grade level and out) and the key staff members at your building (custodian, secretary, technology, nurse, counselor, cafeteria workers, etc.)  Sharing ideas and getting feedback is an obvious benefit, but just having friendly coworkers to chat with about life and outside activities is just as important.

Developing friendships outside of school is crucial too;  having a safe and objective listener to hear your concerns is vital.  This helps you avoid the temptation to “vent” to your fellow teachers or parents.  Those conversations are dangerous; they can quickly escalate into negativity, gossip or insubordination.

Develop a healthy and proactive rapport with parents.  You don’t want your first interaction with a parent to be a discipline issue or a discussion over a child’s poor performance.  Create consistent and positive touch points where you engage with parents early and often. (I will be posting more suggestions about this in a future blog post.)

At times teachers build a wall between themselves and the administration.  They see the Principal as the “enemy,” and prefer to keep their distance, believing that “out of sight, out of mind” is a smart strategy.  Working to include administrators on your squad may be tough, but it can have great rewards.  If your administrators are receptive, here are some ways to include them on your squad as well:

  • Ask the Principal or Assistant Principal to suggest some times when sending students to the office is most convenient.  During these times, you can make a regular practice of having children share their writing, journal entries, artwork, or special projects.  If a student is struggling in an area, getting help from the Principal or Assistant Principal can be helpful, and in some ways, it might even be a refreshing change of pace for someone whose days in the classroom are in the past. Administrators have things that come up unexpectedly, but for the most part, they are happy to set aside time for brief student visits.
  • Ask your administrator to come and read a story or share an experience with your children. This will not only make them feel closer to you, but it will also help reduce the intimidation factor for your students.  They will also have a chance to better understand what you are teaching and have an appreciation for your classroom management skills.  (And you probably don’t want your Principal’s first visit to your class to be during a formal observation, do you?)
  • If you have special occasions when parents or grandparents are “guest starring” in the class (like career day or a child’s birthday party), you might reach out to your Administrators to sub in for a parent whose work schedule prevents them from participating.  Being the ‘honored guest’ of those children helps build their self esteem. (The same tactic can work with other members of the staff too.)

Ask administrative assistants, custodians, cafeteria workers or counselors to visit your room regularly too. Students see their faces every day but they may rarely interact with them. Having them share with your students is a great way to open your classroom to a new world and build positive relationships.  Other adults in your school might be able to reach and impact a student’s behavior in a positive way that as the teacher you are not able.