Teacher Self-Care is Not Selfish
Real talk, teacher self-care is non-negotiable. With a growing percentage of teachers reporting feeling burned out, underappreciated, and overwhelmed, teacher self-care is more important now than ever. In fact, stress continues to be a top reason why teachers quit and leave the classroom altogether.
Of course there are many reasons behind why teachers ultimately leave the profession. However, compassion fatigue is real. Far too often, teachers are conditioned to put others’ needs before their own. In fact, many teachers embody the definition of selfless. They bend over backwards trying to fulfill unrealistic expectations and meet every students’ needs. “It’s part of the job,” they say.But when work gives you so much grief, we both know you can’t simply leave it in the classroom. Instead, we take stress home with us. It lives rent free in our minds and bodies, significantly impacting our physical, mental, and emotional health.
But that’s exactly why taking the time to take care of yourself is a necessity. Teacher self-care is NOT (and I repeat is not) selfish.
It is, However, Important
With recent events (e.g. a global pandemic and trending TikTok threats), having the tools to handle our stress is vital. (And yes, that includes teacher self-care.) Stress is a natural part of life. However, our bodies are designed to handle stressful situations in small dose. Yet, many teachers are regularly dealing with an overwhelming sense of stress. While stress in itself isn’t necessarily bad, chronic stress is a different story.
Chronic stress impacts the normal functioning of your body. Therefore, with the stress response in overdrive, stress begins to manifest in physical ways. It might reveal itself in the form of anxiety, headaches, stomach issues, sore muscles, fatigue, irritability, and sleeplessness. When left untreated, stress can also make us more susceptible to more severe conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression. It’s not uncommon for teachers who experience chronic stress also report struggling with substance abuse, poor eating habits, and overall less healthy decisions.
We’re so quick to give up making time to exercise and prioritizing time for hobbies and loved ones. Yet, as teachers, we need more of those things in our lives. Therefore, in order to maintain proper self-care, it is important to know what it looks like and when to do it.
What is Teacher Self-Care? (And What it Isn’t.)
Unfortunately, teacher self-care has gotten a bit of a bad rep as being a superficial fix to deeper rooted issues in the education system. Is it frustrating when your administration suggests “more self-care” when you’re drowning in unrealistic expectations (that continue to pile up)? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that self care isn’t worth the time and attention. In fact, self-care is essential to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of teachers.
Teachers are often overcome with guilt when they put their needs first. However, according to the American Psychological Association, “good self-care is sound prevention, guarding you against severe or chronic distress or even professional impairment.” While teachers might be used to waiting until they reach a breaking point before giving attention to their needs, self-care should be proactive when possible. So, rather than reacting to overwhelm and burnout, teacher self-care can help you keep your batteries charged to better combat stress when it surfaces.
We’re not talking about Bandaid self-care “quick fixes” here. We’re talking about self-care strategies and routines that you can implement into your routine. Ones that actually help manage stress and give yourself some TLC on the regular.
Types of Self-Care
Self-care comes in many forms. There are five different areas of self-care that need your attention: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual/social, and professional. Therefore, it’s important to check in with these five areas to make sure you are getting the proper care that you need.
However, while there are five areas for self-care, you don’t have to tackle them all at once. In other words, don’t feel like you have to go big or go home. It’s okay to approach your self-care in baby steps to make it more manageable. (We both know you don’t need to add yet another overwhelming stressor to your plate.) After all, self-care should reduce stress, not add to it.
You need to take care of your body if you want it to take care of you. That means you need to be properly fueling, moving, and recharging your body regularly. As a bonus, taking care of your body will help you feel better too. Here are some questions to help you do a teacher self-care self-check:
- Are you getting enough sleep? If you’re struggling to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours a night, set boundaries around when you stop working at home so you have time to unwind before going to bed.
- Are you exercising regularly? Strive to get 150 minutes of activity per week. Rather than feeling pressure to hop on the latest fad, exercise in a way that feels good for you.
- Are you fueling your body with a well-balanced diet? If your weeks are hectic, try meal prepping on the weekends to ensure you have healthy ready-to-go options for lunch all week long.
- Are you being proactive with your health? Be sure to stay on top of your wellness and preventative visits with your healthcare providers.
- Are you taking care of yourself when you’re under the weather? Keep a folder of “plug and play” sub plans that can easily fit or be adjusted for any unit to help ease the stress of taking a sick day when you need it.
Mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being. Therefore, it’s important to keep your mind full of positive and intellectually stimulating thoughts. Moreover, being in the right mindset can help you stay on track with other areas of self-care as well. Here are some tips to help you do a teacher self-care self-check:
- Take a mental health day. And I don’t mean take a day to catch up on grading. I’m talking about a day to do something that brings you joy.
- Negative emotions and experiences are part of life– and certainly part of teaching. If you need to vent, journaling is a great way to get out negative thoughts, self-reflect, and shirt your mindset or find solutions.
- Add more positivity to your day with a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down three things you are grateful for. Soon you’ll notice an improvement in your mood.
- Practice self-awareness and self-compassion when you get into thoughts of negativity and judgment.
Teaching can be an emotional roller coaster. Therefore, it’s important to develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the ups and downs of the job, and life in general. Emotional self-care includes having a good support system and taking the time to acknowledge and process your emotions in a healthy way. Here are some questions to help you do a teacher self-care self-check:
- Do you have a strong support network to rely in times of need? One of the greatest impacts to improving our happiness are the positive relationships in our lives.
- Do you have healthy ways to acknowledge and process your emotions? Allow yourself to feel your emotions at the present moment so you can work through them rather than letting them build up.
- Are you kind to yourself? Practice self-compassion, by treating yourself kindly the way you would treat others.
- Do you set aside time for leisure activities that help you process your emotions? Whether it’s painting, running, or dancing around the house, create time and space for those activities.
- Do you take the time to celebrate your accomplishments? Self-care means acknowledging the positive emotions in life too.
Don’t let the name fool you. Spiritual self-care doesn’t have to involve religion. (If it does, that’s great too!) It’s all about how you develop a deeper sense of meaning, gratitude, and understanding. It’s about finding a deeper sense of self-awareness, purpose, and meaning. Not sure where to begin? Here are some examples to get you started:
- Participate in some form of spirituality, whether it is with your higher power, spending time in nature, or finding time for personal reflection.
- Try some mindfulness techniques, such as yoga, meditation, or just some quiet time to be in the present moment.
- Read encouraging literature or listen to an uplifting podcast to inspire self-improvement.
- Clean, declutter, and organize your space. Whether it’s at home or at work, your space can impact how you feel more than you may realize.
- Connect with like-minded people. Or, as the cool kids say, “find your tribe.” Be sure it’s not people who only perpetuate negative thoughts.
So many teachers long for a better work/life balance (or any at all). Professional self-care is about finding that balance through practicing self-care regarding work. This balance will promote productivity at work and reduce job-related stress. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Keep expectations realistic. Instead of trying to grade 30 papers in 20 minutes, take on tasks that you can reasonably complete in your given time-frame.
- Set healthy boundaries. That means saying yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. If you don’t have time to (or simply don’t want to) chaperone the dance, don’t. You’re not a bad teacher for not, I promise.
- Establish non-negotiables and stick to them. This might mean no checking email after 5 or no planning on weekends. Whatever it is, these non-negotiables can help you with prioritizing that work/life balance.
- Remember you don’t have to do it all. Can you access premade lesson plans online or reuse and recycle old material instead of starting from scratch? (Probably.) Do you really have to add more pizazz to that lesson? (Probably not.)
- Seek out a support group or a community with others in the same (or similar) situation. While it’s helpful to work through the negative emotions, be sure to cultivate positive ones too.
Teacher Self-Care Tip: To help self-care strategies stick, pair your new habit with your regular routine so it becomes automatic. In other words, teacher-self care shouldn’t be a one-in-a-blue-moon or when-I-have-a-spare-moment thing. Instead, it should be a regular practice.
Implementing Teacher Self-Care and Stress Management Strategies
Understanding what teacher self-care is and why it’s important is the first step. Next, it’s time to implement the practice into your routine. Since you already have so much on your plate, I’ve rounded up some self-care resources to help you get started.
Recommended Reading: The Teacher’s Guide to Self-Care by Sarah Forst. Additionally, the Teacher Career Coach blog offers advice and resources for everything from managing stress to how to advocate for change. (And everything in between.)
Recommended Listening: The Teacher Career Coach Podcast is full of inspiring interviews, teacher success stories, and self-care tips. For the latter, head right to the following episodes:
- Episode 14 on self-care for teachers: Listen as Sarah Forst gives actionable advice on how to implement self-care into your routine.
- Episode 26 on stress management for teachers: Jane, a certified holistic health coach, provides insights regarding self-care strategies for feeling more balanced, energized, grounded, and fulfilled.
- Episode 30 on making teaching more sustainable: Angela Watson explains actionable steps for making teaching a more sustainable career. She talks adjusting your priorities, systematizing your processes, better managing your workload, and more.
- Episode 31 on therapy for teachers: Listen as licensed professional counselor Blake Blankenbecler provides tips for implementing simple self-care routines into your every day.
- Episode 38 on teacher burnout: Listen as Amber Harper, the Burned IN Teacher, shares tips on identifying the causes of your burnout and the actions you can take to make a change.
Remember, Teacher Self-Care Looks Different For Everyone
It can be easy to get caught up in measuring yourself against people you see online. There are a ton of Instagram teachers out there with good intentions. Between lesson inspirations and self-care tips, good intentions can turn into (unintended) pressure. So, remember that self-care doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Pay attention to what teacher self care strategies work for you and do more of them. That might mean grading a few less essays that night so you can get back to that puzzle that you’ve been working on. Maybe you don’t need to add that extra flair to your lesson plan so you can say yes to drinks with your friends.
Trust me, I know how easy it is for your teaching responsibilities to encroach on the other aspects of your life. There is always an assignment to be graded, an email to respond to, or a lesson to plan. But remember, teaching is what you do. It’s not who you are. It’s not normal to work 60 plus hours a week when you’re only getting paid for 35 or 40. You shouldn’t have to give up your evenings or your weekends on the regular.
With that said, be sure to regularly pause, step back, and shift your focus to your self-care. It might not look the same day-to-day, and it certainly won’t look the same teacher-to-teacher. But you owe it to yourselves and your loved ones to take care of you. Again, self-care is not selfish. It doesn’t mean pitting others last. By practicing self care, you’ll be able to show up as a better version of yourself in your personal and professional life.
When Teacher Self-Care Isn’t Enough
Too many teachers downplay their mental health struggles, chalking it up to being new teacher jitters or consistently thinking it’ll get better next year. But far too often, these feelings persist year after year. In fact, many teachers accept it as “part of the position” because it’s all they know. They think it’s normal.
However, it’s not normal to dread going into work day after day. It’s not normal to feel so burned out that you have regular breakdowns or continuously put yourself and your needs last. And while there are many teachers out there who love their position, there’s no shame in not being one of them or in asking for help. Because truthfully, even if you implement self-care, teaching can be mentially and emotionally draining.
The bottom line? You shouldn’t feel great angst about your career on a daily basis, period. If you find that you’re miserable more often than happy, it’s time to take action.
Seeking Professional Support
If you have made it this far through this post, you might be really struggling with self-care. Whether you can’t quite find the right teacher self-care strategies for you or nothing seems to be helping enough, I applaud you for having that realization. That’s the first step in finding a solution that does work. While I hope this post can help you find success with self-care, I always recommend seeking professional support if you feel like you’re at a breaking point.
The truth is, in some situations, self-care can only help so much. So, if you’re struggling day-to-day it may be worth looking into finding a therapist. Trust me, going to therapy can be a big help. Learn tips for finding the right therapist on this podcast episode here. Or get started today with TalkSpace, a private, online therapy with flexible plans to meet your needs.
Consider Changing Careers
If, after implementing some of these self care strategies, you feel like it’s still not enough. Or if, after implementing some of these strategies, you’re still pushing closer and closer to total burnout. Or if the stress, expectations, and responsibilities are weighing so heavily it feels like nothing is working, it might be time to consider a bigger change.
If it gets to that point, you might want to consider switching grades, schools, or even districts. But I know that’s not always enough of a solution, either. So, whether you’ve already tried those changes or know it’s time for something more drastic, the Teacher Career Coach team can help.
Truthfully, it may be time to consider changing careers. And luckily, there are a ton of careers out there, including non-teaching jobs in education, that teachers are qualified for. Yet, so many teachers have a hard time imagining what they could do besides teach.
Next Steps to a New Career
One of the biggest mistakes that I see teachers make is that they try to navigate this process alone. Often, they put off “researching” until the very last minute. Which sets them up for a very stressful application season. I want to help you get some clarity in the options available to you. To know EXACTLY what you need to do (and not do) in order to get your foot in the door.
You don’t have to do this on your own.
With the help of an HR expert with over 10 years of experience and a team of former teachers, I’ve created a guide to support you in the early stages of your transition out of the classroom. Tap the button below to learn more.