Now MORE THAN EVER BEFORE, teachers need to be conscious about caring for themselves. Teaching is already a stressful takes-everything-out-of-you-mentally-and-emotionally type of career, but now throw in a pandemic to the mix and schools requiring teachers to balance in-person, virtual, and/or hybrid teaching models, and it takes it to a whole other level. These are my 4 MUST-DO tips for teacher self-care that I’ve found critical for my own mental health going into a school year with so many unknowns. I urge you to take some time NOW, no matter when in the school year you are reading this, to stop what you are doing and set up some habits that will create healthy boundaries for yourself.
Must-Do #1 for Teacher Self Care: Delete ALL EMAIL from your phone.
Yes, you read that right. ALL OF IT.
Now I know right now you are thinking of all the excuses why you cannot do that. I promise you, I get it, I am the QUEEN of excuses. But hear me out.
You can not establish a healthy work/life balance if you are never able to FULLY disconnect and unplug from your work. There are so many professions where you aren’t expected to be “on-call” 24/7 – why do we as teachers feel like we are the exception and we have to be? I think this is ESPECIALLY important as we potentially enter a school year that’s completely virtual. If you are constantly accessible to your students (and their parents) you will never be able to stop thinking about work.
I know this is so hard. My husband challenged me to do this a few years ago and it took me MONTHS to finally try it. But I cannot tell you how liberating it was to finally do it. I even now have trained myself now to only check email once a day. And guess what? My people adjusted. The world didn’t fall apart. I was a whole lot less important than I thought 😬 Many people figured out the answers to their original questions on their own. And best of all? My students learned healthy boundaries and got a glimpse of what it looks like to value family time because I modeled that for them.
Must-Do #2 for Teacher Self Care: Get a change of scenery.
This must-do has been especially helpful for me as a mama being home with my tiny humans 24/7 these last few months, but works in the classroom with students, too!
During our state’s stay-at-home order back in April, I pretty much had to perfect this, as ALL of us were getting a littleeee sick of each other. So what did we do? It could be as simple as leaving the family room and going to my son’s bedroom to play. Load everyone up in the stroller and go on a walk! Turn the hose on in the backyard and let the kids go to town. Need an even bigger change of scenery? Get in the car and drive through a car wash, or your favorite donut spot for a treat and to support a local business. I was consistently amazed over and over again that just by changing where we were, my attitude, and thus my kids’ attitudes, totally transformed.
What does this look like in the classroom? When your students are all fidgety and distractible and you want to rip your hair out – CHANGE IT UP. Get kids out of their seats for stations. Send them in the hallway to build models. Head down to an empty gym or cafeteria and let them do lab analysis questions there. If possible, go outside! I kept a class set of clipboards so we could be on the move in minutes if we needed to be. Teaching virtually and you can tell that you need a virtual change of scenery? Stop whatever they are working on and DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Veer off the lesson plans if you have to. It is amazing how just switching it up can create a reset in you and your students.
Must-Do #3 for Teacher Self Care: Schedule margin in your day to create space for rest and not being rushed.
My husband is the person who first introduced me to this concept of building in “margin”. I’m the type of person that defaults to either 100 mph or 0 mph – I struggle to find a healthy in-between. I run from one thing to the next. I’m a chronic multitasker. As some of my students would say, I have “no chill.”
But I’ve learned how unhealthy and unsustainable this is. When I sprint through my day with no margin, it leaves no time for spontaneity – either spontaneous fun, rest, or service of others. It leaves no room for anything extra because I’m always on E, and it causes me to serve my kids and my husband the dredges of me rather than serving from a pot that’s always half full.
So what does this look like practically? It may look different for you, but here is what it looks like for me:
- I wake up an hour before my kids every morning, even on weekends. This gives me time to drink coffee, read, and have a slow start to my morning, which I really need.
- I am an introvert. I cannot schedule more than 1 social event a day. If I plan on working all day with students or other people (not just in my office creating resources), that uses up my social capacity for the day.
- I do not schedule things right after naptime. Every time I do I regret it. One of my kiddos wakes up really grumpy after nap, and this creates space for us to snuggle, have a snack, and slowlyyyyy transition if we are packing up to head out somewhere.
- In the classroom, this looked like having set mornings and afternoons that were for tutoring, and others that were for grading. I never veered from my schedule unless for an emergency. I always left by 5 at the LATEST. I truly unplugged and didn’t bring work home. Refer back to Must-Do #1 for more on this.
- Choosing certain blocks of a day to protect. Ex: I never plan ANYTHING for 1-4 because that is nap time. People stopped asking because they knew it was nap time for kids / work time for me. We always protect Saturday mornings. We do “Cinnamon Roll Saturday” family breakfast. We also block off all of Sunday. That’s right, ALL OF IT. Which leads me to my 4th and final must-do teacher self care tip…
Must-Do #4 for Teacher Self Care: Take an entire day off every week.
What? How? WHEN??
I know you hear that and think, “There is literally no way. You have no idea how much is on my plate.”
I felt the exact same way. Whether you are talking to 2018 Rebecca, who had 5 preps (one of which was AP bio for the first time), was volunteering with Young Life 15 hours a week, and creating resources for other teachers, or 2020 Rebecca attempting to work full time from home with a 2.5-year-old and a 1-year-old, I 100% get it.
It does require some work on the other 6 days of the week to prep for whatever day you choose to take off. But I can’t tell you enough how worth it has been, and HOW GOOD it has felt to have 1 entire day that I can enjoy resting guilt-free!!
WHEN? Pick a day, any day. It doesn’t matter. Just be consistent so you can consistently block it off. I take off Sundays.
HOW? Put it on your calendar/to-do list, whatever, and stick to it!! Schedule any emails you “have” to do on that day. I work late a few nights a week to prep to unplug! When I make a casserole for dinner, I often make 2 and freeze one to have on a Sunday!
WHAT? I don’t do any work. Zero. Any meals we have are leftovers or crockpot so it’s minimal work or cleanup. I don’t exercise or do anything else to try to feel productive. I also shut down all social media on Sundays (I found the first few weeks doing this I ended up on my phone most of the day – not really restful!)
What DO I do? I read. I play with my kids completely uninterrupted. I laugh with my husband and really listen when he’s talking. I NAP. I only do things that feel restful.
I feel like I can really rest because it’s “allowed” since it’s on the calendar. It May sound silly, but it’s just how my brain works. I look forward to Sundays so much. They are my favorite day of the week now! I also don’t hate Mondays anymore, because I actually go into them feeling rested!
Are you tired? Do you desperately need rest? I challenge you to take an entire day off this week and see how it goes!
What boundaries have you set to care for yourself and protect your mental and emotional health as a teacher in such trying times?