In many parts of the world, parents, students, and teachers are in back-to-school mode. This might mean buying new school supplies and clothes or, if you are a teacher, planning lessons for either in-class teaching or remote learning. For the past two years, I have been writing and speaking about the need for teacher self-care.
“Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel”. – Eleanor Brownn
The thought of adding one more item to your to-do list may seem counterproductive to your well-being, but self-care is necessary because of the work we do as educators. Dr. Christine Maslach, an expert in teacher burn-out, suggests that “the chronic use of empathy and depletion of emotional resources are strongly associated with emotional exhaustion and professional burnout.
I’ve spoken to many teachers in the past few months who have expressed intense worry, not only for themselves and their own families, but for their students as well. It appears that worry and anxiety are common feelings right now, and self-care is a way to ameliorate the impact on our minds and bodies.
The definition for self-care that I like to use comes from Newell & MacNeil who posit that it’s “the skills and strategies used to maintain personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of others.” In my presentations on self-care, I always stress the word “while” because we shouldn’t wait until the next school break to practice self-care, we need to find ways to incorporate some strategies daily. Without self-care, teachers are at risk of emotional exhaustion and professional burn-out.
I speak from experience, because in 2015 I left teaching after a 20-year career due to burnout. Sadly, self-care was not part of my vocabulary, so I’m now on a mission as a teacher, self-care crusader, and advocate to talk about its importance. I encourage teachers to find ways to practise self-care, and school leaders to address issues that may contribute to exhaustion or burn-out such as workloads and precarious work.
When I returned to teaching in 2017, I realized that I needed to adopt self-care strategies if I wanted to prevent burn-out again. I strongly believe that self-care should be easy to do, be no cost/low cost, and avoid adding time to an already busy career. To achieve this, I adopted new mindsets (such as setting reasonable marking expectations, saying no and letting go of perfectionism) and developed new healthy habits (walking daily, drinking more water and less coffee and doing things outside of teaching that bring me joy).
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to self-care because it is unique to you, your life right now, and what is sustainable for you. Health experts tell us that there are some self-care non-negotiables such as hydration, nutrition, adequate rest, and movement. I’d like to add self-advocacy to this list because it is important to ask for what you need at work and at home. This might mean additional support at home and more resources or training at work.
I recently saw a post on Twitter where a teacher with young children said that she had hired a person to clean her house. She fully expected a backlash, but there were many supportive and positive responses. It’s okay to seek extra help.
It is natural for teachers to put others first, but we must find ways to maintain our vitality, health, and well-being in order to be our best for others. Teachers need to be empowered and encouraged to take care of themselves, but this requires teachers and administrators to ensure that it happens. A growing number of schools are implementing wellness committees which is a positive sign.
It’s important to remember that self-care is not an indulgence or something we do when we have time, but it is absolutely necessary because of the work we do. Now is the time to add self-care to your to-do list. For a list of 101 simple self-care ideas, download my resource from my website.