The wellness industry has taken off with an absolute bang, and the teaching profession has not been left behind. But finding wellness within teaching isn’t about meditation and cake, it needs to be so much more than that.
Every teacher on the planet will tell you all the best intentions in the world to do with wellness and self-care will not fix any of the issues that cause stress and burn-out in our profession.
The statistics are easy to find, and there is no doubt that teaching is one of the more stressful jobs you can have. Contrary to popular (non-teacher) belief, we do not get a huge amount of free time and endless holidays. In fact it’s quite the opposite – we work long hours during the day, we work in the evenings and at night, we work on the weekends, and we certainly work on the holidays.
The emotional and mental load of this job is insane. The physical demands can be quite harsh. Even the financial strain can get too much. But we do it because we love the job.
We all know the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’, and it holds so true for teachers. I myself have had an absolute shocking start to the year, with many many missed days due to health issues etc (but I’ll talk about that in another post). When you as a person are running on empty, you as a teacher cannot work or interact effectively. Your tolerance in particular runs pretty darn dry, you get stressed over little things easier, your health and relationship suffer.
I’m sure a lot of teachers reading this can tell their own stories of how their school has recently tried to bring some wellness/self care into the workplace to try and help teachers. Our own school suggested a get-together one lunchtime a week to have a cup of tea and play silly card games. While good in theory, I don’t think it took off too well.
The reason why is quite simple – we don’t have time.
But the issue of teacher time is a whole different post I think. Here I’d like to give you some practical tips on actual, realistic teacher self-care. Things you can implement this term to help you keep on top of things and maybe even reduce a bit of stress.
Planning in Advance
This is a particularly difficult one sometimes. But it’s something I’ve learned the hard way this past term, with being so absent because of my bub being so ill.
If you do get a bit of spare time, even though it might be the last thing you want to do, try and use some of that time to plan in advance.
It could be planning a lesson, looking over the next assessment piece, booking in an experiment you plan to do in a few weeks – basically anything that you feel like doing, even though it’s not necessarily the top of the priority list.
I like to take an ‘all or something’ approach to this. You might not get loads done, but even just one small task can be so helpful.
Your future self will thank you for taking care of some of the work while you had time, especially if something comes up that means you don’t have the time you were counting on.
Find another teacher for your subject/grade who has a similar teaching style, and agree to co-plan your lessons.
The idea is you do all the planning for a certain amount of lessons, including resource preparation and booking anything that needs to be booked in. You do this for both yourself and your partner. Then, at the end of your turn, they do it for the following agreed-upon time, and share it all with you.
You could do a week on/week off system, or some other system that works for you. I am currently doing this with a fellow year 11 Biology teacher, and it is freeing up so much time.
To be successful, it absolutely needs to be a fair exchange. That means equal numbers of lessons, and equal amounts of resource prep etc. This is so it’s not just one person planning quite involved activities with lots of resources when they plan, but the other person plans text book lessons with little input. The lessons also need to be planned in enough time that the other teacher can look over it and become comfortable with it, or make any necessary changes, before they conduct the lesson.
I’ve found this works best with teachers who share similar teaching styles. It could also work well with someone who has a completely different teaching style to you, as long as you are both genuinely interested in learning about their style and trying it out.
Make The Students Do The Work
It’s no secret that most people learn best when they do something themselves.
Yes, of course, you need to explicitly teach and explain practically every topic, but that doesn’t mean the lesson should be you up the front talking for the entire time.
Give your voice, and your brain, a break and ensure you are designing your lessons so that the students are doing the bulk of the work for themselves. This could involve literacy activities, experiments, group work, silent reading – pretty much anything that doesn’t involve you giving a lecture.
If you are having trouble remembering what sorts of activities you can do with your class, do a quick Google search! You may even find student-driven resources you can use or adapt for your particular class.
Organise Your Resources
Most teachers are organisers by personality, and it will make your life a lot less stressful.
You need to find both a digital and a physical system that works for you.
There is nothing more aggravating than coming into the staffroom when you’re already stressed out and realising your desk is a huge mess and you can’t find what you’re looking for. I find having everything in labelled folders, tubs, or even sticky notes on the tops of worksheets that are sitting on your desk are helpful. It makes it quicker for you to find, and also easier for others to find if you are absent.
Just as importantly, you need to organise your digital files in a way that is logical for you. Everyone has a different spin on this, and it will depend on what programs etc your school uses. Make sure you name each file appropriately, and put it in the correct folder, as you download or create them. There’s nothing worse than having to go back later and reorganise and rename your digital resources. Such a waste of time when you could have done it in the first place.
For the love of the profession, if you are too unwell to effectively control and teach your classes, stay home.
If you are contagious in any way, stay home.
If you have a migraine, or don’t know if you can get through the whole day, stay home.
You have sick leave for a reason, make sure you use it.
I’m sure most teachers, in fact most professionals, can tell you of a time they went to work when they knew they should have stayed at home. It rarely turns out to be a fantastic day, and often results in more days off later because you aren’t giving yourself time to recover and heal.
Yes, it can often be much more stressful to organise lessons for a supply teacher. But if you have planned your lessons in advance, as suggested above, hopefully it is a matter of just adjusting what you have planned rather than trying to create something from scratch.
Don’t Become A Silo
Teaching is a strangely lonely job. It sounds counter intuitive, but it truly is. Yes you are dealing with up to hundreds of people a day (especially as a secondary teacher), but the interactions are not the same as chatting with friends or colleagues all day.
For your own sanity, you need to find other teachers who you actually like, and enjoy talking to. They may not be in your own staffroom or department, but there will be some at your school. If not, find a great online community (shameless plug for our Facebook Group – Staffroom Stories Lounge).
Having people to talk to who are going through the exact same things as you is so very important, at any stage of your career. Finding others who have done it longer than you can give you some much needed advice, wisdom, and perspective too.
You can turn to your teacher friends for advice, comfort, celebration, commiseration, even just a good rant or a laugh.
Ask For Help
Any time you need to, make sure you ask.
A lot of beginning teachers worry that they’ll annoy people by asking too many questions, or questions that they ‘should know the answer to already’. Screw that. If you’re not sure, ask. If you need advice, ask. If you have no idea what you’re doing, ask. If you’re struggling or sinking or spiralling, ask.
If the other person turns around and gets cranky at you, find someone else to ask. If they can’t or wont help you, find someone else.
Again, that person might not even be at your same school, and that’s perfectly fine.
You have so many avenues open to you for when you need help, make sure you use them!
Don’t discount friends, family, your head of department, deputy, head teacher/principal, union, or even government department. Find whoever can answer your question or give you the help you need, and speak to them.
Maintain Your Hobbies
Some people are perfectly happy with school being their main focus in life. Some people are not. Either way, it is healthy to have interested that aren’t planning lessons!
I was going to say how important it is to find time to keep up with your hobbies. But instead I want to stress the need to make time for your hobbies.
Literally schedule it in if you have to, but ensure you are having some time each week to do the things that you love that are not teaching-related. Read a book for fun, play with the kids, go out for dinner (and don’t talk about work too much), join a sport team, go to the gym, play games – just do something for you as a person instead of you as a teacher.
I hope this list is helpful for you! Are there any other tips I should have included for realistic teacher self-care? Let me know in the comments below!