Have you ever noticed that the only movies that are made about us are either movies where the teacher is a terrible human who takes complete advantage of the “easy paycheck” (which we all know is not realistic) or those who have no personal boundaries and are terrible humans because all they do is teach?
As a rule, we don’t appreciate appropriate healthy boundaries in the world of education. You never hear of the Teacher of the Year who leaves work on time, does their job, and has interesting hobbies and interests outside of work. Rather, the movies about great teachers show teachers who are single because they can’t connect with other adults well, divorced because they’ve made work their only priority, or those who are neglectful of their own families.
We praise extreme neglect of everything else in one’s life for success in the classroom. We praise the people who are giving from wells entirely too dry for use.
That is an unhealthy habit that has got to stop, and in order for it to stop, leadership in our country, our states, our regions, our districts, and our schools have got to stop glamorizing the idea of unhealthy and unhappy teachers as “successful”.
Until that happens, though, there are things you can do to remove yourself from the rat race and care for yourself in a way that will enhance your teaching and give you more to be able to then share with your students.
Relax Into Your Routine
One year, one of our writers had a very young student who experienced a truly horrible tragedy in their family. The student was emotional for a few days, but then seemed to settle in before a full week was out. The student was sometimes weepy upon arrival and approaching dismissal, and the teacher was checking in with the child one morning when she realized what was happening.
The child stood outside the doorway of the classroom, cried some, then took several deep breaths. When the teacher asked how the child was, the student said, “I’m so glad I’m finally here so I can stop thinking.”
Routines can be comforting and calming for people of any age. It’s a relief to be “distracted” by the familiar.
Even in extreme stress or grief, the routines of the school day can become ritualistic and even relaxing.
Knowing that, set up some routines and management systems toward the beginning of the year. Teaching is not like other jobs. You can’t just get up and walk away for a coffee break for a few minutes every hour.
You have to carve quiet and calm moments out of the chaos. Plan ahead for those days that will be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Create times for taking a breathe, allowing your mind to wander just a little, or taking a moment to collect yourself before diving right back in.
Plan for the days you’ve got a terrible headache, or your own child is sick, or that last week before payday when you’re trying to stretch every last dollar. Plan for days when you don’t feel well but you really have to be at work for the day. Create routines with those days in mind, and keep them even when you’re feeling great with those days in mind.
Those difficult days may not come often, but you will be so grateful to yourself when they do and you’ve kept your plan in tact.
Ask for Help
The demand placed on teachers can be staggering. There were decades - possibly centuries - in American public school education when going into the classroom and working completely alone was not only possible but probable.
Now, there is so much required of each individual teacher that it’s nearly impossible to manage everything on your own. You have to involve a team, your campus, your students’ families, and/or the community. It would be unreasonable to expect to do everything alone.
Many schools frown upon involving families and communities while others place parents in charge of everything - even the hiring and firing of teachers. While there are things we must do ourselves, there are many things we can learn to seek assistance in completing. Delegating tasks that you can is one way of “multiplying” your effectiveness and reach.
Parents are usually the first group to approach when delegating, but there are service leagues, senior citizen groups, and retired teachers who would gladly do the paperwork and volunteer to assist students and teachers.
When working with colleagues, staff, and admin, there will be limited assistance of course, because everyone in the school setting is pretty busy.
If you invite parents or community volunteers in to assist, be sure you establish routines and decide how you can most readily use their help. The worst-case scenario when welcoming an influx of new helpers is to have nothing for them to do. You never want them to feel like they are not needed.
Be sure you have a way to explain why what you’re asking them to assist with is important, plan and let them know when there will be days where you won’t be able to use their help (ie: state testing days, early releases, etc… especially important if you have senior citizens who are not related to anyone in the school because they may not have access to an academic calendar), and be willing to train them to do precisely what you want them to do.
We’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post, but it’s very important to allow people to volunteer. It’s not only really helpful for you, it helps the community form a bond with the school.
One of our colleagues was very ill and mentioned that it was a priority for them to be sure people were able to come and visit the colleague while they were in the hospital. “It’s not just about me. People around me need to see that I’m okay because it knocks you off your balance when someone around you is this ill. I can give back that way.”
By the way, said colleague is in complete remission (see? You don’t even know this person, but isn’t it kind of a relief to know?).
On the other hand, another colleague became very ill and tried stoically to hide their condition from everyone around them. It was so painful for the whole community to watch someone deal with a chronic illness and not reach out for help. It was far more painful than officially knowing (you can’t go through chronic illness and hide it, in case you’ve ever wondered - it just isn’t possible, especially long-term) and being able to help (that colleague also recovered).
We matter. We all matter to the greater community. Taking care of each other is one way we solidify ourselves as a community. Helping others, and allowing others to help us, creates a glue that can last a lifetime.
Find a Hobby and Invest in It
Hobbies can be a little stressful in and of themselves in the beginning because you’re learning a new skill, but having some sort of hobby is very good for the soul.
Teachers (especially those in elementary settings) tend to be a little obsessive about their jobs (this writer is included in that group, so feels comfortable saying so). Without other things to occupy your hands and mind, the obsession can begin to wear you down quickly.
Don’t choose something and invest hundreds of dollars in it or go in full-force. Instead, watch some tutorial videos on YouTube, ask friends what they know about the hobby, or search for advice in other media (books, magazines, or by searching online).
If you enjoy it or continue to be interested after a few weeks, consider investing just a little more time, money, and energy.
Remember, build relationships along with your hobby. Make it as little about school as possible. Invest in other people, outside activities, and things that make you feel happy and encourage you to relax.
You will be a much better teacher if you do.
See a Professional
There are times when your stress becomes too much to bear. If you find yourself anxious, depressed, or unable to enjoy anything - including, but not limited to your time in the classroom - it’s time to see a professional.
Things like anxiety and depression are not weaknesses or character flaws. Sometimes there are things you’ll need to talk about and have a non-judgmental outside opinion to work through.
Sometimes, these kinds of difficulties stem from a physical or chemical change within your body, though. For that, you may need medication. It may not be long-term. Sometimes our bodies become dysregulated and need a “kick-start”. The only people who can determine whether you need additional help are you and your doctor.
If you talk to your doctor and they aren’t sure how to help, they may send you to a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or recommend you find a counselor (the first two may need a doctor’s referral, but counselors can often be sought without).
Seeing a mental health professional is just like going to the doctor if you have a lump in your neck or a broken leg. You wouldn’t just keep going as though everything is normal and hope it goes away (hopefully - don’t do that!). If you knew you needed an appendectomy, you wouldn’t ignore your pain.
Mental and emotional pain are just as worthy of your attention and valid. Treat your mental health just as you should treat your physical health. Your students, and the people who love you, will be so grateful you did.
Make and Keep Yearly Physical Wellness Exams
Speaking of physical bodies, go see your doctor for wellness exams. See the dentist. Get your eyes checked. Take care of your body.
Sleep at night. Plan well so you can sleep well. Work until you’re tired. Take a walk if you’re stressed. Eat foods that will fuel you, and drink plenty of water. Find a way to go to the bathroom when you need to! Taking care of your body cannot be put off to take care of your students for very long before your body will start to experience serious issues. In order to be an effective educator, you have to take care of yourself.
Chances are fairly good that the body you’re currently in is the only one you’ll be getting in this lifetime, so treat it well!
Resist the Urge to Look For and Accept Extrinsic Rewards
As long as “teacher of the year” means poor self-care, don’t buy into the recognition trap. Don’t accept an award or honor that praises or glamorizes a lack of boundaries. Don’t perpetuate the cycle.
We know, it’s an honor just to be nominated, but until we all work together to come up with a system that recognizes achievements as educators rather than our popularity and willingness to sacrifice other healthy aspects of our lives, things will not change.