Teachers everywhere, in every corner of our nation, go to work early and leave late. They spend their weekends planning for the upcoming week and grading papers; they stay up late at night thinking about new ways to engage students and meet their specific needs. Then throw a global pandemic into the mix, with its constant threats of schools closing and faculty calling out sick, the cycle of overwork becomes even more exasperated. Teachers are reaching their breaking points, but there is hope. If you’re one of these teachers, it might be time to give yourself some much-deserved teacher-focused self-care. If you’re wondering whether this will take away from the impact you’re having at your school, have no fear! Taking time for yourself when you need to can be the most selfless act you can make. Try these seven tips to help you recharge through stress, boost your resilience, and show up for yourself and your students even through the most challenging of times.
1) Pause, breathe and consider: What do I need right now?
So often, teachers are moving a million miles a second, working to meet everyone else’s needs. But how often do you take a moment to tune into your own needs? In an environment where tasks and others’ needs split your attention in every direction, even just identifying your needs can seem like a lost cause. The mounting stress of leaving your needs unaddressed, though, is a surefire path to burnout down the line. You can be more resilient to burnout by tuning into yourself. One way you can do this is by time-blocking breaks into your schedule. Even if it’s just one ten-minute pause right before your students walk through the door. During this time, close your eyes, take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the weight of your body on your chair and find a sense of grounding into the earth beneath you. Tune into your senses. What can you hear? What’s the temperature of the room? How does your body feel? Once you’re out of your head and into your body, get a sense of the emotional quality of your mind and ask yourself, what do I need at this moment? Maybe simply pausing for that time is all you need. Or perhaps you notice that you could use a big glass of water or a bubble bath later in the day. Whatever you discover, make an effort to prioritize that need. You deserve the same care and attention you provide to your students every day.
2) Talk it out!
Sometimes when you’re feeling overwhelmed, the best cure is to unload what’s on your mind to a caring friend or coworker. Studies show that talking openly and honestly about our stressors can help to lighten their load. By talking about the challenges you’re facing, you’re less likely to feel so isolated and alone. It also helps build empathy in your relationships and allows others to provide support. So don’t be afraid to reach out for a listening ear when you need it! One thing to be mindful of here is the potential for the conversation to go from productive venting to toxic negativity. The purpose of venting is to release the pressure that’s been building up, not to dwell on the stressor. So it’s important to remember to be solutions-oriented rather than falling into emotional dumping or gossip, and end on a positive note where all parties feel lighter and ready to take on the day ahead!
3) Take your positivity muscle to the gym!
Have you ever heard of the negativity bias? In psychology, negativity bias is a term that refers to the human tendency to pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones. Research has found that humans are hardwired to focus on potential threats and dangers, which has helped us survive as a species. But this negativity bias can also lead to feelings of overwhelm, stress, and anxiety. Teachers are especially vulnerable to this bias as it’s easy for us to become bogged down in the negative stories and experiences of our students and their families. The good news is, although our default is to focus on the negative, we have the power to train our minds to focus on the positive and overcome our evolutionary programming. To combat the negativity bias, one way to build up your resilience is by practicing positive thinking. This can be anything from affirming mantras to visualizing a successful outcome. The more you practice positive thinking, the more you’ll start to believe it, which will help you to stay motivated and optimistic in difficult times.
4) Properly fuel yourself.
When you already have little downtime in the day, putting in the time and effort to prepare healthy meals can feel like just another task on your list, and it would be so much easier to put a frozen pizza in the oven. Hey, we get it. There is absolutely no shame in that game. However, if your body is consistently not getting the nutrition it needs, it can chip away at your mental resilience over time. Studies show that poor diet is linked with an increased risk of depression and anxiety. So make sure you’re taking the time to cook some meals for yourself, even if it’s something super simple. And don’t forget to hydrate! It’s so easy to get dehydrated when we’re busy, and not drinking enough water can lead to feeling tired, cranky, and out of sorts. One way to do this is by “doctoring up” the easy meal you planned to have! For example, if you’re having a frozen pizza, slice up some fresh veggies and throw them on the pie while it cooks. Or, if you don’t have time to slice the veggies, for the last five minutes of the pizza’s cook-time, throw a handful of kale or spinach on there. A few added fruits and veggies here and there can go a long way without eating up your downtime.
5) Manually change your perspective.
In Feng Shui, one of the basic principles is that your environment directly impacts your mood and state of mind. This is because our surroundings send us subconscious messages about how we should be feeling. For example, if you have a lot of cluttered surfaces in your home, it can send the message that you’re overwhelmed and not able to handle everything that’s coming at you. On the other hand, if your home is neat and organized, it can give you a sense of calm and control. The same goes for our workspaces! If our work area is cluttered and messy, it can feel like we’re constantly under siege. But if our workspace is tidy and calming, it can help us focus and promote a positive perspective. Another way to change your mindset is by changing up your setting. For example, you can take your lesson outside for the day or take all the desks out of the classroom and deliver the class with everyone sitting on the floor. In yoga, this is called “vinyasa.” It’s a way of changing up your perspective to help you see things from a new angle. When we do this with our teaching, it can help to refresh our thinking and manually shift our outlook.
6) Do a mindfulness activity with your students.
Pandemic stressors have had an emotional toll on everyone, including young students. This can cause them to lash out and be less engaged at school. Teachers are uniquely skilled at helping their students through hard times, but it can wear us down when this behavior is constant. One way you can address this stressor is by building resilience in your students through simple mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is the practice of being intentionally aware of the present moment. When we’re mindful, we’re not worrying about the past or the future; we’re just focusing on what’s happening in the here and now. Mindfulness activities are proven to help young students focus, calm down and regulate their emotions. You can do a mindfulness activity with your students by having them sit in silence for a few minutes and focus on their breath. Or, you can have them close their eyes and listen to calming music while focusing on the sensations they’re feeling in their bodies. If you have a school garden, take your students out there and have them draw a “sound-map.” A sound map is a drawing of what you hear in a specific location. Ask your students to close their eyes with paper and pen in hand. Have them focus on all the different noises they hear and then draw a picture of each sound around them. This is a great way to help them connect with their environment and focus on the present moment.
7) Connect with nature!
When we’re feeling stressed, one of the best things we can do is get outside and connect with nature. A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that simply being in nature can help reduce stress levels. The study tracked participants who took a nature walk for 90 minutes and found that their heart rates and cortisol levels (a hormone related to stress) were both lowered. Not only that, but the participants also reported feeling more positive after their walk. Nature has a way of restoring our balance and helping us to find peace. Teachers can take a break outside during their lunch break or even just before or after work to connect with nature. You can also do simple things like keeping plants in your classroom or having students go on nature walks around the school grounds. If your school is in a desert ecosystem like Las Vegas with little vegetation around your school, having a school garden or indoor hydroponics system would be a great way to create a natural oasis on campus to help you and your students connect with nature regularly.
Teachers are often the unsung heroes of our society, but we need to remember that we can’t pour from an empty cup. These seven self-care ideas are a great way to build resilience and reduce stress. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try one of these ideas and watch your mental strength and energy grow. If you find this helpful, please share it with other teachers so they can enjoy some self-care, too!