Lifestyle

Educator Wellness: Self-Care in a Selfless Field

By Lilla Dale McManis, PhD January 16, 2018

If you fly with any regularity, you’re likely very familiar with the flight attendant’s instructions to place the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting children. The reason, of course, is that you can’t do a very good job if you don’t take care of yourself first. Particularly in challenging situations, this is absolutely vital. Teaching is very much like this!

Always “on”

Teaching can be challenging, and educators selflessly give so much of themselves. There are the social-emotional demands to meet the needs of children and teens, many of whom are dealing with considerable life events and possibly even trauma. Then there is the heavy draw on one’s attention, where making literally hundreds of decisions happens every day with very little cognitive downtime. Add to that the busy physical nature of the job, where it can be tough to keep up with just keeping yourself hydrated. We’re always “on,” but there’s a silver lining: we love what we do, so if we take the time to recognize teacher burnout, there are definitely ways to stop it in its tracks.

The toll of teacher burnout

One of the most researched aspects of the teaching profession is stress and burnout. For example, did you know that:

  • Up to 40% of teachers experience burnout?
  • Within the first 5 years, about that many (40%) leave the profession?

Think about that for a moment. Think about how hard those teachers worked to earn their degree, get certified, find a position. Now think about how many gaps that leaves for kids to have qualified and caring teachers. How would you feel if you were one of those teachers?

I’m sure it’s an extremely difficult choice to leave teaching because of burnout. But it might also be a very difficult choice to stay if one continually feels physically, mentally, and emotionally compromised. Stress and burnout have been associated with work-related fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and pessimism. Not only are educators impacted directly, so are students. Teachers experiencing burnout have higher absenteeism, lower teacher self-efficacy (not feeling one has the skills and resources to do tasks), and lower effectiveness as a teacher.

So we know that teacher stress and burnout can undermine teacher health and well-being and this can also negatively impact one’s pupils. Can this be turned around? Happily, the answer is YES!

A pathway to educator wellness

With numbers reaching almost epidemic proportions, researchers and practitioners have been working very hard to better understand the problem and come up with solutions. Let’s take a look at two main areas and what they are finding so you can take advantage of these strategies. I’ll also include some links for you to further explore.

Practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being engaged fully in the present moment, and in a way that is open and non-judgmental. Mindfulness has been quickly gaining favor as a very promising approach for educators. This is based on repeated findings that it can help reduce stress and thereby improve health and well-being. For instance, a recent comprehensive review of the literature found practicing mindfulness reduces stress, increases self-efficacy, and is particularly effective in helping teachers regulate their emotions.

Here’s how to begin:

1. Know your emotional triggers. Track what pushes your buttons.

2. Pay attention to your body. Become aware of bodily sensations when you start feeling stressed.

3. Write these down and then come up with techniques to implement when they happen.

Some recommended technique ideas are:

  • Count to 10 before responding
  • Let go of trying to over-control
  • Recognize the pain that drives someone to show difficult behavior and to not take it personally
  • Use kind humor
  • Do some stretching

One technique I used with much success when I felt things were spiraling in my special needs classroom was for everyone to stop, close our eyes, and be completely quiet until a feeling of peace returned. It wasn’t about waiting for everyone to be quiet in the sense of just not talking, it was about waiting for everyone’s minds and emotions to quiet—including mine!

Just remember, this is a work in progress as you determine what works best for you. Once you feel comfortable you can start teaching your students to practice mindfulness as well. Here’s a great article for you to delve deeper into practicing mindfulness: Seven Ways Mindfulness Can Help Teachers.

Practicing healthy habits

Physical well-being is essential to combating not only physical stress but emotional and mental stress as well. Good nutrition, exercising, and getting enough sleep form the foundation of well-being. Research shows when educators engage in more healthy behaviors, they practice more effective coping and experience less stress.

Some tips:

  • To get your recommended 8 hours of sleep, turn off your devices at least an hour before retiring. The blue light emitted has been found to interfere with the brain’s sleep-wake cycle. Instead, use the time to do something non-tech like star-gazing, playing with your pets, doing a craft, or grabbing some pen and paper and composing a poem. Create a list of all the things like this you’d like to do.
  • Replace foods high in sugar and fat with those with B-vitamins for balancing neurotransmitters which kick in with the fight-or-flight response, Vitamin C and magnesium to lower the “stress hormone” that is cortisol, and Omega-3s which lower anxiety. Reducing caffeine and alcohol are also key.
  • It is recommended you get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. But don’t be daunted by these numbers; anything is better than none and you can work your way up. If you can do this outside, even better because sunlight releases serotonin, which is a hormone that lifts mood.

Make a commitment to take better care of yourself, so that you can better take care of the children in your charge. Here’s an article with a slew of great resources: Physical Health Impacts Mental Wellness.

Closing thoughts

“Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.”~ Unknown. Perhaps like me, you’ve seen this quote on mugs, posters, and the like. But if you really stop to think about it, it showcases just how selfless teachers are and how big and important the profession is. With that can come a heavy burden, but by recognizing this and practicing self-care, it’s then more possible for you to stay in the teaching seat for the duration of the flight!

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD has a BS in child development, a MEd in special education, and a PhD in educational psychology. She was a K-12 public school special education teacher for many years and has worked at universities, state agencies, and in industry teaching prospective teachers, conducting research and evaluation with at-risk populations, and designing educational technology. Currently, she is President of Parent in the Know where she works with families in need and also does business consulting. 

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