Now, more than ever before, educator wellness is of the utmost importance – both for ourselves and for our students. We are dealing with a mental and physical health crisis on a global scale, and Canada is no exception:
- According to the World Population Review (2021), obesity rates in Canada are at 29.4% (11.5 million adults). That is almost one-third of educators if they are aligned with national rates. Obesity is defined as a body mass index of over 30.
- 40% of Canadians say their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic (Canadian Mental Health Association & University of British Columbia, 2020).
- 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence (Public Health Agency of Canada et al., 2006).
- Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group (Pearson et al., 2013).
- 34% of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate to serious level of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression). Fourteen percent indicate a serious level of psychological distress (Boak et al., 2016).
- In 2016, suicide accounted for 19% of deaths among youth aged 10 to 14, 29% among youth aged 15 to 19, and 23% among young adults aged 20 to 24 (Statistics Canada, 2018).
In view of this reality, I think we can agree that it is past time that we start making some changes in how we approach wellness in education and the impact that staff wellness has on our students.
I recently had an educator reply to a tweet on the impact of educator mental and physical wellness on students with “School’s out. Students are at home. We’re crawling out of the abyss of a demoralizing year. We need examples, too. Besides, why are we always the first to be prompted to set this example, instead of the parents – where good modelling starts?”
While I agree that wellness examples should start at home, it is negligent to think that students are not looking to their educators to be the example of what mental, emotional, and physical wellness look like. Educators have chosen a path of impact and impact starts with being the right example.
A reactive and passive approach to our own health is missing the mark. So what needs to change?
- We need to take a proactive approach to wellness. We need less talk and more action: less saying how important it is and more demonstrating its importance. This starts at the top with leaders making it a priority and demonstrating it to their staff.
- We need to be willing to have the hard conversations with each other about how we can improve ourselves through wellness and the steps we are taking to do so. Nothing gets better in darkness and silence.
- Every educational professional, from district leaders to bus drivers, can start to build their own healthy and sustainable habits that demonstrate to students what mental and physical wellness look like. Additionally, if you are comfortable doing so, discuss your wellness journey with your students to deepen your connection and their understanding of health.
Now let’s move to some actionable takeaways that you can use as an individual educator to start becoming more well and setting the example today. These actionable takeaways will focus on building habits in four main pillars of wellness. Those four pillars are mindfulness and mental health, movement, nutrition, and sleep.
The concepts below will focus on building healthy habits and are taken from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. I highly recommend his book if you want to make a healthy and sustainable lifestyle change.
Make habits obvious
Whether you want to start a mindfulness practice, increase your water intake or start exercising in the morning, you have to set yourself up for success by making daily habits obvious. Some examples of this would be keeping a water bottle on your desk so you always have access to water or setting out your fitness clothes the night before so you are ready to take action before your long school day starts. Another great example for teachers and school leaders is to schedule your sleep and set an alarm to go to bed. Stop burning the midnight oil and prioritize sleep. As educators we must always focus on removing barriers to our wellness.
Make habits attractive and fun
Let’s be honest, if hard things are not attractive and fun, we will struggle to sustain them. A way to do this would be habit stacking, the act of attaching a difficult habit with one that you enjoy. My favourite example of this is attaching my morning hydration to my coffee. I want to have my coffee on the way to school, so to get it I must drink a large glass of water first. This automatically makes my hydration habit more attractive, because it allows me to have the thing I really want.
Make habits easy
It is hard to do hard things, so make them easy. This is all about setting yourself up for success. Remove friction in finding time to be active or to practise mindfulness by scheduling it in your calendar and not allowing things to get in the way. Use technology to help you plan healthy meals, find great at-home workouts, or provide you with a daily breathing practice to calm your mind and prepare you for the day. Another great way to make habits easy as an educator is to grab a co-teacher and hold each other accountable. It is always easier to maintain a challenging habit if you have a friend to support you along your journey.
Make habits satisfying
It is human nature to strive to reach goals and to love being rewarded for meeting them. Set small, realistic, and achievable goals and tie in rewards to them. A great example of this would be setting a walking goal for the month and if you achieve that goal, you get to buy yourself those new shoes you want. School and district leaders can create walking or wellness challenges and create rewards for their teams. Set goals, hold yourself accountable, and celebrate your success.
No change is easy; if it were it would already be done. As we make these changes on a large scale and at a personal level, we have to remember and be held accountable by the fact that we are not only doing this for ourselves, but for our students. We are in a time of crisis. Change is necessary, and whether we were prepared to accept the responsibility to be the example of mental, emotional, and physical wellness for our students or not, that has to be the new expectation of educator wellness.
Are you willing to be the example your students need to be mentally, emotionally, and physically well adults?
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Boak, A., Hamilton, H. et al. (2016). The mental health and well-being of Ontario students, 1991–2015: Detailed OSDUHS findings (CAMH Research Document Series No. 43). Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Canadian Mental Health Association & University of British Columbia. (2020). Mental health impacts of COVID-19: Wave 2. https://cmha.ca/documents/summary-of-findings
Public Health Agency of Canada, Mood Disorders Society of Canada, & Health Canada et al. (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Government of Canada. https://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/human-humain06/pdf/human_face_e.pdf
Pearson, C., Janz, T., & Ali, J. (2013). Health at a glance: Mental and substance use disorders in Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/11855-eng.htm
Statistics Canada. (2018). Table 13-10-0394-01 Leading causes of death, total population, by age group [Data table]. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310039401
World Population Review. (2021). Obesity rates by country 2021. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/obesity-rates-by-country