Last year, I attended a conference and was chatting with another attendee. I told her about my interest and work in the area of teacher self-care. With a puzzled look on her face, she proceeded to ask me, “Is teacher self-care even a thing?” Before I could say “yes,” I realized that her response was something I myself would’ve asked prior to experiencing burnout back when I was teaching in 2015.
During my 20-year teaching career, I had no idea that the term ‘self-care’ or ‘teacher self-care’ ever existed. Like many teachers, I spent most of my weeks and weekends planning lessons, grading assignments (especially while at my son’s basketball practices and games), responding to emails from students, designing rubrics, and searching for the best learning resources that had the most perfect clipart. It was never-ending, but it was a choice I had made thinking that this was what it took to be a “good” teacher.
MY EXPERIENCE OF PROFESSIONAL BURNOUT
I began to show signs of burnout, but at the time I hadn’t realized that this was indeed the term for what I was feeling. My personality had started to change and I was quick to lose my patience with my colleagues and students – I just didn’t care anymore nor did I bother to hide my feelings. My colleagues who had known me for six or seven years didn’t ask if I was alright because they didn’t know the signs of burnout. Burning out for me was a slow burn – like the feeling you get from holding onto a rope in a game of tug-of-war. You know you’re slipping yet you can’t get a grip, it’s painful but you just don’t know what to do in the moment as things unfold. Eventually, the endless cycle of precarious work and the three personal crises I experienced within an 18-month period pushed me over the edge. It was time to walk away from a career that I had loved.
I’m certainly not alone when it comes to experiencing stress as a teacher. The high levels of stress and burnout in the teaching profession are widely documented. It’s the chronic use of empathy and emotional resources in our profession that’s strongly associated with exhaustion and/or professional burnout. There are numerous factors that can contribute to teacher stress including precarious work (especially in higher education), multiple workloads, students’ demands, increased legislative regulations, changing educational standards, few professional development opportunities, and a lack of planning time, support, and resources. As I researched to learn more about the warning signs of burnout, I began to understand more and more about the importance of having a self-care practice.
WHAT SELF-CARE ACTUALLY MEANS
Self-care is not an indulgence, but rather it’s necessary in the work we do as caring teaching professionals. Self-care is the skills and strategies used to maintain personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of others. Without self-care, teachers are at risk of emotional exhaustion and/or professional burnout.
Teachers have often told me that they feel self-care is just one more responsibility or one more item to add to their to-do list. However, recent research has shown us that self-care isn’t only an individual responsibility, but it’s also an organizational responsibility. Workplace well-being should be embedded within the K-12 education system and reflected in a school’s culture. Ultimately, working conditions should create an atmosphere where teachers feel supported in their role, feel less stressed, and are equipped with the skills to look after their own well-being.
MY SELF-CARE JOURNEY
Last year, I had decided that it was time to share my story of burnout, and so I wrote a book entitled The Teacher Self-care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers. I’ve been fortunate to present at conferences in Canada and the USA and have met teachers from all over the world who have shared their own stories and wisdom about teacher self-care practices. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with all seem to have a similar definition of what it takes to be a “good” teacher and how this standard is not only unrealistic, but is what prevents or impacts a self-care practice. As one teacher suggested, it’s often a mindset of “self-sacrifice” versus “self-care.”
Upon returning to teaching in 2017, I realized that I needed to adopt self-care strategies if I wanted to prevent professional burnout again. I strongly believe that self-care should be easy to follow, at no cost, and shouldn’t add time to our already busy career. To achieve this, I find incorporating “new tiny habits” such as walking daily, setting reasonable marking expectations, setting boundaries (e.g. no emails at night or weekends), spending time doing things I enjoy, connecting with people important to me, and setting Sunday as a no-work day are self-care practices that are easy to follow. While these practices work for me, self-care practices are unique – there’s no one-size fits all plan and it’s important to find practices that work best for you.
The well-being of everyone within the school community including, students, teachers, and principals/vice-principals is important. Research suggests that learning happens best when both students and teachers are well. What’s more, when teachers are well, their relationships with students, colleagues, and the overall school community become more positive.
In the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in conferences that focus on teacher well-being as well as many excellent resources. There’s a rise in school-level initiatives, too. In Canada, we see examples in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and elsewhere where teachers have formed Staff Wellness Committees in their schools or at the district level. While this is positive news, work still needs to be done to address school cultures that prevent teachers from participating in well-being initiatives. For example, teachers are often reluctant to participate in well-being initiatives for fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well.
I believe that in the near future, we will say with astonishment “Remember when we didn’t care about teacher self-care?”
Listen to this podcast episode with Patrice Palmer about Teacher Self-Care.
First published in June 2020
Photos: Adobe Stock
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