Self-Care tips for teacher mental health are everywhere right now. What makes this different? I've been there - I am there! Teacher Mental Health has taken a nose-dive the past year, so below I outline some of the best self-care tips for teacher mental health I KNOW can be useful! Because they worked for me!
When I first started writing and recording podcasts, I'd set, what I thought was, a very attainable goal for my school year. Over the summer I was publishing multiple articles a week, sometimes 1-2 podcasts, and I was loving it! So I thought, "Hey, if I'm writing 2 articles a week, and recording a podcast, alternating one week podcast, one week article will be a breeze!"
Fast forward 4 months, where I haven't recorded a podcast or written an article in over a month...
Let me start by highlighting the extreme level of guilt I felt the first week I missed my self-imposed schedule. I sat there rationalizing all of the crazy things going on in my week to prevent me from recording or writing. I was anxious, overwhelmed, and felt like I was letting people down.
This arbitrary goal I'd set for myself had me feeling so much guilt and shame. And let me be clear I had legitimate excuses! (One of which being that I was made temporarily blind in one eye after a fight with a can of oven cleaner... Spoiler alert: I lost...)
As the weeks went on, and life kept getting busier and showed no signs of slowing down, I was tired! But the feelings of guilt and shame remained, and each Sunday, when I would normally write or record, I would list the reasons in my head that prevented me from doing so.
This nagging feeling would spring up every time I sat down to watch my favourite show with my partner, or schedule a Zoom game night with friends, telling me that I wasn't honouring my obligations and I had no right to rest and relaxation until the job was done.
Why is it so difficult to allow ourselves space to relax when we know there's a never ending to-do list? Why do we feel guilt for listening to our bodies and meeting our needs?
Well, I looked into it.
Surprise! There's a lot of research that shows that people are burning out (with the USA in the top 10 for highest burn out rate (Global Cities with the Lowest and Highest Levels of Workplace Burnout Revealed, 2020). There's also a lot of research that talks about the importance of self-care, deep breathing, bubble baths, etc. (in fact, some of those are on this very website...) but no one is reporting on the toxic culture that creates this feeling of guilt created when we put our work aside to better our health.
I did some self-exploration, since the common discourse on this subject is that the worker is setting unrealistic expectations (Knight, 2020), and typically puts the onus on the employee to "self-care."
Aaaand folks, that's the problem. Not only are we left to feel guilty for not completing our tasks each day, we are also made to feel guilty for not taking care of ourselves enough to have the stamina to get through those tasks. (Are you seeing this cycle?)
So what do we do about it?! Truthfully, I have no answers, but here's my inner dialogue to help notice these feelings when they arise and remind myself that I don't owe my employer a completed to-do list.
I owe my students a present, engaged, and compassionate teacher. I owe my partner a present, engaged, and compassionate partner. I owe myself the respect to know that I am doing my best, and it's okay to not get it all done, and it's okay to loosen the reigns and prioritize sitting on the couch, zoning out in front of Below Deck for 2 hours after a long week, rather than barreling through the never ending list of self-imposed tasks.
Write down your to-do list. I use an agenda with tick-boxes for each day. Then go through and prioritize tasks. (I know, basic... Who doesn't do this already?!) BUT here's the big part: What do you do when the boxes don't get ticked?
Did the world end when those boxes weren't ticked? NOPE! So they're not a priority. Assess if they still need to get done, or if you can let it go. Not "for now," not "until tomorrow," permanently. It feels damn good to tick off a box that you didn't complete because you realize you don't really need to do it!
Consider where this pressure to perform is coming from. Chances are you'll answer that it's an intrinsic pressure, but I urge you to externalize that and consider the cultural and societal expectations around work that have you feeling like your performance is less than satisfactory. In Canada, teachers give students a "work habits" score. This ranges from Needs Improvement, Satisfactory, Good, or Excellent. Notice that Satisfactory is below "Good"?! WHY is it not "good" to be satisfactory?! This is bred into our very understanding of "work habits" from elementary school. Question it, expose it, and change that narrative. For yourself, and your students!
Stop apologizing. Not to others (well, that too...) But stop apologizing to yourself for not meeting these expectations. Ask yourself where they came from in the first place and who you fear you're letting down.
Reframe from saying things like "I'm doing nothing" or "I didn't do anything this weekend" to saying what you actually DID DO! "I ordered take out and watched a full season of Virgin River on Saturday. It was awesome."
When you hear that voice saying "I didn't get anything done!" Write down what you did get done. Did it take you two hours longer to mark those essays than you'd planned? Rather than "Omg, I didn't get anything done! I took forever on those essays!" Try saying "Wow, I gave really detailed and individual feedback on those essays! Looks like marking these tests will have to wait!"
Do you see how these simple reframes and internal dialogues can help reshape how you feel about your work ethic? No, this is not a perfect solution, but I can tell you that as the weeks went by and I underwent moving, an eye injury, report card season, COVID regulations in school, Musical Theatre rehearsals, and the every day mundane tasks we have to complete to survive (like eating and sleeping...), this conversation with myself became easier. The guilt became less. And I felt, for the first time in weeks, like not only did I have space, but I had the motivation to write!
Will I stick to my weekly posting as the year continues, or make it my New Year's Resolution to write more? No. Definitely not. I'll post when I can and be okay with what I can't.
Global Cities with the Lowest and Highest Levels of Workplace Burnout Revealed. (2020, March 26). Corporate Vision: Future of Better Business. https://www.cv-magazine.com/global-cities-with-the-lowest-and-highest-levels-of-workplace-burnout-revealed/
Knight, Rebecca. (2020, March 9). Stop Feeling Guilty About Your To-Do List. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/03/stop-feeling-guilty-about-your-to-do-list