It is widely known that education is an extremely demanding field. Educators work well beyond their school days in order to make sure that every student is taken care of and every need is met. They are highly dedicated, passionate, and go the extra mile. I was an educator myself and spent ten years in the middle school classroom. I know the effort it takes to be a great teacher, and I’ve witnessed the amazing dedication, endurance, and passion of my colleagues. The effort put into this work is a labor of love every single day. Sometimes though, educators forget to take care of themselves in the process. They spend so much time worrying about their students and colleagues that they forget to put themselves on their own to-do lists.
Additional responsibilities are being placed on educators beyond what is manageable. These added responsibilities, combined with other factors, are contributing to an extremely high burnout rate for teachers. “93% of elementary teachers report that they are experiencing a high-stress level,”1 and “Over 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.”2 I’m sure these statistics will not surprise any educator, but the question remains, What can be done to help solve the burnout problem?
Solving this problem often falls on individual educators, but when they try to find balance on their own, it feels hopeless. Overwork is becoming so ingrained in education that someone attempting self-care and appropriate boundary setting may be viewed as a firebrand or someone who is not willing to support the team. This doesn’t have to be the reality. “While individual coping matters, real, sustainable success is unlikely without a comprehensive school-wide commitment to creating healthier and productive climates for staff and students.”1
Outlined below are suggestions that school communities can implement over time to support a culture of self-care and balance among staff.
- Start a conversation with your colleagues and administration.– It’s possible that the topic of self-care and balance has never been discussed. You may feel nervous to bring it up, however, if you know you wouldn’t be the only one working toward this goal, it can feel more achievable. Starting the conversation can benefit everyone.
- Reach out when you are having trouble.–There is often pressure to push through stress or just keep moving forward, even if you are struggling. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you need it. “If you have relationships with your colleagues, you have a feeling of safety and are more likely to ask for help…Don’t just pretend everything is wonderful.”3 Acting like everything is fine when it is not can be draining and makes it harder for those around you to know when you need help. Your colleagues will likely understand what you are going through and be willing to help.
- Do the best you can to balance the “extras” as a staff. – Educators frequently take on more than they can manage. There are many “extra” tasks that are assigned to educators, such as committees, event planning, or other things that go beyond the responsibilities that already come with your work. If everyone can communicate about their current workloads and what “extras” they can or cannot take on, it makes it easier to be sure that no one is taking on more than they can manage. Try not to let a lot of those tasks fall on one person or a small group of people. If you know someone already has a lot of “extra” tasks, see who else may be able to help.
- Choose a self-care or mindfulness theme for your PLC (Professional Learning Community).– While many PLCs are focused on a specific student goal, they can also be used as a focus for initiatives staff may want to implement. If you choose books or articles related to self-care, balance, or mindfulness you can use your time more effectively. Rather than making self-care yet another thing to manage, this could help you discuss it openly, brainstorm solutions, and find support among your colleagues as a part of the time you are already spending together.
- Begin and end meetings with minutes of mindfulness.– Starting a meeting with approximately two minutes of mindfulness can improve productivity at the meeting. “Mindful awareness can improve brain function, raise emotional intelligence, and even heighten our ability to absorb and retain information. In other words, it can help your attendees help themselves.”4 This can be easily implemented by using existing apps and materials which lead to meditations and moments of mindfulness that can be adjusted for the amount of time you have available. Apps like 10% Happier™ and Headspace™ can be great for this. If you also end the meeting with minutes of mindfulness, you can leave the meeting feeling less stressed and ready to tackle the tasks ahead.
- Set appropriate work balance boundaries as staff. – You can promote this within your school community by agreeing upon boundaries for acceptable communication after school hours. For example, you could promote the idea of not being expected to answer work emails or phone calls after 5pm. If emails or voicemails are received, with this boundary it would be acceptable to not reply until the following day. If this boundary applies to all staff, you wouldn’t need to feel guilty for being the only person who doesn’t answer work emails or phone calls into the evening. It could be an established and acceptable part of communication expectations in your school. If your school also communicates this boundary with families, they will know that you won’t be replying until the next day. There are, of course, emergency situations which may call for a breaking of this boundary, but if it’s one that is generally followed, it can eliminate some of the pressure educators feel.
- Promote time to breathe. – Prep periods are often a rush to do everything you possibly can in a short amount of time. Before getting started on your prep time tasks, “Do a few yoga poses or stretches to get your blood moving. Get out of the building for some fresh air and a change of scenery. Take a mindful moment and pay attention to your breathing to center yourself.”5 This may seem like a waste of time, but taking two to five minutes to do this can actually lead to more productive prep time.
- Practice mindfulness with your students.– Students are stressed out too! This is part of why Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is so important. Dedicating small portions of your time with students that incorporate yoga, stretching, breathing exercises, mindfulness, or mediation can be calming to students and reduce anxiety. “The hope is to help kids manage their own stress as they turn into grownups.”6 If they see you take care of yourself, it’s more likely they will know how to do so themselves. The idea of taking the time to slow down, calm down, and focus inward can be daunting at first, but the more you practice this on your own and with your students, the more likely it is to become a beneficial practice that you can all look forward to.
- Take time to rest when you are not at work.– The pressure to work practically 24/7 is overwhelming and it can feel like you need to work constantly in order to get everything done. However, taking time to rest is good for you and will allow you to feel productive and refreshed the next day. Educators often feel guilty about resting when they “should be working,” but it is crucial to have a balance to avoid burnout. It may not be realistic to never take any work home, but it is realistic to suggest that you take time for yourself or with your family in the evenings and on the weekends. Feeling balanced will help you feel more engaged and present throughout the day.
Implementing at least a few of these strategies in your school community can go a long way toward changing your self-care culture in a positive way. If you feel resistance in your community, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and try things that will help you care for yourself. Perhaps if people see a positive change in you, they may want to make changes themselves. You can also find support outside of your school community from a friend, fellow educator in another school or district, or a counselor. Seeking help when you need it can make stress manageable.
These changes will not happen overnight. It’s likely that you will revert to previous practices many times. The important thing is to keep trying and never discount the importance of self-care. If you can keep advocating for yourself and your colleagues, real change is possible. If your community can find ways to cope and handle the stress that working in education entails, you can keep doing the work you love for years to come.
Here are a few texts that may be helpful to get you started on a journey of self-care, balance, and mindfulness. There are many more available! Some are geared toward personal or PLC use, while others are geared toward use with students. Don’t be afraid to use children’s books for yourself! They can be very useful at breaking down concepts in a quick and concise way.
- Take Time for You: Self-Care Action Plans for Educators by Tina Boogren
- The Take Time for You: Self-Care Action Plans for Educators text also has free resources and printables related to the text at https://www.solutiontree.com/free-resources/instruction/ttfy.
- Stress Management for Teachers: A Proactive Guide by Keith C. Herman
- Meditation for Relaxation: 60 Meditative Practices by Adam O’Neill
- Little Book of Meditation: 10 Minutes a Day to More Relaxation, Energy, and Creativity by Patrizia Collard
- Joy of Now: Mindfulness in Five Minutes a Day by Paige Burkes
- The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy by Justin Ashley
- Big Breath: A Guided Mediation for Kids by William Meyer
- Everything You Need to Know About Mindfulness by Kerry Elizabeth Benson
- Sitting Still Like a Frog Activity Book by Eline Snel
- Calm: Mindfulness for Kids by Wynne Kinder
1 Walker, Tim. “How Many Teachers Are Highly Stressed? Maybe More Than People Think.” NEA Today. http://neatoday.org/2018/05/11/study-high-teacher-stress-levels/.
2 “Research Spotlight on Recruitment and Retention: NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education.” National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/tools/16977.htm.
3 Adams, Caralee. “12 Smart Ways to Fight Teacher Burnout That Really Work.” We Are Teachers. https://www.weareteachers.com/prevent-teacher-burnout/.
4 Mulcrone, Katie. “Bringing Mindfulness to Meetings.” Convene. https://www.pcmaconvene.org/features/cover-story/bringing-mindfulness-to-meetings/.
5 Venet, Alex Shevrin. “7 Self-Care Strategies for Teachers.” Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/7-self-care-strategies-teachers.
6 Garey, Juliann. “Mindfulness in the Classroom.” Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/mindfulness-in-the-classroom/.