It can be rough out there. Really rough.
Even before the pandemic, teachers are on the frontlines of elementary school germ warfare. Whether you like it or not, children (especially the young ones) pick their noses and wipe it on their clothes, put fingers and objects in their mouths, dribble snot everywhere, and then come in for a hug. This is something that you do get used to and you develop strategies to manage the occupational risks of a perpetual scratchy throat and sniffles.
How to look after yourself as a teacher:
- Meal prep before school
- Incidental exercise between lessons
- Prioritising your sleep
- Taking a break during the school day
- Relationships, hobbies, and fun stuff
- Get professional help
On top of this, teaching is a demanding profession. Teachers are always on the go, often running from classroom to classroom and working late into the night. This lifestyle can take a toll on your health, causing you to feel stressed and run down. You spend the day constantly putting on a persona in front of your students, perpetually patient and understanding despite often just wanting to go home and wrap yourself up in a blanket in bed to enjoy some peace and quiet.
If you’ve been teaching for any period of time, you’ll be well used to the eye-rolls and the “well, you get school holidays. You have nothing to complain about!”. It is true that these breaks are a great time to refocus on yourself and get some rest, but like anything else, your health is something that requires a little planning and effort.
There are simple ways you can maintain your health and wellness, even when you have a busy schedule. Just like anyone else, teachers can improve their health and wellness by eating better, exercising, getting enough sleep, and more, which I’m sure you already know. The difficult thing is how you’re going to actually do this.
1. Meal prep before school
I can’t stress this enough. If I don’t do my meal prep for the week, I get home from work and try to drag myself into the kitchen, but always end up putting in the bare minimum effort to make eggs on toast or just cereal, or end up ordering take out. While this is fine every now and then, when this is every weeknight, it becomes a health problem. Worse yet, starting to eat like this will make you feel more tired and lethargic and perpetuate the problem.
The best purchase that I have ever made was my chest freezer. I spend my Sunday afternoons cooking enough meals for the week, and put them all in that freezer. If you make a little extra, you can have some for the week after as well and so get a little more variety in your food for that week.
2. Incidental exercise between lessons
You’d be surprised at just how physical being a teacher can be. Wear some good shoes to work, and make a conscious effort to move throughout your day. Wander around the classroom to check on different students instead of sitting behind your desk, roam the yard at lunch and recess when you’re on yard duty, and spend as much time on your feet as you can. I find that I can easily get my 10 000 steps per day doing this, and then I don’t feel nearly as bad for being too tired to get to the gym in the evening.
3. Prioritising your sleep
If you have limited time to yourself in your day (and even more so if you have young children), it can be really difficult to get enough sleep. Making sure that you get enough sleep though is the number one thing that will affect your energy levels and mood, as well as how motivated you are to keep on top of the rest of your health and well-being. Making sure that you transition to bed is a key step in improving your sleep, and I’ve found that putting my phone down a few hours before bed has made an incredible difference to how easy I find it to actually get to bed as well as get to sleep.
Another thing that I’ve found helpful is to make sure that once the sun goes down, my house also starts to get dark. I turn on lights while I’m still eating or finishing off some work from the day, but once I start to wind down I gradually turn out lights to get myself into a sleepy mode.
4. Taking a break during the school day
This one can be really hard for teachers. I was the kind of teacher that was adamant that I would do all of my work at work and not bring it home. I would work all throughout the day, getting there early to get started, working through all of my breaks during the day, then staying late to finish things off. I would come home and collapse from exhaustion. I’ve since realised that actually taking the time to relax a little during the day and then finishing off a few things in the evenings or on the weekends is far better for my health than the day-long sprint that I was doing.
Ok, now I didn’t believe in this one for years. Actually taking the plunge and giving it a shot though (and I mean for a few weeks, not just once or twice) has completely won me over. Start with some guided meditation, but once you have some strategies that work for you, you can meditate almost anywhere. This can really help you decompress, especially if you’ve been having a rough day dealing with students, parents, or any of those little things that teachers have to do.
Remember that it is something that you get better at with practice, and some days you’ll find it easier than others. Getting good at it by practising when you’re already calm and relaxed will build your skill so that you can use it when things get difficult and you really need it.
6. Relationships, hobbies, and fun stuff.
Don’t let work suck up your entire life! Make sure that you prioritise the people in your life that make you happy and can help you decompress after a long week. I always make sure to try and have coffee once a week with my two best friends (one of whom is also a teacher) and we have a good laugh and a walk along the beach for about an hour every weekend.
So many people who work every day also don’t have many hobbies. Video games and movies are great if you love them, but I also find that I need something that I can do with my hands. Knitting and embroidery are my current go-to thing to do in the evenings as I’m watching TV, with the added bonus of forcing me to put down my phone!
7. Get professional help
If you’re finding prioritising your well-being and putting in place a plan difficult, it is worth seeing a professional about it. They will be able to give you some tips and advice, as well as a little perspective on how important these things are. This can be difficult and expensive, but there are lots of ways that you can access these specialists these days. While your friends may be great therapists, don’t underestimate what a professional can do for you.
Making sure that you stay on top of your well-being as a teacher is essential. It is not only important for you as a person but important for you to be able to do your job and support your students. If you’re struggling to find the time or energy to look after yourself as a teacher, remember: looking after yourself is a part of your job.
What do you find helps you keep on top of your own needs as a teacher? Leave a comment below with your tips!