Maybe more than any other profession, teachers derive their sense of identity from their work. Educators experience a deep sense of satisfaction when we see that “Aha!” moment in the eyes of our students.
One of my second graders wrestled with reading fluency. After spring break, she read a passage flawlessly. When she looked up from the page, she smiled and surveyed the classroom as if a curtain had been pulled back and she had witnessed the mysteries of the universe.
No amount of money can purchase sharing in this kind of joy.
Because teaching is more of a calling than a job, teachers often neglect their personal well-being. If you’re going to last in this profession, you have to take care of yourself. In the final installment of this four-part series, I would like to suggest 10 ways new teachers can practice self-care.
1. Take Care of Your Health
You will hear your colleagues encourage you, “Take care of yourself.” But many of us do not listen to our own advice. If you neglect your health, you will not be able to teach. Get enough sleep. It’s easy to become so consumed by your classroom responsibilities that you forget to eat. Stress eating is common, so attend to your nutrition. When you’re sick, call in a sub. (Be sure to have a set of emergency sub plans prepared ahead of time.) Exercise will help you work out the tension you accumulate in the classroom. Listen to your body.
2. Take Care of Your Mental Health
Teaching carries enormous responsibilities, and the constant pressure can trigger intense emotional responses. Anxiety and depression are common among educators. Many districts offer a certain number of free and confidential counseling sessions. Be aware of what you are experiencing, and reach out for help when you need it.
3. Keep a Budget
Educators are underpaid, and you will have classroom expenses. You will buy books, technology, and decorations. You may even get supplies, food, or clothing for your students. You will also have personal expenses. Basics like housing, food, transportation, utilities, clothes, and insurance cost a lot of money. Keep track of what you spend. If your school provides classroom funds, use them. Creating financial problems for yourself will not help you become a better teacher and may drive you out of the profession.
4. Watch Your Time
Teachers work before school, after school, and on the weekends. You can, however, set boundaries and stopping points. Don’t work all evening. I typically forced myself to put everything down at 6:30 PM. Don’t devote your entire weekend to your classroom, and give yourself one day to relax. You may love delving into things at first, but that pace is not sustainable.
5. Nurture Your Life Away from School
What brings you joy? What are your hobbies? Do something fun. Have a spa day. Get a massage. Read, dance, play an instrument. Nurture your inner self. Maintain other interests that have nothing to do with school. Go to the gym, volunteer, participate in your faith community, spend time with your family, knit, hike, or play sports. When you feel refreshed, you will bring renewed enthusiasm to school.
6. Maintain Your Relationships
Your colleagues will become like family. As important as those relationships are, keep connected to your actual family and non-school friends. You love your students and colleagues, but your family matters even more. Don’t sacrifice the people in your life in order to grade a set of tests. Be careful about how much you talk about school with your friends and family. Your relationships matter, and they will help prevent you from suffering burnout.
7. Don’t Feel Guilty
If you have children, you will eventually feel guilty for not being involved in their lives as much as you are in the lives of your students. My wife and I had three children when I began teaching. Once I confided in a colleague that I felt guilty for knowing my own students better than I understood my children. She assured me that this would be the case in any profession and that I probably appreciate my own children better as a teacher than I would otherwise. You have different roles in the lives of your students and your children. Your own kids need you as a parent, not as their classroom teacher.
8. Maintain Healthy Boundaries
You represent the profession, your district, and your school. Pay attention to the differences between personal and professional relationships. You will be profoundly involved in your students’ lives, but you must remember that you are their teacher, not their best friend. Also, be attentive to how you interact with your students’ parents. I always referred to parents by their preferred title — Mrs., Ms., Mr., or Dr. — while I taught their children, even if I knew them outside of the classroom. Think through the ramifications of giving out your personal cell phone number.
9. Watch Your Social Media Presence
Google yourself; some of your students and classroom parents will. Do you want your students, administrators, or colleagues to see those tweets? What are the ethical guidelines your district or union provides for online interaction with students and students’ parents? You certainly cannot post any confidential information about students. Keep your personal and professional accounts separate, and you may want to consider making your personal accounts private.
10. Invest Yourself
Teaching is an emotional profession. You’ll feel joy, grief, wonder, frustration, irritation, and confusion — all on your first day. My students have seen me shed a tear after they’ve read a difficult passage or solved a tough problem. Feel the full range of your emotions, and pay attention to how your emotions affect you in the classroom. Never take out your frustrations on your students. When you feel overwhelmed by the work load, come home and cry. We all do. When you taught that lesson just right, sing and dance. As you teach, you’ll discover the depths of your own humanity.
Teaching is a giving profession. Teachers give of their time, expertise, and resources. Mostly, teachers give themselves.
In order to do that with sustained excellence, you have to take care of your own needs — mind, body, and spirit — just like you would for your students.