As a therapist in private practice, when I suggest self-care to my clients, they protest and balk. Who has time for self-care? Self-care feels so indulgent and time-consuming. Often, people do not know what they would do to better care for themselves, and the notion feels mysterious and overwhelming. It can also feel tricky to shift from a mindset of “other-focus” to “self-focus.” Yet self-care is not selfish; it is absolutely essential.
You are not saying “me first,” you are saying “me too.” Above all, when you help yourself, you can more effectively help others.
What are some concrete ways that educators can engage in self-care?
1. Know Your Limits
In order to avoid burnout, you may need to become comfortably familiar with setting firm boundaries. Do not stay late if it can be avoided, and do not take on any new obligations that you do not have to. Remind your students that you are a person. This can be done while maintaining professionalism. (Let your students know, for example, that they may not contact you after 7pm!) Try not to bring work home with you. Avoid perfectionism – become friends with “good enough.” The goal here is to do what is required of you and to limit anything extra (and this means not picking up tasks that others are neglecting to do, even if tempting – instead gently remind other people that this is not your job.)
2. Set Realistic Expectations for Yourself
Setting small, achievable goals is paramount. Use your best organizational skills to stay on top of what needs to be done. Create a schedule for yourself, break down your work into smaller, bite-sized pieces, and stagger out when you are going to get each task done. Ask for help: Don’t be a hero! Do not “white knuckle” through anything difficult alone. Rely on administrators, staff and co-teachers. Use communication skills to seek support. Let go of control. You cannot be everything to everyone, and trying to do it all or all at once may be counterproductive.
3. Consider Subtraction
Often, when we think of self-care, we think we should ADD something pleasurable to our lives, like a massage or dinner with a friend. However, these types of things are time consuming and sometimes expensive, which is counterintuitive to the goal of self-care. Instead of thinking what you can add, think of what you can give away. Delegation is key; can you ask a colleague to do something for you on a tough day? A lot of working in schools involves collaboration – with students, other teachers, administrators and parents. Educators should step back and think – “how can I get other people to do or share X task?” Delegate even if you think the people you are delegating to may not do tasks as quickly or as well as you would.
4. Avoid Negative Self-Talk
Cut yourself some slack! Be less hard on yourself. Let go of guilt. You are doing the very best that you can. Exercise self-compassion: talk to yourself in a soothing tone. Recognize and celebrate your strengths. Mistakes are unavoidable and are the best learning experiences. Be a role model for good mental health. If you are a school administrator who feels everyone is upset with you (a common experience for administrators), remind yourself that you cannot be liked by everyone and you sometimes have to do things for a larger goal. If you are a teacher dealing with frustrated students or parents, tell yourself the same thing. Education is not a popularity contest (even if it feels like one). It will blow over!
5. Take Care of Your Body and Pace Yourself
Exercise (if you have time), eat well (if you can) and above all, get enough sleep. Have a solid bedtime routine and a peaceful morning routine. (A bonus of a morning routine – having enough time to get ready for the day without being rushed. It may be “worth it” to get to your classroom early so you can have a moment before the “chaos” ensues). Take small breaks during the day. Take a breathing break; a few deep breaths can quiet your nervous system instantly.
6. Identify and Pursue an Outlet
This is an instance where some addition is okay. If it is something that you can make time for that improves your mental health and sense of wellbeing, it is worth it! Schedule time to intentionally unplug, whether it be a hobby, yoga or meditation, affordable retail therapy, binge watching TV (as long as you go to bed on time!) Dr. Allison Applebaum, a psychologist who specializes in caregiver burden, says it’s ideal if you can slip in one self-care activity every day or at minimum, on stressful days. Pick something you like and do it as often as possible. It can be as small and simple as listening to music, spending time with a pet, or having a soothing cup of tea. Remember, caring for someone else starts with taking care of YOU.
7. Express Your feelings
Your feelings of fatigue, frustration, anger, hopelessness, sadness and irritation are valid. Keeping feelings inside and unacknowledged is not healthy. Venting, on the other hand, is incredibly cathartic. You can let out your feelings via talking to others (friends, family, colleagues, therapists) or writing. Often, when you share what is going on with you, you will not only feel a major sense of relief, you will discover that others feel the same way. Remind yourself that it is okay to feel frustrated; caregiving is hard!
8. Focus On What You Can Control
Teachers and administrators can get caught up in how they are preparing students for “the future” yet we can’t control or predict the future. Further, there are some scenarios (such as a student who is unwilling to engage) that are legitimately tricky. Here it is important to distinguish between what you can and cannot control. If you can’t do anything about it, give yourself permission to let it go. Shift your attention to what you CAN do. Engage in problem solving (i.e. can the guidance counselor be enlisted?) Pull out your best tricks.
9. Seek Support
Lean on colleagues, family and friends for support. Consider therapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapy in general is a useful tool for developing coping skills and CBT can be particularly helpful, as it specifically focuses on ways to reduce negative thinking, worrying and how to manage stress.
10. Make Meaning
Remind yourself of your meaningful contribution. You may feel occasionally ignored, invisible, or disrespected, but you ARE making a difference. While this may sound cliche, looking at the bigger picture may be instrumental; it will give you perspective and remind you what you are working so hard for.
Educators are superheroes and the ultimate caregivers. They are behind the scenes, but they have feelings too. Caregivers cannot be successful without first taking care of themselves!
Burnout is not inevitable – it is the result of not listening to our bodies when we receive exhaustion signals for too long. Consider your needs. Your students will thank you!
For more on teacher burnout, read The Tired Teacher: Addressing Burnout in a Caregiving Profession