Teacher self-care is a thing. An important thing.
I attended the TESOL Convention earlier this year where I had a conversation with a teacher about the work that I’m doing and the book I wrote about teacher self-care. She had a strange look on her face and said: “teacher self-care is a thing?” I wasn’t surprised when she responded that way because a few years ago, I would have said the same thing.
In 2015, I left classroom teaching after a 20-year career due to professional burn-out. Sadly, self-care was not part of my vocabulary especially during times of excessive stress when I should have been taking care of myself. I had no idea what the signs of burnout were so I’m now on a mission as a teacher self-care crusader and advocate to talk about its importance. I hope that by speaking out, I can help teachers avoid what I went through and sustain their careers.
Why don’t we think teacher self-care is a thing? I believe there are seven reasons and discuss my views below:
Reason 1 — We don’t learn about it
Think back to your teacher training program. Most likely there was no mention of teacher well-being or self-care. The good news is that more pre-service programs such as the University of Manitoba, Cape Breton University and the University of Calgary are addressing this in its programs. This is great news and hopefully a growing trend.
Reason 2 — I feel good
Maybe you feel great at this point in your career and don’t think that taking care of yourself is necessary. I believed this too. According to Skovholt & Trotter-Mathison (2016), “self-care is always important but at times of personal crisis and/or excessive stress, it’s even more important”. Taking care of ourselves now helps us to builds resilience so we are ready for adversity.
Reason 3 — Our role is to care for students
When I was in university, I read work by Nell Noddings, an educator in the U.S. whose work focused on the caring teacher. I decided that would be my approach to teaching and I’m not alone. As part of a research study, students were asked to describe their favourite teaching using a single adjective. The most common answer? Caring. Caring is essential in the work that we do however it must be strongly guarded and we must continually maintain it to avoid depleting our “caring” capability (Skovholt & D’Rozario, 2000).
Reason 4 — School Culture, Leadership and Peers
When I was searching for an image that represents whole school well-being, it was almost impossible to find one that included teachers. Yes, it is our job to care for students and make sure they are well. We know that students learn best when they are well too. Significant research now supports whole school well-being, a model that I feel is best. It’s important to remember that too many teacher well-being programs can lead to additional stress. Also, teachers are often reluctant to engage in well-being initiatives for “fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well” (WellAhead, 2018).
Reason 5 — Who’s Responsible?
Last year, I gave a webinar on teacher self-care. One of the participants typed into the chat box the following:
“Why must the onus be on teachers to do everything? We already do so much now. Telling us that we need to care about our own self-care is just one more responsibility given to us”.
I can hear this teacher’s frustration in her comment but Cherkowski & Walker (2018) argue that “self-care is a personal, interpersonal and organizational responsibility. Ideally, all schools should embrace flourishing but teachers shouldn’t wait”. Teachers — don’t wait!
Reason 6 — No time (self-care smarter, not harder)
We all have a full plate. Finding time to practice self-care is a challenge but I believe that we can carve out time during the day to practice it. It needs to be simple and right for you at this point in your career. There is no “one self-care plan fits all”. Self-care should not be too:
One of the ways that I practiced self-care when I went back to work after an 18-month break included a 40-minute walk every day. I opted out of getting a $400 parking pass at the college and parked on the street. I recently met a teacher who brings her “hobby” to school. She packed her crocheting in her bag and finds time to immerse herself in something she loves.
Reason 7 — The beliefs of a “good teacher”
Have you ever thought about the beliefs that you have about what a “good teacher” looks like? More importantly, have you considered how these beliefs impede or prevent self-care? One of the beliefs that I had as an academic writing teacher was that I had to return writing in the next class. This created a lot of stress especially when I may have received 100 papers during my two Monday classes and frantically marked all day Tuesday to return the papers on Wednesday. No one ever told me I had to do this but I felt that to be a good teacher, I had to get students’ work back them ASAP!
There are many reasons why we may think that teacher self-care is a thing but how do we make it a thing?
· teach it
· practice it
· encourage it
· normalize it
· celebrate it
· do it
· enjoy it
Thanks for reading. Patrice
Cherkowski, S. & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher wellbeing. noticing, nurturing, sustaining and flourishing in schools. Burlington, ON: Word & Deed Publishing.
Skovholt, T.M. & D’Rozario, V. (2000). Portraits of outstanding and inadequate teachers in Singapore: The impact of emotional intelligence. Teaching & Learning, 40(1), 9–17
Skovholt, T. M. & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2016). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals, second edition. (2nd Edition ed.) New York: Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203893326
WellAhead (2018). Research Brief: Promoting the Wellbeing of Teachers and School Staff. https://www.wellahead.ca/resources/2018/6/18/evidence-brief-promoting-the-wellbeing-of-teachers-and-school-staff
Patrice Palmer has more than 23 years’ experience as an ESL teacher, trainer and writer in Canada and spent seven amazing years in Hong Kong. Her experience with professional burn-out in 2015 prompted her to reflect on her lack of self-care and adopt positive psychology interventions which she now shares with other educators and administrators. Patrice’s new book Teacher Self-Care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers by Alphabet Publishing is available at https://amzn.to/2rXcuA4
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