Making Space for Self-Care This Year

This blog was originally published on Teaching Channel’s blog Teacher’s Voice. It was been republished here with permission.

It was 1 am on a school night, and I was still grading student essays. I’d skipped doing any exercise that day, and my back was creaking from hunched-over work. Suddenly, I flashed back to the lecture I’d ended class with that same day. “7th graders,” I’d declared to my pupils lovingly, “please make sure you’re taking care of yourselves. Get quality time with loved ones, exercise, healthy food, and enough sleep. We don’t want you to burn out or get sick! Health and wellbeing are the most important thing — now and always.”

What a hypocrite I was, urging students to practice self-kindness, yet neglecting my own! “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work, and it was likely that my students discarded my advice the moment they saw it juxtaposed with the circles under my eyes. 

Unfortunately, this practice of teachers — and most helping professions — exhausting ourselves to meet our job’s needs before their own is widespread, and has negative impacts for everyone involved. The good news is that this problem is solvable.

If this year taught us anything, it’s that the foundation of learning lies in our bodies as a whole. Our brains cannot absorb knowledge well if our physical beings aren’t healthy.  Indeed, there is a correlation between increased physical activity and boosted test scores (ex: this study and this book) — but test scores aside, welcoming wellness into all classrooms must come first for kids and adults alike. So how can we bring health into our classrooms — and our lives?

Step one is making space for self-care on the smaller scale of our classrooms and homes. Let us model for students how to spend time supporting our bodies and souls. 

Classroom examples of prioritizing wellbeing include: 

  • Starting class with three deep breaths and/or a stretch. (These take less than a minute).
  • Giving short movement breaks throughout the day.
  • Checking with students to adjust workload to balance instruction with overload.  
  • Honestly assessing when you can take a “less can be more” approach to the curriculum, so rush is replaced with quality and depth. School is important just as much for teaching habits of mind as for “coverage” of textbook pages — if not more.
  • Assigning research papers that help students understand what’s biologically going on with their bodies, for example, during a lack of sleep.
  • Authentically sharing ways you are doing self-care as a teacher and human, to model.

Self-care examples for teachers in our home lives span a wide array of options, including:

  • Prioritizing exercise — even a short amount every day — be it a walk outside while chatting with friends, an online fitness program, or a fancy new exercise gadget. The investment of time and money towards your physical health is never a waste!
  • Adding short meditations into your routine (see a guide to how to start meditating here).
  • Noting the correlation between the food and drink you put into your body, and how it makes you feel, and adjusting accordingly.
  • Connecting with people who can provide the encouragement and solidarity to live your health and wellness goals.
  • Considering mental health support such as therapy. We all can benefit from professional coaching, and often insurance covers most of the cost.
  • Really diving deeply into the question: What’s stopping you from treating yourself with the love and care you deserve, and how can that be transformed?

Step two is structural. You may have looked at the list above and scoffed, “This is impossible with my current student load, and our daily schedule. Now is the time for us as teachers to advocate for the larger structural changes which can bring life-changing benefits for students and teachers alike, without sacrificing instructional quality. These changes include:

  • Later school start times, and block scheduling which allow students to have more time in each class, and less rush from period to period.
  • Semesterizing, where students take fewer classes at a deeper level, giving teachers more manageable student loads, and offering students the opportunity to focus on quality versus rushing exhaustion.
  • Physical education, creativity and arts, outdoor time, and clubs integrated into the school day, and given equal honor as core subjects, given the science of how much brain learning is tied to physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Renovating building structures to improve air quality, water access, and bathrooms. Basic human functions are necessary for comfort and learning!
  • Anti-racist curriculum and actions, such as combatting school segregation, given the harmful effects on BIPOC bodies oppression has been documented to incur.
  • Adequate mental and physical health support staff in each school building.
  • Flexible staffing structures such as job sharing, sabbaticals, and educational travel to foster professional growth and combat teacher burnout. 

While these may seem like impossible fantasies, there’s been no better time than our context now to drastically alter how we “do school.” For far too many students and teachers, the status quo of our educational system has been toxic, and in some cases, deadly. Solutions exist, and we can be part of the change to prioritize health for all of us!

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