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Why Your Self-Care is More Important than Your To-Do List

Most teachers are good at ignoring our own self-care for long stretches of time. 3 hours without peeing? I’ve trained for this. Working through lunch? Please, born to multi-task. Staying up late to grade 100 papers? Part of the lifestyle.

After a while though, we start noticing the deficit. The most obvious? You’re tired. You might get more spacey, more reactive, more emotional, and take more time to do things. Bad habits become harder to fight. Things that don’t seem like a big deal over the summer suddenly are. For many of us, after a while we forget what it feels like to have adequate self-care–or maybe never even knew how it felt.

What is self-care?

Self-care is a term used to describe any act that a person does to give themselves something they need. In other words, it’s taking care of yourself. This includes the basics: eating, drinking, or sleeping, but also other needs, too: me time, social time, hobby time, down time, and doing things you love. Self-care is critical to keeping a healthy mindset and also to staying your best, truest self.

On the flip side, when you do take time to take care of yourself, you feel the opposite. You are actually better able to set goals and stick to them. You can feel more present with your students, friends, and family. You have energy to get through the day and have more creative juices flowing for your lesson plans. You can actually develop a higher self esteem, because when you take care of yourself, you send the message to your body that you matter. And you do.

All of these things sound pretty critical to being an awesome teacher, right? Exactly. So why don’t we just take care of ourselves?

Why do Teachers Deprive Ourselves of Self-Care?

We care:

Let’s be real. We have dozens (and secondary folks, even hundreds) of other human beings dependent on us in our work. That means there is literally no end to how much we could give of ourselves. It can feel like we have no time for ourselves because we care about so many other people’s needs.  The irony though, is if we don’t consciously draw our own boundaries, no one will.  If we don’t, our quality of work goes down and our kids suffer anyway.

I remember being so annoyed with a teacher once who snapped at a student and then turned to me and complained that she had stayed up all night grading papers the night before. Isn’t it the kids that are the whole point, anyway? Getting our perspective out of wack is another symptom of self-care deprivation, and that teacher was clearly suffering from it.

We feel pressure:

The climate in the country is increasingly hostile towards teachers. We know this. NCLB, Race to the Top, and choice schools all follow the same rhetoric that the problem with schools is teacher accountability (like we don’t work hard enough already). We know how ridiculous this is, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pressure with intensive evaluation processes, constant curriculum switches, and standardized assessments. Not only do we feel top-down pressure, but many of us feel peer-pressure. How many of you have a co-worker that makes you feel a tinge guilty with the incredible bulletin boards she makes and stacks of feedback she gives back?  Or have you ever felt a colleague’s comment might be a passive aggressive jab about your work?

We might be chasing away insecurity:

For many of us, workaholism and perfectionism is deep-rooted, and something we learned to use long ago to drive away negative thoughts about ourselves. A couple years ago I read Awakened by Angela Watson, which talks about strategies for teachers to combat their own negative thoughts. I would HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone that might suspect they have more negative than positive thoughts every day.

We were never taught:

Teacher preparation programs teach ways to become better teachers. Most of those ways involve more time spent on teaching. When we go to professional development, we leave with to-do lists and aspirations to do more and do better. Coupled with that, self-care is not a prominent part of our American culture, and many times not something we were taught growing up. Too often it’s only once people are diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or another mental illness that they are able to receive the education and encouragement they need to take care of themselves. I’ve read countless stories of teachers who didn’t pull back until they literally ended up in the hospital. There’s no reason to take it that far.

We don’t know the value, or our administration doesn’t:

If no one taught us the correlation between our workload, our attitude, and our happiness, then we likely don’t know to value it. It could be that we were taught to delay gratification growing up, or that taking time for ourselves was selfish. But the reality is that without it, we cannot keep on giving.  The amount we have to give is finite, no matter how much we or our administration wish it wasn’t.

Why Teachers Need Self-Care, Now More than Ever

We need it for ourselves: Teachers work hard. We deserve to have happiness in our lives and for our families. And in this age of school accountability, we are going to continue to receive more and more pressure to do more with less. Advocating for our own self-care is the only way that we will be able to teach sustainably and to keep our passion alive.  Passion is the lifeblood of teaching, and self-care is the only way to keep it from burning out. There is no other way.

We need it for our kids: Self-care helps you tap into your wise voice. It can help quiet the mind and lift the spirit, which means you’re operating from a more sane, giving place. Isn’t that ironic? When you hold yourself back you’re actually able to give more (and where it matters most). Self-care gives us more patience for the kids that need the most love, and a more creative mind for fantastic lesson plans.

We are fire-hosed with policies, pressure, and criticisms. In these hostile times, our wise selves are our best defense. WE know what our kids need. WE know what is best practice. It is more critical now more than ever that we protect that wisdom in ourselves–so we can be better teachers and last longer.

We need it for the system: You’ve seen the reports of the rate of teachers leaving the profession after 5 years. I, myself, have seen really, really good teachers leave schools because the pressure was too much and they were too unhappy. In order for the American education system to survive, we need an arsenal of teachers encouraging each other to be unashamed about taking care of themselves, and who know how to do it. We need administration that respects teachers’ limits. We need to know our own limits, and know how to advocate for them.

Teachers, what resonated with you?

What holds you back from giving yourself the self-care you deserve?

Want some more reading?

Think of your energy as a bank account. It's finite, and you can spend or replenish energy every day. If you added up your energy debit and income for the week, what would you get? How could you work to increase your income and decrease your debt each month to lead a happier, healthier, and more productive teacher life?Here’s a post with concrete, step-by-step ideas for changing your mindset about work and prioritizing taking care of yourself.  For you, for your kids, and for the profession itself.








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