The teaching profession is recognized repetitively as one of the most stressful and most demanding professions that exist. And why shouldn’t it be when teaching is the profession that creates all other professions. In my opinion, being a teacher is the most important and most valuable profession in the World. We grow brains, and care for and nurture humans. More than any profession we make a profound influence on the type of World we live in. That is also why the teaching profession attracts the most kind, empathetic, compassionate, and loving people on the planet.
What we know about kind, empathetic, compassionate, and loving people is that it is hard for them to say “no” to things they care about. For that reason, they have a tendency to meet the needs of everyone else before meeting their own needs. Sometimes educators don’t realize they need to take care of themselves until it is too late and they are already experiencing physical or emotional symptoms of stress. That is why maintaining self-care regularly becomes especially important in our profession.
My husband is a paramedic/firefighter first responder and to be a better support for him, I attended a class on post-traumatic stress. What shocked me was that I learned way more about myself through the class. I was a principal at the time and dealing with a lot of very emotionally charged situations. Through the class I learned about empathic distress which is like secondary post-traumatic stress. Empathic distress is being exposed repeatedly to the trauma of others. It has profound impact on those of us that experience it. If you are a teacher, take some time to read this very valuable article from Edutopia that validates what you are going through When Teachers Experience Empathetic Distress.
A meta-analysis out of the University of Zurich provides a basis for why this happens. It turns out that brain imaging shows similar activation patterns in the brain for the person experiencing the pain and the person who is empathizing with the person experiencing the pain. Your brain is in some ways experiences the same pain, which builds up and causes stress.
There are a lot of resources out there for teachers to turn to for advice on how to practice self-care. There are twitter feeds and Facebook pages galore. Many offer some great advice. One I recently became a follower of is Self-Care for Educators. Many tips include prioritizing, eliminating, saying no, and making choices to save time and make your work place more efficient. For this reason, self-care is a personal journey for each of us. The only person that can make those difficult choices is you. Check out Angela Watson’s advise for saving time in your day at this Cult of Pedagogy Blog Post 5 Powerful Ways to Save Time As a Teacher. She offers some great advice surrounding prioritizing, scheduling, and eliminating.
3 Self-Care Non-Negotiables
There are 3 things I recommend moving to the top of the list when it comes to practicing self-care. When things get busy and your task-list is full, these are the 3 non-negotiables that should not be sacrificed. They are Exercise, Sleep, and Self-awareness.
Make exercise a priority for your physical, emotional, & mental health. There is loads of research out there that support the impact on cardiovascular exercise and brain function. If you are feeling busy and time constrained, don’t sacrifice your daily exercise routine. Even if it is for just 10 minutes it can make a huge impact on your brain function and help regulate your mood. Exercise releases hormones such as endorphins which enhance your mood, and it decreases cortisol which causes stress and anxiety. In addition, it produces brain-derived neurotrophic factors (hormones) which aid in neuroplasticity and help grow your brain by making new neural connections. If you want to learn more about it dig into this great read by John Ratey called Spark, or if your short on time, take a peak at this Scientific American article. Make it a priority to add at least 10 minutes of walking, running, biking, swimming, dancing, aerobics, jump-roping, etc to your daily routine.
Putting sleep as a priority is so important and most teachers are not getting the sleep they need. Sleep is important for brain function. If you missed my podcast with Dr. Ivy Andersen, Sleep Neurologist at the Colorado Sleep Institute, check it out below. Dr. Anderson discusses why sleep is so important for brain function. During sleep the brain cleans out waste products which is important for memory recall and processing information. If sleep deprivation continues it can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, chronic memory loss, and other disorders. The average adult needs 8 hours of sleep. Are you getting 8 hours? If not, stop what you are doing and go to bed. Nothing is more important than your own brain function.
Check in with yourself throughout the day. You will be more able to respond positively to someone experiencing pain without changing your own emotional state if you take time for yourself. Find a space alone. Take a deep breath and check in with yourself about how you are really feeling. Raise your level of awareness about yourself and put yourself first. All day long teacher put everyone else’s needs before their own. Find times in your day to put yourself first and check in with yourself about how you are feeling and what you need now. Take care of your needs first before you attend to compassion for others.
In Episode 71 of Cult of Pedagogy Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Angela Watson who runs a 40 hour work week teacher club to help teachers work less and practice more self-care. She suggests finding something that can become part of your regular routine that you can maintain permanently (not going to the spa once a year) that will have a positive effect on your daily routine. That could include a daily ritual such as journaling, reading, exercising, listening to music or a podcast, mindfulness practice, meditating, etc. The list could be endless.
She also talks about pairing a new self-care routine with an already established routine. I recently had success with this. Two things I was not doing for my own well-being was drinking enough water and taking my daily vitamin. One thing I never forget is drinking my coffee in the morning, so two weeks ago after listening to her podcast I began putting an empty glass holding my vitamin container in front of my coffee machine. This reminds me to drink a whole glass of water with my daily vitamin. When I’m done I put the glass with vitamin container back in the same place. I can proudly say I have taken my vitamin for 14 straight days at this point. Try pairing a reminder for yourself with a daily routine you have already established.