It’s Time We Had a Talk About Self-Care

Anne started her teaching career in a position funded through Teach for America. Her students experienced some of the highest poverty levels in the country. Chronic HVAC issues led to frequent school closures and administrative inefficiencies left teachers struggling to make up for lost time. “I would find myself thinking about my students at 9:00 at night, and I always had grading and lesson planning to do on the weekends.” Anne spent so much time working that she barely found time to do anything relaxing or fun. No matter how exhausted, she always felt the need to give more.

For the two years she taught in the program, Anne was on her feet 10 hours a day, including the half-hour lunch that she ate standing up while supervising students in the cafeteria. Many nights after work, she would go home and go straight to bed. “The sheer effort of making one more decision about what burrito to microwave was just too much for me most days,” she said. The psychological effort soon became overwhelming.

When Anne finally opened up to another teacher, she was told that she was making things harder for herself because she cared too much. But the caring was why she had become a teacher in the first place, and settling for less than she knew she was capable of giving was not in her DNA. “There’s an expectation that as a teacher, you are also a therapist, after school caretaker, college counselor, and more,” says Anne. “It was very confusing, figuring out the kind of compromises you need to make to get through the day and cope for the long run.”

After two years of giving it her all, Anne left the teaching profession altogether. While she cites her introverted personality as a key factor, she acknowledges that the bureaucratic red tape and additional hats that society often expects teachers to wear didn’t make things any easier. “I loved being part of the school community and I loved going to work never doubting that what I did was important,” says Anne, “but in the end, I think I just wasn’t made to be a teacher.”

She is not alone.

Teachers Are Leaving the Profession in Record Numbers

According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 44% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. The reasons range from lack of autonomy and low pay to behavioral problems within the classroom and constantly shifting standards for evaluating teacher and student success. There’s also the suffocating amount of paperwork and extra time teachers are expected to dedicate outside the classroom to serve on committees, coach student teachers, and the like.

“In tech,” says Dawn Casey-Rowe, a former teacher who now writes on the topics of education, sustainability, and practical living, “people get paid for freelancing, consulting, or building great things. In education, teachers are expected to ‘jump in,’ ‘help,’ or ‘join.’”

With less than one-third of K-12 educators leaving the occupation due to retirement, it’s no wonder that half of the nation’s schools are struggling to find and keep quality teachers.

“What we’re calling a teacher shortage is actually an exodus,” says Casey-Rowe. If we’re going to fix it, we need to have a long, hard conversation about self-care – what teachers can do to sustain it and what schools can do to support it.

Nurturing the Nurturers

“Most educators are nurturers,” says Adam Saenz, a psychologist and bestselling author of The Power of a Teacher. “The downside of being a nurturer, though, is that the nurturer will often sacrifice their own well-being for the benefit of others.”

While incredibly noble, the dynamic isn’t always sustainable. In his work facilitating workshops in stress management and teacher well-being, Saenz often reminds educators that “one of the most loving things we can do for people depending on us is to offer them the best version of ourselves. And the way we do that is by loving ourselves well enough to practice disciplined self-care.”

Saenz advocates a holistic approach to self-care—in essence, asking yourself, “What does it look like to be a good steward of my occupation, my emotions, my finances, my body, and my soul?” While there are any number of tactics that can be used to support life balance and well-being, the important thing to remember is that there is no one way to take care of yourself. For someone, self-care might look like taking time to exercise and plan nutritious meals. For another, it might mean tapping into resources for living on a tight budget or learning to be more efficient with their time. For another, it might involve asking more experienced teachers how they organize themselves and manage to leave work at work.

At the end of the day, self-care is really about knowing your limits and figuring out what you need to be at your best.

Three Critical Questions

Andrea Rosario, who directs It’s Time Texas’ free health coaching program, Living Healthier, suggests a curiosity-based approach to self-care. A certified health education specialist with years of experience helping individuals change their lifestyles and take control of their health, she encourages educators to ask themselves three critical questions:

  1. What do boundaries look like with your students, peers, and administration?
  2. What brings you joy?
  3. Who is in your community supporting your self-care?

For teachers who are used to making so many decisions on their own, this last question might be the most critical. While asking for help can feel vulnerable, seeking support when it’s needed can put us in a much better position to help others in the long run.

In the absence of a formal mentoring or support system within your school, help could mean soliciting advice from more seasoned educators or talking to friends who can offer perspective outside the field. It could look like posting a notice in the break room asking for guidance on topics or processes you’re uncertain about. Or, it might take the form of talking to a professional about ways to weave healthy balance back into your life—especially when it feels most impossible to do so.

It’s Time Texas’ coaching hotline is a free to any Texan looking to make a healthy change. Apart from offering guidance on how to support physical health and well-being, coaches work with callers to identify self-care practices they can build into their daily routines—no matter how busy life gets. Often, callers already know what to do. What they need is the encouragement and accountability to do it. Health coaching provides the one-on-one support that so often makes the difference between floundering or sticking to our goals.

Ask anyone and we bet they can name at least one teacher who has had a profound impact on their life—a mentor who sparked their love of learning or helped them unleash the potential they didn’t think they had. For the essential role teachers play in life’s most important journey, it’s critical that they be able to care for themselves with the same level of dedication that they bring to the job.

A version of this article first appeared in ATPE News Magazine.