When Do We Start Valuing Teacher Wellbeing?
By Rebekah Stone Guill, Niroga Education Program Manager
As I reflect on my time spent teaching, I often wonder how the millions of teachers in the classroom today do it. There are a long list of reasons why teachers leave the classroom, but many do stick around. I stuck around for 5 years in what I consider one of the most stressful jobs of my life, doing my best to handle it all.
I could handle the 11+ hour work days, and dinner to-go from my favorite Italian spot. I could handle the hours of grading and feedback, and got better at incorporating fancy technology to make the process more efficient. I could handle the melt-downs on the way home from school after listening to a student explain how her brother was sent to prison the day before.
The signs of burnout start to creep in
Unfortunately, though, “handling” it all took its toll. My weight dwindled as I skipped lunch to tutor failing kids. My diet tanked as I replaced fruits and vegetables with microwavable sandwiches. I stayed up late to readjust my lesson plans for the next day and drank down a triple latte in the morning to fuel my lack of sleep. And then came the heart problems - palpitations and dizzy spells – ruled out as nothing more than “stress” by an echo and heart monitor.
If it matters, I was a relatively healthy person in general. I went to the gym and did yoga, cycled for a while, and had a pretty strong understanding of what a healthy lifestyle and eating habits looked like. But these healthy habits fell to the side in my early years of teaching.
When do we start valuing teacher wellbeing?
The reality was, on top of the mental stress of being a content expert, constantly adjusting methodology and systems, and endless paperwork, copies, grading, and more copies, I was emotionally exhausted. Almost daily there was another crisis to manage. Many times the crisis was related to stressors that occurred outside of the classroom. Students were dealing with arrests, absent parents, lack of housing and lack of funds to buy books.
So why stick around? Teachers teach because we love what we do. We believe in the power of education. I believe in the power of education to create a more just society by creating opportunity and choice. This belief often lended itself to putting in hours after the last school bell rang and even on the weekends. No one tells teachers to do this, but teachers do this because they want to build strong classrooms and to be great teachers.
So here is the question for the education reform movement… when do we start valuing teacher wellbeing? For other professionals, there are consulting offices with kitchens full of fresh fruit, bottles of water and juice, and lunches catered every Friday. There are desks with treadmills to encourage physical health. There are even meditation rooms. If these things can be provided for business professionals, why are we not providing tools for healthy living and self care for the people on the front lines of educating and raising children
When will we recognize that mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy teachers are the best teachers, and when will we put systems in place to nurture such health?
When will Professional Development become less about adding things to our plate, and more about helping us de-stress, manage our demands, and clear our heads? In other professions, a bad day is hard. In teaching, a bad day is hard for 115+ kids that walk into our classroom. To ensure that our students have the best teachers, we have to provide teachers with the tools necessary to handle the emotional toll of parenting hundreds of kids, the mental exhaustion of planning, grading, innovating, and learning daily, and the physical toll our schedules create.
There is ample research showing that simple practices can help reduce stress and increase productivity. For me, it was a combination of practices in and outside my classroom that helped me regain my physical, mental, and emotional health. A few of the practices I committed to included:
A regular exercise routine, no matter what. There was often a long list of to-dos, but physical exercise (even just 15 minutes of yoga at home) came first.
Taking two minutes between classes to do a forward fold at my desk chair, taking long deep breaths.
Using 10 minutes of my lunch break to turn off the lights in my classroom, lock the door, and meditate.
When I started practicing the routines above, I found that I was able to get work done more efficiently and I felt less drained. I also found that classroom management in my room fell into place easier, as I was less likely to lose my cool. Lastly, and most importantly, I found that my students were interested in what I was up to, and I was able to share what worked for me with them. I taught them elongated breathing strategies before we started a test to calm their nerves, we practiced balancing yoga poses using our gaze to increase focus, and their favorite of all, body scan meditations that put them in a deep state of relaxation during finals week.While I eventually left the classroom to pursue a role in curriculum writing and instructional coaching, I am grateful that I found yoga and mindfulness to get my health and wellness back on track. For me, it is no coincidence that as I prioritize my own self-care, my ability to serve children and teachers expands.