“An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.” ~Anonymous
In my last blog post, The Great Malaise: Educators and the Pandemic, It’s Worse Than You Think, I outlined the unprecedented challenges teachers face, exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Things have become so dire that in an attempt to stave off a possible Great Resignation seen in other occupations, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent out a letter to schools across the nation urging them to use federal COVID relief money to entice teachers to stay in the classroom. Whether this measure is too little too late remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that teachers are suffering. A survey conducted by Edweek last July revealed that Ninety-one percent of teachers polled said that they experience job-related stress sometimes, frequently, or always. As a result, teachers reported having a more challenging time sleeping, less enjoying time with their family and friends, and failing health. Research has shown that when teachers experience high levels of stress, they cannot deliver the high-quality instruction our students so desperately need. Unfortunately, many educators are already at their breaking point. And unfortunately, things could get worse.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation with unprecedented speed, leading the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to warn that it could overrun its healthcare infrastructure by January. While it is impossible to know how Omicron will impact schools, it is clear that it is another source of stress and uncertainty in an already long list of difficulties. Now more than ever, as teachers are dealing with Coronavirus burnout and pandemic fatigue, they must take deliberate steps to ensure their emotional, social, physical, and spiritual needs are met. As policy researcher, practicing school psychologist, and Nevada State Board of Education member Dr. Katherine Dockweiler points out, “due to the constant state of uncertainty teachers find themselves it is no longer about teacher ‘self-care’ but about ‘survival care.’ In this uncertain time, educators must make self-care a priority. After all, teachers will not be able to take care of their students, families, friends, and loved ones if their own needs are not met first. It is the classic airline instruction to put your mask on first before assisting others. To help educators in this challenging moment, I propose the four Ms of teacher self-care. They are many thanks, me time, move, and manage expectations. To be sure, this is not an exhaustive list of all possible self-care measures, and there may be others that are more beneficial to you. But I wanted to create a list that is both manageable and impactful.
1. Many Thanks
The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia and means grace and graciousness. In
common usage, gratitude means thankfulness and appreciation for the good things we receive in our lives, both physical and ethereal. When we express gratitude, we are giving many thanks for our blessings. The source of the blessings may be a higher power, nature, other people, or a combination of all three depending on your belief system. However, gratitude is an essential aspect of religious faith. It permeates all major religions' writings, teachings, and traditions. In addition to helping us make spiritual connections, giving many thanks is associated with various positive health outcomes, such as an overall positive mental outlook. According to Harvard University Medical School, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Further, Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic points out that gratitude can improve physical health. For example, giving many thanks daily improves sleep, boosts immunity, and decreases disease risk.
Giving many thanks should be a part of every teacher’s self-care regimen. It can be accomplished by focusing on 2-3 things you are grateful for each day. Research indicates that being thankful for even the minor or seemingly insignificant things in our lives can go a long way in boosting positive mental and physical health outcomes. Some strategies to give daily thanks include setting aside quiet time every morning to reflect, keeping a gratitude journal, telling someone through a written note or email how grateful you are for them, and trying to see the positives in a negative situation no matter how challenging that may be. However, it is important to remember that negative emotions are perfectly normal, especially in the current situation. Therefore, we must allow ourselves grace and not hide from uncomfortable feelings.
2. Me Time
The one resource teachers can never have enough of is time. Even before the Pandemic, finding time in the day to accomplish everything that needed to get done was elusive, and COVID has only made it worse. Despite this fact, teachers must carve out “me time” during their day to recharge, destress, focus on their priorities, and to find a little joy in the day. Finding time is easier said than done, but as little as 10-30 minutes a day can make a difference. Of course, me-time will look different for everybody as we all have unique needs. Still, me-time might include time for giving many thanks, relaxing to music, taking a walk, meditation, talking with a close friend or family member, exercise, yoga, meditation, or other relaxation technique. There are several things teachers can do to carve out me time in the day. For example, try getting up a little earlier each day (I know this is a tough one!), asking family members to help with household chores, reducing unnecessary screen time to include scrolling through social media, watching videos, and playing video games. Be intentional and schedule guilt-free me-time into your day, and don’t allow other tasks to abscond with your time.
According to Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to do is Healthy and Rewarding, not wanting to exercise is not your fault. This is because calories were hard to come by for much of human history, and conserving energy was necessary for survival. As a result, human beings have evolved to avoid expending calories on extraneous movement and activities. Fortunately, many no longer struggle to get enough calories. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a study conducted by Business Insider in 2017, the average American consumed more than 3,600 calories a day, up 24% from 1961, when the average person consumed just 2,880 calories. Of course, much of the food we eat today consists of calorie-dense processed food that contains large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fatty acids, and salt. As a result, exercise is necessary to keep our bodies healthy because it is directly linked to a whole host of positive physical and mental health outcomes, despite our evolutionary desire not to do it. Benefits include decreased inflammation and blood pressure, lower rates of cancer and heart disease, and slowing down the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Regular exercise can also decrease blood sugar by making the body more insulin sensitive. This is good news for people trying to prevent or manage type 2 diabetes.
Further, regular exercise can help improve mental outlook and may be as effective as antidepressants for the one in ten adults in the United States who struggle with depression. The Center for Disease Control advises that we do 150 minutes of exercise a week consisting of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or “cardio” and muscle-strengthening activities such as weight training two or more days a week. Of course, the best exercise plan is the one you stick with; the key is to find an activity you enjoy and make it a part of your lifestyle. Studies have shown that even a five-minute “productivity break” is better than no exercise. Experts suggest that during thirty minutes of seated work, that we stand for at least eight minutes and move around for two minutes. It may be helpful to set a phone or smartwatch reminder to help you get in the habit of standing up, walking around, stretching, and deep breathing throughout your day. As a bonus, a recent study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that people who engage in routine exercise and get infected with COVID-19 experience milder symptoms and less severe illness.
4. Manage Expectations
Your worth as a teacher is not correlated to how many activities you are involved in. Be strategic about how you allocate your time professionally and personally by investing in things that will have the most impact. The Pareto Principle, named after the economist Vilfredo Pareto, points out an inverse relationship between input and output. Sometimes referred to as the 20-80 rule, the Pareto Principle states that about 80 percent of all consequences or results come from 20 percent of all causes or inputs. In other words, the best use of your time is to focus on the 20 percent of things that will have the most impact. There is a difference between being busy and being purposeful. It is vital that educators can see the difference and begin to cast off activities that will not yield significant outcomes. One way to do this is to brainstorm all activities that compete for your attention. Write down the activities in no particular order of importance. Now create a three-column chart and label the columns most impact, some impact, and low impact. Populate the chart with the activities from your brainstorm. Now examine how many things you are involved in that are in the low impact column. Reflecting on the some to low impact activities, are there things you can cut back on or eliminate?
Over the last two years of the COVID-19 Pandemic, teachers have faced unprecedented challenges that have resulted in anxiety and frustration over an uncertain future. Yet, despite these trials, teachers continue to work tirelessly, putting students first, many at the expense of their wellbeing. To be there for our students, families, friends, and loved ones, we must practice self-care by minding the four Ms of self-care, many thanks, me time, move, and manage expectations. Best of luck, and here is to a healthy and prosperous 2022!