August 24, 2020
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3 ways educators can prioritize their mental health this year

For teachers, practicing self-care is essential. Here are tips for educators—and the rest of us—to find balance.

For teachers, and others in stressful careers, finding mental balance is the key to succeeding and thriving. Image via Jeremy Thomas/Unsplash

Teaching is a balancing act. Teachers are tasked with trying to stay innovative and in the know, adhering to best practices and high standards, and advocating for equity and opportunity in order to ensure positive outcomes for students in the face of an ever-changing landscape. Educators are no strangers to the emotional labor required when you genuinely care about kids and want to eliminate any barriers to their success and well-being.

It’s common to forget under the circumstances of “business as usual” that one of the most powerful things we can do for our students is care for ourselves. In these uncertain times, however, teacher self-care is a critical act of courage and selflessness that we can’t afford to neglect. As an educator, making your social-emotional health a priority allows you to show up for your students in the classroom and in the community the way both they and you deserve.

As we continue to navigate a rapidly changing situation and prepare to return to the classroom in some capacity, here are three ways you can prioritize your social-emotional health:

1. Make Joy a Daily Habit

Wellness is a never-ending journey and in this case the best way to travel is one small, manageable step at a time. When life gets busy or even chaotic, it’s easy to neglect the things that bring you a sense of joy and confidence; however, prioritizing activities that boost your mood and energy will help keep your stress levels down and allow you to face what life throws at you.

Have you noticed that the things you do have an effect on your mood?

When feeling low, we often wait to feel better before taking action; but emotion follows action. Taking action, even in tiny amounts, keeps you from avoiding/isolating and provides the momentum you need to start an upward spiral.

Inactivity when feeling low can create a vicious cycle; however, this doesn’t mean that intentional rest isn’t important. Intentional rest is a vital act of self-care. The aim is to do more of what makes you feel good and less of what doesn’t. Engaging in joyful, leisure, or self-care activities just for the sake of the activity itself can be very restorative. Additionally, mastery activities or those that allow you to build new skills and feel good about yourself help to boost your confidence and overall sense of well-being.

Helpful Tips:

  • 1. Begin by making a list of activities, big and small, that bring you joy and good feelings about your abilities. Then make another list with activities that bring you down and zap your energy.
  • 2. Aim to do more of the activities from your joy list and minimize the activities that lower your mood.
  • 3. If your joy/mastery list is a little sparse, don’t be afraid to try new things and set new goals. What new hobby have you been putting off? What new skill would you value learning?
  • 4. Make it manageable. Break down your activities into the smallest steps or time increments you can realistically commit to and watch yourself build momentum.
  • 5. Your students aren’t the only ones that benefit from a good routine, so schedule your activities into your calendar and set reminders to keep you on track.
  • 6. Align your activities with your life goals and values. Do you want to live a healthier lifestyle? Try adding one home cooked meal to your weekly regimen or five minutes of stretching in the morning before the day gets away from you. Value being a thoughtful friend? Aim to check in with a few members of your friend group a week.
  • 7. It’s important to have a balance between mastery and joy, as you can feel really good about your ability to achieve without feeling good about the act of simply being.
  • 8. Continue to track your mood and energy in relationship to different activities in order to add to your lists.
  • 9. Celebrate the small wins as you make joy a daily thing.

2. Manage Your Mind (aka Your Thoughts and Emotions)

Common reactions to uncertainty and rapid change are anxiety and resistance. In addition, as a helping professional restricted from working in your full capacity, you may be feeling a sense of guilt as you wonder what more you “could” or “should” be doing to help your students and community. It also may be difficult to feel confident when so many things feel out of your control. While you can’t control many of the circumstances that come your way, you can decide how you will cope with these circumstances to maintain peace of mind.

Helpful Tips:

  • 1. Find balance between staying informed and cultivating a safe inner space. Establish acceptable boundaries for yourself around social media and the news.
  • 2. When you find yourself in your head with worry, try these strategies. Get it down on paper (or a white board, a note app, etc.); problem solve around the factors within your control; and brainstorm how you might accept or manage those things outside of your control. Often, the anticipation of not being able to cope with particular circumstances or outcomes when the time comes is the driving force of worry and anxiety. Remember that you are much stronger than you think and there is always a way forward.
  • 3. When uncomfortable emotions come up, sit with them for a period of time, even if just for five minutes. As humans, we need to experience the full range of emotion as they give us important information about ourselves and our interactions with the world. No one emotion is inherently bad, no matter how uncomfortable. Pushing emotions down every time they come up only makes them less manageable over time. Instead, notice the sensations of your emotion. How does it feel in your body? What do you feel the urge to do in response to that sensation? Sometimes simply allowing the emotion will cause it to dissipate and provide space for you to think clearly. Other times, after allowing the discomfort of an emotion, you may want to actively shift to another emotional state. In this case, remind yourself of the feelings you enjoy by creating a mental list with the stem: “I love the feeling I get when…” This will allow you to shift emotional states without relying on suppression or overly positive statements that you don’t actually believe.
  • 4. Evaluate your self-talk. Release “shoulds” and “musts” to reduce unnecessary guilt and debilitating pressure. There is no time tested rule book for anything many of us are experiencing or will experience in the coming months. Furthermore, there is no one way to show up in the world or the classroom, so give yourself some grace. Work on cultivating more faith in yourself that you will rise to the occasion without the self-criticism. Think about how you motivate your students. Treat yourself with the same empathy and affirmation that gets your students performing at their best and feeling confident. Then go out (or stay in) and show up in the way that resonates most with you and your values.

3. Seek Support

Although we are practicing varying levels of social distancing, don’t forget to find ways to reach out when you need to celebrate a win (big or small), vent about your frustrations, problem solve, or just hear someone say “I understand.” While you may have made it a point to check in with your loved ones as a matter of safety during the lockdown, as restrictions ease and busy becomes the norm again, remember that intentionality around connection is still just as important. Your well-being and the well-being of those you care for still depend on connection.

Helpful Tips:

  • 1. Don’t let the worry of bothering others prevent you from seeking support. People can’t help you if they don’t know when or if you are in need. When you speak up, you may find that others are actually experiencing or have experienced similar emotions and challenges. Your initiation of communication can be the source of mutual support both you and others need.
  • 2. Our loved ones can’t carry everything for us, so if you find yourself dealing with debilitating anxiety, hopelessness, and/or persistent low mood, connect with a therapist. Many therapists are offering online support at your convenience; so, take this time to build a relationship with someone who can help you work through the heavy stuff. (Consider Mindpath Care Centers providing both in-person and virtual mental health support from licensed therapists and medication management providers across North Carolina.)
  • 3. Remember: support can come in a variety of forms. Seeking support is essentially about having a need and reaching out to other humans (or fur/plant babies) to help you meet that need. So, get creative! If you’re having trouble being productive, try a working virtual hour with a friend or coworker for accountability. If you need support maintaining a new healthy habit, determine how you can collaborate with a friend with similar goals, for example, starting a cook-at-home challenge or a meditation meet-up.

Parting Words

The most essential components of a social-emotional health routine are to be kind to yourself and allow for flexibility. Don’t let any of the self-care advice you receive from this post or any other source be a means for you to criticize yourself about what you are or aren’t doing for you.
Instead, consider this: If you had a resource that was vital to the lives of children and families in your community and every industry in the world, both current and not yet imagined, wouldn’t you do what you could to preserve that resource? Well, you are that resource! Prioritize, nurture, and preserve: You!

This article originally appeared on Teach For America’s Stories page.

Erin R. Jones

Erin R. Jones, M.Ed, NCC (Eastern North Carolina '15) is a doctoral candidate in School Psychology at UNC Chapel Hill. As an educator for over nine years, her dissertation research focuses on interventions for teacher stress and burnout.