I think many of us underestimate how much time teachers spend taking care of others. Parents/guardians often put our trust in teachers to take care of our child. Similarly, many other parents do the same. And while teachers are definitely trained to handle the education of multiple children, the role often comes with caretaking responsibilities that can wear a teacher thin.
Teaching is hard work! Especially if the students are young children. The older the students get, the more accountable they are for themselves. But younger, impressionable children are molded in the classroom, where they spend a hefty amount of their times. And with that comes planning, curriculum adjustment, grading, moral education, professional development, classroom management, mentoring, mental health check-ins with students – I could go on and on, really.
All of this with on top of personal lives: dealing with families, catching up with friends, taking time out for hobbies; it's no surprise that teachers are some of the most overworked professionals, at least in Singapore.
It's not uncommon for teachers to worry that taking care of themselves could lead to time away from their students and work, which could result in a less-than-optimal learning environment for their students. In fact, as Covid-19 and online classes loom over us, the feeling is just heightened. The lines between the classroom and the home are blurred, and both teachers and students struggle with finding a balance between working and relaxing.
However, nothing is further than the truth, really. By taking care of themselves, teachers ensure that they bring their best foot forward in the classroom everyday, be it online or offline. By being conscious of their health – both mental and physical – teachers can thrive because they can rely on themselves. Without ensuring that you're at your best, you might not be able to help students be their best.
Self-care can keep you at the top of your game. It keeps you ready to tackle any challenges, be mentally and physically present for your students, and ensures that you are able to manage your time well. Many teachers become teachers because they want to inspire change, and make differences in children's lives. But the fact of the matter is that educating a child is not all dependent on a teacher. Parents, friends, society, schools... they all play a part in teaching in a child. As such, teachers should not assume that they're the only ones in charge of teaching and developing a child. Knowing you're part of a team, rather than thinking that you're someone who works alone, can help tons in relieving your stress.
What, then, are some ways that teachers can take care of themselves? Self-care is not just fancy tea or a spa day. Rather, self-care consists of activities done to promote long-term health. They're not self-indulgent actions. Self-care has lasting benefits, with a tendency to form good habits in the process.
1. Draw a Line
If you're a workaholic, or just feel overwhelmed with the amount of work to do, the lines between a workday starting and ending can often get blurred. Moreso in the current climate of working, schooling and teaching from home. It is key to adapt to a schedule that sets a strict start and end time for your duties, and one that clearly separates personal life from a professional one. This includes checking and replying to e-mails, excessively searching up on work-related topics, or constantly thinking about things to be done at work.
One way to do this is to communicate these timings to your students and the parents or guardians in charge of them. This helps them to understand when is the optimal time to reach you should they need any help, and also why you may be not be available at certain times. However, it's not just that. It also helps in holding yourself accountable in not working more than you should. By setting a line publicly, it also tends to push you to follow your own work timings carefully. If you've told guardians that you clock out at 7PM, then replying at 7:30PM would lead to your words holding less weight.
Of course, it always doesn't have to be as cut and dry as that. Applications like WhatsApp became popular in the later years of my education, and the distance between teachers and students reduced as class group chats became more and more common. One way I noticed that my teachers drew boundaries was to explain that any questions after a certain time were not guaranteed to get an immediate reply. During exams season, however, exceptions were granted.
At the end of the day, there has to be a distinction between being helpful and being overworked. Keeping in mind the amount of time you need for yourself, for your family and your friends, your schedule should cut off work at a certain time. It can be difficult, when it feels like the work is never-ending, but one way to maximise your productivity is to give yourself a break.
2. Set Achievable Goals
Often times, as a teacher, it can feel like the workload is endless. If there isn't grading to do, there's e-mails to respond to, and if there isn't adminstrative work, then there's lesson preparation and planning. At instances like these, it's crucial to set smaller, achievable goals that are much easier to handle and complete. By setting attainable goals, you tend to have improved mental health. This is because you are not driving up your anxiety by having a list of tasks that are never completed. Instead, by setting smaller goals, you are signalling to yourself that your work is not impossible when you get steadily meet all your goals.
Breaking up your responsibilities into manageable tasks that you can achieve in a few hours or in a day. Not only does this make your workload seem less overwhelming, it also allows you to end your workday without feeling like you didn't get anything done. Sometimes feeling such a way translates to thinking that you have to work overtime, or that you deserve less personal time. However, by ticking off manageable goals, you assure yourself that you did get work done, and can therefore focus on yourself.
3. Reflect and Recognise
One of the most meaningful ways to care for yourself is to be instrospective. To understand what you're feeling is one of the best ways to figure out what you might need. Are you feeling overwhelmed with an influx of information? Then you could conclude that a quick break would help before you tackle all the information. Are you happy with how you've helped your students today? Then you might want to cherish and revel in the emotion – as opposed to glossing it over – so that you have a more memorable, positive experience. Keeping in touch with your emotions and thoughts allows you to practice self-care habits that are catered specifically to you.
If you realise that you're troubled with some sort of problem, then you'd be able to realise that you may need to ask for some help or seek some guidance to overcome your problem. Similarly, if you feel sad or melancholic with how your day went in general, you'd realise that you might have to go home and indulge in some activities that make you feel better. Journalling, painting, drawing, or listening to music can all help you recognise what you're feeling and aid you in processing it.
It's also important to grasp the idea that many things aren't in your control, especially as the world around changes rapidly and causes adjustments that we can't keep up with it. This usually raises levels of worrying and anxiety, and one way to alleviate this is to comprehend what you can and cannot control.
There will always be some things about your student's lives or learning environment that you will not be able to control. Regardless, what you can do is to offer the most optimal environment in school and to be a caregiver for them during school hours. A lot of it comes from letting yourself be vulnerable and understanding that you may never have full control over or knowledge of certain things.
Professionals in caregiving fields – such as teachers – may often find it easier to advise others about taking care than taking the same advice for themselves. It's an occupational hazard, really, that you direct so much energy on others that you forget to do the same for yourself. That is why self-care is all the more necessary and important for good mental health.
Teacher stress can lead to high turnover rates and burnout, but self-care can turn around the effects and rate of burnout. There is no one way to take care of yourself, since we're all different, but taking the time to understand yourself is the first step of self-care. When you prioritise yourself, take time out for yourself, and understand what you need, you're taking the biggest move forward in helping and taking care of yourself.