Rose Else-Mitchell is President, Education Solutions at Scholastic. From conversations with teachers, she shares reminders to prioritize your own physical and mental health in the upcoming school year, and year-round.
Teachers, I know you have endured months of extreme challenge as you have balanced the safety and well-being of your students and your families, while navigating the rapidly changing expectations of what it means to actually teach. You’ve played the roles of tech wizard, home chef, safety monitor, counselor, mediator, parent, educator, and problem-solver—often simultaneously, which is an extraordinary feat. I am in awe of your dedication and diligence as you’ve worked to keep your students present, supported, and engaged this past school year and throughout the summer.
With the new school year upon us, a consistent theme I hear from our nation’s educators is exhaustion. With headlines detailing pandemic stress, teacher shortages, and working overtime, it’s understandable that so many of you have reached a breaking point. According to research from RAND, 45% of public school teachers who left the profession after March 2020, before their scheduled retirement, did so because of the pandemic. Stress was the most common reason they cited for leaving teaching early. Teachers are giving so much attention and energy to ensuring the physical and emotional safety of their students—and often their own children. But too often, they find themselves lacking the support they so selflessly give to others.
My team and I have had a chance to talk with several educators to see how they’ve been taking care of themselves. One reading specialist from New Jersey, Rhondi Ickles, shared, “Sometimes, we may feel like super teachers, but not super parents, super siblings, super daughters, or super spouses. So we need to give ourselves that space to say, ‘It's OK that today I wasn't the best spouse, or the best mom, or the best daughter.’ Giving yourself that grace is important and in itself is a gift to yourself because we can't do it all. Simply say, ‘I did my best. It was good enough for now.’”
The idea of giving yourself grace doesn’t come naturally if you are used to prioritizing the needs of everyone around you. My message to teachers is this: In whatever way you can manage, “BKTY”: Be Kind To Yourself this year. So, how can you make your physical and mental health a priority once school starts? Here are five ideas to get started:
Seek out Small Joys
Find ways to embrace joy, comfort, and even humor—which can bring us out of our regular mental routines. Treat yourself to something you wouldn’t normally do, whether it’s taking a walk around your block, scrolling through Instagram (put on a timer!), or splurging on a special meal. For me, this means sitting down with a few high-quality dark chocolate truffles and my favorite podcast once a week.
Tap Into Your Own Self-Compassion
Just as we help children learn and practice empathy, using self-talk can be a powerful way to transform our own thinking. There are so many tiny things that can stack up to overwhelm you, leading you to spiral into a negative mindset where you may think that nothing is going according to plan. For example, when you don’t understand how to work the new digital tool or you lose your password (again), or the printer won’t work, or you feel like you can’t get through the grading or the emails. The key here is treating yourself how you would treat someone else who is stressed or angry in the moment. Turn that compassion back onto yourself. Send a message of kindness . . . to you! You’re doing the best you can and that’s OK. And remember, this isn’t a permanent state.
Reach Out to Someone
Making connections with others is vital to our existence—and it’s been a challenge to do this spontaneously on video calls, which are generally focused on a specific goal or topic. Whether it’s a friend, colleague, or neighbor, try reaching out beyond a text. Try talking! I have rediscovered the joy of a regular phone call this summer. It’s fun! Talk about anything other than the usual work and school topics—this push beyond the norm will surprise you and help you engage in some serendipitous conversation. It will get you back into small talk and deep talk—if you’re ready. As Susan Lui-Jimenez, a first-grade teacher from New York City, explains, “I’ve taken care of myself by connecting with family more. Getting back to my roots and learning more about my family has helped with my well-being.”
Focus on Breathing
I did a 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2005, and taught weekly until my daughter was born five years later. I know the science of why a few deep breaths help quiet our nervous system. However, I forget to put this knowledge into practice during moments of stress. As simple as it may sound, it’s proven that slow, deep breathing can help slow your heartrate, decrease blood pressure, and relax your muscles. Write BREATHE or INHALE/EXHALE on a note somewhere near where you work. Commit to three deep breaths in a row a few times a day. Guess what? That’s only 30 seconds. There are some great meditation apps, including Breathe – 1 Minute Meditation and Headspace, that can help nudge and support you with this practice.
Carve Out Time
Setting boundaries between your work and home life is tough—especially if they have been the same location these past 18 months. It’s taken me my entire 25-year career, but if you can do it, this can be a game changer. VeCynthia Parker, a fourth-grade teacher from Georgia, has a great tip for how to do this: “I'd walk in the door, set a timer for 30 minutes, and that was my uninterrupted rest time so that I could just deescalate. For 30 minutes, my kids couldn't ask me any questions. And so, when I come out, I'm ready to tackle anything at home.”
For Jennifer Stephenson, a first-grade teacher from North Carolina, carving out time means creating a cut-off time for the workday in advance. She says, “The biggest change I made over this whole past year is that I set boundaries for myself. I have a cutoff timeframe for myself, and when it gets to 3:30 p.m., I am done with work. I'm sticking very hard to my work-life balance.” Of course, you might not achieve this every day, but you can always plan again for the next time this is possible in your schedule. For me, I ensure my work space is totally separate from the family space and close it down after work, computer off, lights off, phone docked.
I hope you are able to find space and time for yourself. In the words of VeCynthia Parker, “As teachers, we have to show ourselves some of the same grace that we show our students. And then just hold on to it.”
Thank you, teachers everywhere, for all that you to do support students. Wishing you safety and self-kindness for this school year.