Secret Sauce

Why Self-Care For Teachers Is Crucial

But true self-care may not be what you think.

A Healthy School Community Starts With Self-Care

“How are you?” has recently become a very loaded question. March 2020 presented unexpected challenges that have deeply impacted each of us. The COVID-19 Pandemic has left no one untouched. Even the stable field of education has been shaken with educators, students and parents forced to adapt to school closures and virtual learning.

This has been an overwhelming, anxiety producing, and stressful situation for many educators. Individuals in leadership are being asked to make difficult decisions with little information, and many educators are trying to teach students remotely while simultaneously teaching and caring for their own children at home.

In western culture, and especially in fields like education, unboundaried devotion to work has become the norm. Some of the pressure comes from the work demands of developing and providing instruction, but the true weight comes from the emotional labor teachers invest in their students and their students' families. Amid a crisis like the one we currently face, that emotional weight can feel unbearable - especially with the powerless feeling of not even being able to connect with many students and colleagues.

Educators are burnt out, stressed, fatigued, and demoralized, and many are now coping with trauma. Whether their own, their students, or both, that trauma can show up for educators as symptoms similar to those of their students – withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue.

Understanding Self-Care As Self-Preservation

Often the antidote to educator emotional fatigue is presented as “self-care", the social media version of which looks like a cute trip to brunch or a picturesque vacation. While that kind of indulgence was out of reach for many educators before the pandemic, now with social distancing and suspension of most every day activities it’s completely out of the question. With few outlets for self-care educators’ personal traumatic stress is building daily. Not only that but most are also absorbing the anxieties of their students. Compounded with their own existing stressors, this secondary traumatic stress (STS) is creating a level of overwhelm that necessitates teacher self-care that’s more radical than a bubble bath.

Real Teacher Self-Care Is Rooted In Self-Love and Self-Preservation.

Deep self-care demands an acknowledgement of our core needs for wellness and healing. Activists and first responders have preached and embodied the importance of this work for years. Activist, writer and educator, Audre Lorde, has written prolifically about the importance of self-care as self-preservation. Lorde makes three points:

  1. Self-care is not indulgence or lavishness, it’s prioritizing what you need to be a healthy, whole person.
  2. Caring for oneself in a society that values productivity over personhood is a radical act of resistance.
  3. Consenting to a culture of burnout will not allow us to prevail in moments of turmoil and stress (like the one we currently face).


Why Teachers Need Self-Care Now More Than Ever

The importance of self care for teachers is not a new concept. For years the stressors for educators in low-income or under resourced schools have made headlines. The rise in school shootings, the pressure from high-stakes testing and the constant budget cuts for public schools nationwide have made the job of “teacher” one of the most challenging in our society. While the popularity of mindfulness practices in school and social emotional learning initiatives have equipped educators with some amazing resources to mitigate the effects of their intense realities, these techniques aren’t enough to meet the unimaginable emotional demands of a pandemic.

Self-care tips for teachers usually focus on coping. These self-soothing practices do serve the purpose of managing stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, these quick fixes and escapes are only addressing problems at their surface, not creating daily rituals, practices, and interactions that result in a transformed sense of being. That work requires a bold devotion to ourselves and a belief that we’re deserving and capable of experiencing wholeness.

That work requires a bold devotion to ourselves and a belief that we’re deserving and capable of experiencing wholeness.

In a recent conversation, one FuelEd alum stated “I feel like I’ve been pushed into a swimming pool and I don’t know how to swim.” In the same conversation she spoke to the “withdrawals” she is experiencing from not being able devote all of her energy to work.

Educators don’t need life rafts, they need swimming lessons.

Being immersed in extremely relational work, educators need skills for thriving in relationships. They don't need distractions from the above mentioned feelings of withdrawal, but rather guidance to unpack the root cause of those emotions. We’re all being cracked open in unexpected ways that can either lead us to deeper healing and growth or result in breakdowns and burnouts. Simply activating the self-care skills we have are no longer enough. We're being called to learn new ways of prioritizing our wellness in a fast changing reality as a means of self-preservation.

As one teacher shared in a post for edutopia:

“Setting boundaries that separate work time from personal time is only a first step. To help and support others, we must become avid caretakers of ourselves . . . We may feel that if we don’t get a task done, our students will suffer or programs will fail. However, if we become mentally exhausted, overtired, or drained of energy, we risk a complete shutdown mentally or physically—and at that point, no tasks will get done.”

In simple survival terms, caring for oneself is the foundation of being able to care for others. If we go one layer deeper, beyond our current crisis state, it’s important to note that sustainability in the field of education was already elusive and is now a major cause for concern. Investing in sustainable self-care strategies for teachers will make longevity in this line of work possible.

Research shows that secure attachment relationships between students and their caregivers are established through consistency over time. While showing up for students in the midst of crisis is a brave and daunting task, the real goal should be to escape the traps of burnout so those students can return to the same school community in the months and years to come. Finding balance and perspective are necessary to preserve your mental health and remain present for each other as we continue to cope and heal.

True self-care is an investment in the quality of the relationships we hope to foster in our homes, schools, communities, and beyond.

Attachment-based self-care tips for educators

Let’s quickly review all the things self-care is not. Self-care is not consumerism. It is not a restrictive diet. It’s also not avoiding your responsibilities or ignoring the people who care about you. Binge watching and getting lost in social media are also not self-care.

When we get rid of the superficial and consumerist layer of “self-care” there’s powerful, quiet work to be done so we can build secure relationships. What do attachment-based self-care qualities look like in this moment? They’re activities that you can do for yourself that make you feel seen, safe, soothed, and secure.

  • Commit to having your own emotional needs met. Investing in your personal health regime whether that’s focusing on better sleep, increasing counseling sessions, or exercising in a way that makes you feel good are all healthy, lasting ways to make you feel soothed.
  • Model good boundaries. Taking time off for personal and mental health, logging off entirely when not “at work”, or declining additional work projects in order to prioritize your own rest and balance are ways you can invest in feeling personally safe.
  • Be aware and accepting of all feelings, needs and perspectives. Respecting others’ approach to grieving and healing while also asking others to respect your process creates an opportunity for secure communication that can help you to feel seen.
  • Remain emotionally available. Prioritizing meaningful, interpersonal connection and self-exploration over compulsive and distracted behaviors. This might look like long phone calls with friends or starting a daily journaling practice. Invest in a predictable person or practice to support an experience of feeling secure.

To create the kind of world we desire in the present and future, we need to nourish sustainable and joy-filled lives; lives that gain their meaning beyond our ability to meet deadlines or external expectations. Prioritizing joy and wellness is a radical act. When we do this, we’re pouring back into ourselves so we can overflow with care for others. By investing in our wholeness, we indirectly create more whole and empowered communities.

About the author

Jasmine Barnes

Partner - Chicago IL

Jasmine is an experienced strategist, facilitator and storyteller with a background in sociology and journalism. Communication, collaborative problem solving and operational excellence fuel her efforts to create a more just and loving world. In her free time, Jasmine enjoys cultivating spiritual communities and sharing her writing.

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