Educators...Put Yourselves First!
Posted by rhi
5th Sep 2018

Dear teachers, assistants, educators and school leaders,

As a new school year approaches, please pause. Take a deep breath. Pause again. And then think about how you are going to look after yourself, BEFORE ANYONE ELSE, in the term ahead. Yes, you’re right. I did shout those words. I shouted them because they are so incredibly important. It might seem back to front, but you can actually only take the best care of your students, and teach them to the best of your ability, if you do actually pause. Pause again. And remember to look after yourself first. You must come first.

It took me seventeen years of teaching, numerous years of leading and an eventual breakdown to work that one out. I always felt there was more to be done (let’s face it, there always is) and that I had to do it. I always moved at break-neck speed throughout the day, the working week and the term and didn’t consider I could slow down. I always pushed myself to the limit and still felt like it wasn’t enough.

In the end, I paid the consequences. I paid the consequences heavily with a severe depressive episode and PTSD. Having given so much to every other area of my life except myself, when faced with a major trauma, I had nothing left mentally or emotionally to deal with it. My mind folded. I crashed. Burned. Suffered enormously. And wondered whether I would ever resurface.

Well, thankfully, eighteen months on I have fully recovered. I am back being the active, energetic and enthusiastic wife and mum I always was; and back in the classroom doing the job I love. Having been physically and mentally strong all my life, the experience was a shock for myself, my family and all those who know me. It’s been a profound and steep learning curve in developing self-awareness; and in understanding and accepting that it is ok to put myself first.

So, as the new school year approaches, this is how I intend to look after myself. I hope my list inspires you. Maybe you can relate and copy a few ideas; or perhaps you can write your own list to suit you:

* Take ‘boring’ self-care seriously. I know being tired affects me. I know mid-week alcohol does me no good. And I know that eating poorly brings me down too. So the ABC of eating and sleeping well has to be at the top of my list. It is boring. But dealing with the irritability and tiredness that comes with not doing it, is far worse.

* Exercise. For those who aren’t very active, this is one of those suggestions that might make them groan. Yet it’s so true that exercise makes a big difference to mental health. Experience tells me I will be more alert and energetic, sleep better and will benefit from that time to myself that regular cycling and running provide.

* Breathe. Does that sound daft? It definitely would have done so to me eighteen months ago but, now that I’ve experienced the benefits of breathing properly, I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s not just for moments of tension either. Sure, it helps if you are stressed but it helps to prevent stress too. Just before my class comes in and during every break throughout the day, I’ll spend two minutes using the Box Method of breathing. It’s quick, easy, can be done anywhere and brings you calmly right back to the moment.

* Say no. Being passionate about your job and your students is great, as are new ideas. However, learning to say no is just as important. In teaching, the job will never be done. What’s vital is finding the balance so that you can be dynamic, enthusiastic and supportive…whilst also looking after yourself. I’ve promised myself that I will sleep on any decision that will have a significant effect on my workload. That will give me the chance to think about it, discuss it if necessary and then commit with conviction if I know I have the time and energy to do it.

* Incorporate mental wellness into teaching. Mental health awareness is increasing all the time. In England and some American states, mental health education is going to become compulsory. This is excellent news but, as individual teachers, we can make an extra difference with our own student, rather than waiting for it to be tagged on as extra element of the curriculum. Effective class based initiatives might be:

• Breathing and relaxation for the whole class for a couple of minutes after each break
• A careful balance of lively and calm lessons
• Relaxing music during appropriate moments
• Practising mindfulness activities in between lessons; and allowing students to ask for time out to repeat them when they need to (for example, gratitude journals, mindfulness colouring activities, describing what surrounds them based on the five senses)
• Ensuring that Circle Time activities and discussions are prioritised, rather than squeezed in a non-existent gap, so that sharing emotions and listening to one another are regularly practised and given importance
• Creating time to support my students individually with emotional and/or social issues (and seeking further help when needed)
• A 1km walk or run outside every day (my school asks all teachers to do this during curriculum time – research shows this is highly beneficial for both physical and mental health)

Each of these activities will benefit my students in the short-term and, I hope, will also make them more aware about how they can look after their mental health in the long-term too. They will also benefit me. We all know it takes times to establish new habits and routines with a class but the positive effects will be felt by children and adults alike.

I could go on. There are many more goals I would like to set. But I also need to be realistic. This is a good starting point. And the list can be tweaked as I go. No doubt, in the chaos of family and school life, I won’t manage to fit in everything all of the time. But I know that writing my goals is the first step. Reminding myself to go back to them regularly is the second. And the third? Well, that’s the most important one: go back and read the first paragraph of this article as many times as I need to.

Teachers, assistants, educators, leaders, colleagues, friends…please remember to put yourselves first!

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