Listen to my interview with Angela Watson (transcript):
As a whole, teachers aren’t great about taking care of themselves. You work too many hours, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, eat too many unhealthy foods, and don’t spend enough time doing things that refresh and energize you.
Too many teachers have reached the conclusion that this lifestyle is just part of the job; there simply isn’t enough time to be a good teacher and take care of yourself. Self-care is something you’ll get to over breaks or in the summer, right?
Unfortunately, this is kind of a recipe for disaster. Teaching is consistently recognized as an incredibly high-stress career, which is only compounded by the fact that many of you are not doing things that would help you manage that stress.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Angela Watson has spent the past couple of years really focusing on how to help teachers live more balanced lives. In her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, she takes teachers through a year-long program designed to help members get organized, streamline routines, and be truly intentional about how they use their time. The typical member shaves over 10 hours off of their work week, with others reporting even more dramatic results.
Angela and I have already talked about some powerful ways teachers can save time, but we got together again to narrow our focus on the problem of self-care. In our podcast interview (which you can listen to above), we talk about why teachers have such a hard time taking care of themselves, then we look at four changes you can make to turn that around.
Why do teachers struggle to make time for self-care?
We think busy is normal.
“We have to decide to reject that notion that being busy is just the way life has to be,” Angela says. “Busy is normal, but normal is not the same thing as healthy, and we can accomplish a lot of things without feeling busy when we build in that time for self-care.”
We don’t realize how dire the situation really is.
Angela explains how easy it is to put off self-care because other things seem more urgent, and in general, we feel okay. “We tell ourselves, ‘Oh, next year, I’ll know the curriculum better. Next year, my child will be older and more independent. Next year, we’ll be all moved into the new house, and I won’t be distracted by that.’ But next year some new demand on our time always pops up. We can’t wait until our body is physically manifesting these symptoms of stress to decide to take care of ourselves.”
It’s hard to say no to people and things we care about.
This can be a chronic problem for teachers, whose time is always in demand at work and at home. For someone who is used to being the go-to person, saying no feels wrong. “We’ve all heard that analogy of putting your own oxygen mask before you can assist others,” Angela says, “but actually, living that out is really, really challenging.”
What do we mean by self-care?
Self-care doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the spa; it can and should mean different things to different people. Angela encourages people to choose a self-care habit that fits their personality and needs. It should be:
- Something you want to maintain permanently
“We’re not looking for quick fixes here. (Going to the spa) once every six months is not going to fix the problem for most people. It has to be something you can stick with and something that you can make a regular part of your life, because otherwise it just won’t happen.”
- Something that has a meaningful impact on your well being
“Don’t just pick whatever sounds easiest, or whatever sounds fun. You want it to be something that’s going to take a weight off your shoulders and give you this real sense of satisfaction.”
Here are some examples of habits chosen for a person’s specific needs and personality:
- If you feel like everyone’s making demands before you’ve woken up and gotten mentally prepared for the day, getting up 15 minutes earlier for some kind of morning ritual (meditating, reading, journaling, exercising) might be what’s needed.
- If you feel as if you’re going nonstop from sun up to sun down and don’t have a minute to yourself, some kind of midday break—even 5 minutes of listening to music—could do a lot to re-energize you for the day.
- If you look forward to when everyone’s asleep but you’re too tired to enjoy the quiet, choose night time rituals like a hot bath or going to bed half an hour early to read or watch TV.
- In our conversation, Angela talks about needing to get fresh air every day, and I started thinking about how much benefit I would get by building in time to clean off my desk once a day in order to make me feel more focused.
Four Steps to Make Time for Self-Care
1. Build in rest as the catalyst for productivity, not a break from it.
Too many people work until they drop, or they view rest and sleep as something to do after work is done. Angela advises us to view rest differently, as an essential tool for productivity. By looking at it this way, we will see it as a necessary part of our schedule, rather than a diversion from it.
“You are not a machine,” she says. “You can’t just program yourself to perform at optimal levels 24 hours a day. You have to have rest in there, and it doesn’t necessarily mean this hour-long nap in the afternoon. It could just be turning off the lights in your classroom for a few minutes after dismissal. Or for many people, they find themselves checking their phones all day long, checking social media, checking email. If you can substitute one or two of those checking times with just silence and stillness, that can make a huge difference in your energy levels and your ability to focus and concentrate.”
2. Streamline your schedule by doing fewer things, better.
“Self-care can’t just be one more thing you add to your plate,” Angela says. “You have to eliminate things that are not the best and highest use of your time.” Instead of trying to fit in as many things as possible, she says, think about things you can let go of to create space for your higher priority of self-care.
“Productive people are always analyzing whether something is really necessary, and whether it’s really necessary right now. They’re always re-evaluating their priorities and shifting tasks around, because there’s just no way you’re ever going to have enough hours in the day to do everything that you want and you need to do.”
This is where saying no becomes vital, and one of the best ways to get better at it is to just do it once. “If you say no once,” Angela says, “you’ll find that people will stop asking you so many times. They realize, ‘Oh, okay, this is a person who really protects boundaries around our time, and doesn’t just say yes to be a people pleaser, and isn’t just going to bend over backwards any time I need anything,’ and they will stop asking you so much.”
3. Pair a self-care habit with your regular routine so it becomes automatic.
“This is a really powerful principle that is based heavily on neuroscience,” Angela explains, “this idea that you can pair a new habit with an existing habit to make it easier to lock that new habit into place. Look for something that you already do automatically, and integrate self-care into that.”
“So, when you get in the car in the morning, you put on your favorite song that uplifts and inspires you. Do the same thing, time after time, and it will create this almost Pavlovian kind of response, where as soon as you finish cleaning up dinner, you crave that nice hot bath, or as soon as the kids leave the classroom at the end of the day, you’re craving that 60 seconds of deep breathing to just clear your head and to energize yourself for the rest of the day’s tasks. You’re relying on the strength of an existing habit to make that new habit automatic, and it’s a lot easier than relying on willpower or trying to make a decision..should I do this, or should I not do it? When am I going to take care of myself, when will I have time for this today? You’ll follow through a lot more easily with your self-care goals if it’s part of a habit.”
4. Focus on the habit of the habit, so you’ll value right actions over right results.
New habits are really easy to skip because they’re not well-established, so it’s essential that you prioritize creating and sticking to a habit if you want your self-care to become a regular part of your life.
“Each time you go back to the old habit, you are strengthening neural pathways in the brain and muscle memory in the body that will make you want to default to that habit again in the future. So breaking the habit ‘just this once’ won’t hurt you in the sense that it will wreak havoc in that area of your life…it will wreak havoc on your HABITS. Assume that what you’re doing today is what you’ll do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and so on and so forth. This will make you hyperfocused on the choices you’re making now in the moment, rather than assuming your future self will be more disciplined or will have more free time.”
And if you’re ready to make work-life balance a serious priority, learn more about the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club here:
Disclaimer: I am an affiliate for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. That means if you decide to join after visiting the club through my link, I will get a small commission for referring you.
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Thank you so much for stressing the importance of self-care of teachers! I think it’s essential for teachers to maintain sustainable lifestyles in order to continue to be great at their jobs. As a pre-service teacher, I am worried about maintaining a good life balance in my first few years in teaching. Do you have any advice for first year teachers?
I was also thinking about how these tips are good practice for anyone. I think these lessons are also important to teach to our students, especially students who are taking a high pressure load of classes or plan on attending a post-high school education program that can be stressful. I think it might be interesting to include the students on your self-care practices or embed them into classes sometimes. What do you think?
Hi Brianna! I talk to so many teachers and the thing they always wish they had more of is time — especially time for themselves. Admittedly, I did a lousy job maintaining work-life balance (I’m still working on it!). But if I was back in the classroom, I would absolutely be better about streamlining my schedule. As a new teacher, you’ll have so many ideas and things you’ll want to try — avoid trying to do too much, particularly too soon. Definitely follow the advice of prioritizing and doing less really well. I agree that guiding students with self-care tips is a great idea and could naturally be embedded in the classroom. If you haven’t already, take a look at Jenn’s First-Year Teachers and Teacher Health Pinterest boards. See if there are a couple of resources that you may want to start with. Hope this helps!
I agree with what you said. I have problems putting things in perspecitve and feel overhwhelmed when choosing what to do first. Planning is a good technique. Learning how to destress and put what you need to do without feeling guilty is good.
It is truly refreshing to know that we as teachers have alternative means to take care of ourselves. We have plenty of ideas and a short time to implement our plans. It seems as if it’s not enough time in the day, but we get it done and we forget about ourselves. I know I have to do better, but I’m learning as a first-year teacher time-management and what it takes to make it here in Gaston County Schools.
I certainly applaud healthy self-care, but as an educator of more than 25 years, including a department chair for more than 10 and a mentor to district junior teachers (and a few seasoned professionals) for much of my last 12 years, I think a major reason faculty often don’t take care of themselves is obvious to very many of us. Exploding volumes of paperwork. A focus on teaching-to-the-test (for the kind of results that drive increased funding), even when this is counterproductive to the learning process. An in-classroom shift in authority away from teachers–who’re legally liable for our students’ welfare–to students themselves. Increasing rates of on-teacher violence–both emotional and physical–with little to no support from administration. Parents who’re more inclined to belittle and snap at rather than partner with teachers. A general societal antipathy towards teachers. And all this for remuneration that hasn’t kept pace with mushrooming costs of living or with other similarly prepared professionals’ salaries. Oh, but according to a NYT article just a few years ago, this is because teachers are relatively poorly educated AND because anyone can do our job.
I shouldn’t have to go on. In light of all this–and I haven’t even gotten to the now transparent disregard for even teachers’ lives many districts exhibit demanding we return to school despite the lack of implementation of safeguards recommended by the CDC and local boards of health and our being told we won’t be covered for the exorbitant medical fees if we get COVID-19–in light of all this, many teachers don’t “take care of themselves” because they’re overwhelmed but see little authentic help forthcoming. They don’t need nice-sounding advice about caring for themselves. They need massive systematic change. And, minimally, administrations that respect teachers’ survival enough not to throw them under the bus or rescind teachers’ teaching licenses for prioritizing our and our families’ health in a gravely precarious time.
Yes, I do realize there are teachers out there who have different experiences. I’m sincerely happy for them. But a quarter century of teaching across the US has taught me there are frightfully many other teachers who regularly experience many–even all–the challenges to wellness I’ve outlined. I welcome the advice the author has given above, but the real fix for teacher burn out is a deep system change.
I cannot tell you how much I agree with your comment. I´ve been teaching for almost 2 decades and once again, educators are being blamed for not taking care of themselves. It´s just another thing to add to the list that we are being told we don´t do correctly.
Let´s put creating engaging lessons/materials for those lessons and grading aside. My day outside of teaching, planning, and grading is wasted on checking off boxes to cover the district. Whether it be trainings that haven´t changed in 10 years but we still have to do them every year for the state, posting plans in 5 places to make it easier for administrators to find them, or sitting in 1 hour meetings that could have been an email, all of these little things that are thrown at us to cover the district from a lawsuit add up to an extra hour or so every day. Multiply that by 5 and then repeat that every week. Add to that when prep time is taken away for us to cover other teachers´ classes or our lunch is taken away, etc., how is it OUR fault or on us to make more time. We can´t put more hours in the day and we can´t say no to our boss. I feel like this really is just blaming us instead of looking at the system and educational leadership in its entirety.
I truly enjoyed listening to the information that you all shared . This is something that I can utilize in my home life as well as on the job.
Great article. We all could take note to self-care and not feel guilty.
Excellent ideas on how to implement self-care. For me it is important that they are practical.