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How Teachers Can Better Exercise Self Care

By Andrew Knips

As a new teacher, I often failed to take care of myself. I stopped working out, started skipping breakfast, and worked late. When the weekend arrived, I would go out with friends, eat unhealthy food, and stay up late. Saturday was mental recovery day, and Sunday I was back to grading and lesson plans. From exercise, to eating, to routine, I had no rhythm and nothing to keep me afloat.

Now, almost ten years later, promoting self-care is one of the most important parts of my job as a leadership coach. It’s rooted in how I coach teachers and sustain myself, and I’ve seen it make even the most stressed-out teachers happier, more productive with their students, and better leaders with their peers. How can you as a teacher better exercise self-care? Here are a few strategies I have found to work well:

Shift your mindset: Repeat after me: Self-care is not selfish. It’s easy to think that time spent on yourself is time not spent serving students. What a terrible false dichotomy! Instead, recognize that you bring your best self to interactions with others when you are happy; you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Take a self-care diagnostic: We often confuse self-care for self-indulgence: binging on a TV show, having a few Monday evening cocktails, playing hooky on a Friday. We all need a quick escape from time to time, but there are much healthier ways to boost your happiness. If you’re unsure where to begin, a self-care diagnostic can help give you a baseline, as well as a master list of ways you can be good to yourself. I watched a group of teachers take this assessment and then commit to going on walks together during their lunch break each day, which made them noticeably happier within just a few weeks.

Control your time: You can’t improve your self-care if you don’t take time for it. At Bayard Taylor Elementary, many teachers take lunch breaks in the teachers’ lounge; they leave their computers in their room and connect with colleagues, with minimal talk about teaching or students. Although it’s brief, that genuine separation from teaching rejuvenates them. Many teachers also use organization tools like Google Keep, resources from The Together Group, and Covey’s Time Management Matrix to manage their schedule and free up space for themselves.

Lean on routine: It’s far too easy to say, “I’ll just put my nose to the grind for the next few months until winter break, and then I’ll go on vacation and focus on self-care.” Let’s be clear: that’s not self-care. Genuine self-care requires regular routines and predictability. The podcast, The Cult of Pedagogy, has a powerful episode that describes the importance of maintaining meaningful routines in more detail. Drink your coffee and read the news in your favorite chair every day before your kids wake up, or leave work right at dismissal on Wednesdays and have date night with your significant other. Whatever you do, make it frequent and consistent.

Find a buddy: We don’t have to care for ourselves in isolation. Your colleagues, coach, or family members can help keep you accountable in a healthy way. The power of “how has your meditation routine affected you recently?” is immense. Your buddy can also be electronic. My partner loves the app, Strides, which helps her track and monitor daily and weekly goals. She’s currently on a four-day streak of taking a break during the workday, and she’s left work by 6pm for 61% of the last two months. I cannot even describe the boost to her happiness since she started setting and tracking her daily goals.

Join a support network: Professional networks serve as a “3rd space” where participants can receive support in personal and professional challenges, while also being separated from more stress-inducing environments. Look for communities of practice, PLCs, and teacher research groups in your area, or consider starting one of your own. A group of teachers I know began attending Action Research Group in Philadelphia, and the monthly meetings have become an essential way for them to feel connected to a larger network and get a unique kind of support and perspective from other practitioners.

It took me years to start breaking the bad habits I formed in my first few years in the classroom. Now, I exercise regularly, eat TWO breakfasts (I’m still catching up on so many missed ones), mostly unplug from work on weekends, and have routines in place that keep me happy and healthy. I’m better for it, and so is my work. I’ve learned that sustaining myself as a person is the best way to sustain myself as a professional.

Andrew Knips is Teach Plus Teacher Leadership Coach in Philadelphia. Prior to that, he spent eight years as an instructional coach and high school English teacher in Philadelphia public and charter schools.