Self-Care is Not Selfish

With all the changes due to the pandemic, it is understandable that most teachers and staff already feel stressed and burnt out. A decade ago, self-care was about getting a massage, playing golf, or splurging on a vacation. However, in this time of isolation, illness and inequity self-care is no longer a luxury. 

Schools have a new face now. Teachers can no longer stand and deliver content in front of 30 students sitting at desks in rows—nor should we be. We as teachers were coerced to change with the times because of the pandemic and we are all feeling the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the unknowns ahead.  

But, there is a silver lining to all of this: sheltering in place gave us the opportunity to slow down, spend time with our immediate family and, without the constant hectic-ness of life, focus on ourselves. As we transition to the fall, we need to embrace this universal pause and go back to our roots to what made us want to teach in the first place. Your strongest asset is YOU wanting to make a difference in this world. If you are depleted, you cannot be your best self. Take the same advice you do when on an airplane: “You must put on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else.” Whether we are returning to a blended or remote learning environment, the need to tend to our own well-being is imperative if we want to support our students.

Self-care is…

Self care is the act of paying attention to your physical, mental, emotional, and psychological wellness and taking an active role to protect that wellness from fatigue and stress. Self-care can be mindfulness—of your breath, your surroundings, or your meals—or it can be spending time in nature, journaling, reading a book, exercising, taking a bath, playing with your children, or engaging in your favorite hobby. 

The important thing is that self-care is something you plan and prioritize rather than let happen. You must schedule it and be consistent with it. There are amazing apps like Calm and Headspace to offer guided meditations, breathwork or relaxing music. There are countless YouTube video tutorials that can teach you any skill or hobby you’d like. When faced with uncertainty, lean into yourself more. Do what feels right for you and do what you can control.

Where to Start

First, as we enter the new school year, create boundaries. Only you know your needs and your limits. Select a time to shut down the computer and your mind. Allot a few minutes just to reflect on the day, complete a brain dump to-do list, and then walk away. Do something physical, creative, or simply enjoyable for yourself. It might feel uncomfortable the first few times you do it because let’s face it, we are teachers and we are in service to others every day for 180 days. However, with consistency it will become a haven for you to replenish yourself.

Next, design your new normal. School is about academics, but current research trends explicitly demonstrate the need for students to be able to communicate and collaborate with others.  Shift the focus from content to connection by prioritizing the building of positive relationships with your students. Consider reflecting on your expectations and whether they are reasonable now in this present moment. Then, repeat that exercise again in a couple of weeks and see if they still make sense. If they do not, change them! 

Then, be gentle with yourself and remember there are different ways of looking at the same situation. Through my coaching role, many teachers confessed to feeling like failures because they didn’t cover all the curriculum. My response was to practice reframing. Reframing is a tool used in cognitive behavior therapy but applies to us all. Think about how you talk to yourself. Imagine if you had a loudspeaker in your brain, would you allow someone to talk to your friend or family member the way you talk to yourself? 

Instead of viewing social distancing as punishment that keeps us away from our friends and favorite places, consider it a kind action that keeps us and others healthy and safe. Instead of viewing remote learning as an artificial and inferior approach to learning, try to see it as a way to connect to the very students we are trying to teach. Being a digital immigrant, I would poll my class on what platforms they thought we should use and defend their choices. I asked them to help me navigate new technology and it led them to feel more valued and heard. 

Last, connect with someone daily. Yes, I know this sounds a bit hippy-dippy, but again the research suggests that a snuggle with Fluffy, a cuddle with your toddler, or simply sharing a meme with a friend on a regular basis fuels us more than money and status ever could. Personally, I had a standing lunch date with my school friends on Google Meet and we invited others to join us every Friday.  

Some of my colleagues chose to write notes/email updates to family and friends they couldn’t see. Others opted to have a traditional sit down dinner with their families and discuss what their day was like, sharing their highs and lows around the table. We as humans need to belong, it is in our DNA. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from educational psychology class? It is crucial for us to belong, to love and be loved. Love yourself by sharing yourself with someone daily.

There are a myriad of resources to help you care for yourself but they all begin with a willingness to put your own oxygen mask on first, to tend to your needs so you can meet the needs of others. You can find curated resources here. Remember, you are not alone. Every teacher in the world is feeling what you are. And some of us already have our oxygen mask on and are ready to help.

Kristie Opaleski is a high school English teacher and a certified SEL specialist. She presents and blogs on educational and SEL topics. Visit www.kristieopaleski.com for more information.