By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
It’s time for you, dear teacher, to treat your own mental health and well-being with the same care you treat your own students and family.
This means making yourself a priority!
In our desire to support, love, and care for our students, family, and friends, we too often overlook ourselves.
Realize that you are replaceable
Making the change to prioritize yourself starts with your job. Yes, you are a good teacher and you love your students, however, it’s important to keep in mind that it is first and foremost your job, not your life.
As a job, it is important to remember that every single person is expendable. Sound harsh? The fact is, in 32 years of teaching, I have never seen a position that wasn’t filled as soon as someone left.
There’s a saying that “your job will be posted before your obituary” and while that may seem awful, there is truth to those words. The business of school goes on, and you will soon be replaced and become a distant memory.
Keeping those words in mind may help alleviate some of the guilt you feel when you take a mental health day, leave a stack of papers on your desk over the weekend, or turn off your computer and put it away for the day with tasks left uncompleted. You have to learn how to set work boundaries.
Educational emergencies are rare
Parents, students, colleagues, and administrators often think teachers are on call 24/7. And history has shown that too many are (I’m guilty too!).
Believe it or not, it is a rare occurrence that there is an educational emergency.
- Jill forgot her homework on her desk? It will still be there tomorrow, and it’s a good life lesson.
- A parent is frantic because little Johnny has a question about homework at 8 p.m.? Again, it will still be there tomorrow.
- Your administrator has a new idea to run by you and sends a text in the evening? Guess what? It will be there tomorrow.
With the exception of a student being in danger, there is nothing that cannot wait until the next day.
Say that out loud and take a deep breath, “There is nothing that cannot wait until the next day!”
Take charge of your technology instead of letting it be in charge of you
Just because communication is easier with texts, emails, and other apps compared to the dial-up phones of yesteryear, doesn’t mean teachers have to make themselves available at the convenience of everyone else. Tackling the challenge of technology is one of the first steps in making yourself a priority.
Use your phone alarm
Set alarms on your phone to remind you to leave the building no matter what. Not only is this a great reminder for you, but if you are caught by a colleague, student or administrator after hours it makes it super easy to escape.
When your phone sends the alarm you can pull it out and say, “Oh, it’s time for me to go. We can finish this conversation tomorrow.”
You do not need to supply a reason, make excuses, or feel bad. Simply state that you need to leave and then GO!
Whether you need to leave for a doctor’s appointment or to curl up on the couch with a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream to binge watch your latest Netflix show is no one’s business but your own! Remember, both your physical and mental health are important.
Put an autoresponder on your email that kicks in each day at 4 p.m. (or whatever time you select). Inform parents, administrators, fellow teachers, and students that your office hours are between 7:30 and 4 p.m. Include the same message on your voicemail.
Here’s an exact script you can use:
Thank you for contacting me. My office hours are Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m to 4 p.m. I will respond to your message within the next 24 hours on regular business days.
Also, do not respond to calls or emails on the weekends at all. Once you have trained others to follow your parameters they will become more respectful of your time. You know they don’t call the dentist on a Sunday and expect a response, so why should you be treated any differently?
Do not give out your personal phone number
Giving parents or students your personal number is an invitation for them to invade your time. Simply don’t do it. Anytime someone asks how to reach you, give your school phone number or email.
If you are a coach, sponsor or in another position that might require the need for parents to reach you, make sure you set up parameters. For example, “You may contact me for emergencies only. If it is not an emergency, I will not respond until the following day by my school email.”
And, most importantly, stick to the rules you set. Don’t give in to temptation because it only encourages more “exceptions” to the rule.
Don’t ‘friend’ parents on social media
Social media is stressful enough, and if you have the willpower, staying off of it completely is probably a great gift to give yourself. But, in reality most of us won’t do that.
What we can do, however, is monitor who sees our posts (set to private) and who we invite or accept as friends or followers. No one needs the extra stress of seeing inappropriate or rude comments by the parents of students. Responding to instant messages is also a big no, as is friending current students.
If you are serious about making yourself a priority, as well as avoiding potential conflicts, then taking care of social media is important.
Remove technology temptations
Leaving your computer in sight is a temptation. How many times have you said to yourself, “I’ll just check my inbox…” and an hour later you look up from the rabbit hole of emails? Once you have decided to quit work for the day, turn your computer off and put it in your computer bag.
The act of having to drag out your computer and wait for it to restart is enough deterrent that most of us won’t make the effort.
Leaving your computer at school is another option for those of you brave enough not to have it with you. I’ve known several teachers who leave school every day with the computer sitting on their desk. They know there is no chance they will be tempted to drive back to school to get it so they can do work.
A second temptation is school email on your phone. Removing it is powerful. If it is not easily accessible you won’t be tempted to check it multiple times a night and tempted to reply. And remember lesson number one: there is nothing that cannot wait until the next day.
Removing these temptations is a key step in making yourself a priority!
Making yourself a priority by taking time for you
If you are like many teachers, you put yourself at the bottom of the To Do list. It’s time to rethink that philosophy if you are going to serve others well. Making yourself a priority isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. Try these steps to get started.
Learn how to leave work at work
Keep regular hours
As much as possible put in the time you have designated for work and then put it away. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who can get all of their work done during the day. But the happier teachers I know set work hours and stick to them.
That will mean different things to different people. You may set your hours until 4 p.m. and then want to put in another hour from 7-8 at home. Maybe you are a morning person and like to arrive at school early when you have the place to yourself and do your best work then. Or maybe you refuse to ever do work at home.
The point is to find a schedule that works for you, and then follow it as religiously as you do the bell that dismisses your classes. You can train yourself as well as you train students, although it may take some time and patience with yourself!
Mentally leave work behind
Another aspect of leaving work at work is to mentally leave it there. This is harder than the physical work you can leave behind because shutting your minds off at the end of the day is nearly impossible some days. The students you work with each day can break your heart and wear you out with concern and worry.
However, if you are consumed by the tragedy and trauma you see on a daily basis, the long term effects will leave you burnt out. Concern and care is important in a teacher, but your job is not to solve the world’s problems because it simply isn’t possible.
Learning what you do have control of is key. For the rest, you will have to learn acceptance. That doesn’t mean you like it or that life is fair, but it means accepting that you cannot change the lives or circumstances of the children in your classroom. You have to meet them where they are and love them while you have them.
A way to do that is to follow an after school routine that helps you separate your day job from the rest of your life.
Here are some ideas:
- Take a walk or exercise after school to release dopamine and endorphins in your brain that make you feel happy, plus it helps rid your brain of chemicals that lead to feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Keep a journal that you write in at the end of the day just to air out your emotions and to signal to yourself that you are leaving those worries behind.
- Repeat a mantra that you say each day before you leave school like “I did my best today. Tomorrow is a new day. I leave this one behind.” While that seems simplistic, overtime this thought will become ingrained.
- Find a teacher friend you trust to share with who truly understands the emotions and stress teachers go through daily and can provide support when you need it.
- Pray for the students who need prayers. When you know you cannot change a circumstance for a child, instead of feeling helpless, turn it over to God and then let it go.
- Change out of your school clothes as soon as you get home as a signal that the work day is over and it is time for YOUR life!
Mental health days are valid
Sure it’s hard to miss a day of school. Who among us hasn’t gone to school not feeling well just to avoid the hassle of preparing for a substitute? But when we are really sick, we take a day off to recover from our physical ailment.
The same needs to be considered for a mental health day. When you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and you know you are not even close to your best, you are not serving your students well by showing up. And you are doing harm to yourself.
It’s OKAY to take a mental health day. Having good mental health is key to also having good physical health, so take a day off when you need it. And when you do, use it to do something that is good for you.
Learn to say no
Part of making time for yourself is learning to say no. The demands on teachers never ends, and if you continue to say yes to everything, you can never make yourself a priority. Learning to say no is an art and with practice it can become easier. To learn more about why and how to say know, read this blog article.
Learning to say no is not selfish, it is telling other people as well as yourself that you are making you a priority in your life too.
Making yourself a priority–you are worth it!
With practice and determination, making yourself a priority can become second nature. Until then, take small steps and choose a couple of the ideas above to get started.
It’s time for you to treat your own mental health and well-being with the same care you treat your own students and family.You are worth it!