A Self-Care Guide for Teachers and Students

A Self-Care Guide for Teachers and Students
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Suddenly, the world has changed. With schools across the United States closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students have been left wondering how to cope with the loss of structure, community, and support provided by the K-12 system. At this time of great uncertainty, a number of questions surrounding the potentially long-term pivot away from classroom instruction have emerged, including: Will students experience a “summer slide” over the next few months? Will they be able to graduate or advance to the next grade level as scheduled? How will the shutdown affect special education needs who receive essential academic and social support at school?

Because there are no easy answers to these questions, taking a more concrete approach to self-care may be the best way forward.

A dramatic shift for teachers

It’s no secret that teachers tend to struggle when it comes to putting themselves before others. As Jennifer Gonzalez noted in a 2017 post on her Cult of Pedagogy blog, doing too much all the time is a feature of the job for many members of the profession.

Addressing educators directly, Gonzalez wrote, “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.” 

After all, taking care of oneself can wait, right? Frankly, no. According to Anne Brunette, a social worker who authored a short guide to self-care for teachers, a stressed or tired teacher may be headed toward burnout—and what could be more stressful than an unexpected separation from students and an imminent need to adapt one’s instructional practice for distance learning?

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some ways for teachers to manage stress, prioritize self-care, and encourage their students to adopt similar practices in these trying times.

Self-care tips for teachers
  1. Tend to your own needs now, not later. Here is an important message brought to you by Zero to Three, an organization that focuses on the needs of young children and their caregivers: “Self-care is not selfish or indulgent.” On the contrary, a post on the group’s website explained, self-care is the main way to ensure personal wellness—and personal wellness is especially important for teachers, parents, and other types of caregivers.

  2. First, identify your needs. Before you can embark on a new self-care plan, you may need to stop and listen to yourself. What makes you feel calm and cared for? How do you usually respond to stress? Are your responses productive, or do they result in more stress? If you're unsure how to answer these questions, take a few minutes to identify your needs by pausing, breathing, and reflecting.

  3. Create a personalized self-care plan. If this is your first time putting together a self-care plan, you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. Do you need 15 minutes to stretch and meditate before your day begins, or would you prefer to set aside some quiet time at night? Because exercise and fresh air are key stress-management tools, it's important that you set aside time in your daily schedule to get outside. To avoid deprioritizing this personal time, consider marking it on your calendar and treating it with the same degree of non-negotiability as you would an interpersonal engagement.

Of course, teachers are encouraged to share any self-care lessons they learn with the class. Indeed, social-emotional learning (SEL) is widely recognized and valued by today's schools, and teachers who practice self-care are better equipped to model SEL aspects such as self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making.

To this end, let’s look at some ways educators may be able to help their students embrace self-care during this challenging time.

Self-care tips for students
  1. Acknowledge the uncertainty. With school doors suddenly shut, it's understandable that students may be feeling unsettled and unsure about the future. Thus, the lead organization behind promoting SEL recommends that teachers give students space to “process their emotions” and share questions and concerns. In addition to providing an opportunity to address students' individual fears, this approach may inspire student empathy for others impacted by the pandemic.

  2. Leave room to adapt. Although teachers and administrators will likely feel pressure to keep students on track academically, their efforts to do so may inadvertently cause more stress for everyone involved. Instead, organizations including the Institute of Child Psychology—which shared a message online about how relationships matter more than academic instruction right now—and the mental health resource Be You are advising teachers to meet students where they are and go from there. In short, schoolwork may need to be put on the back burner as everyone finds a way to adjust to the new normal.

  3. Make self-care part of any lesson plan. Encourage students to connect with friends, classmates, and family members to ease concerns about social isolation. Direct parents and kids toward learning-focused games to play at home. Let students incorporate an activity of their choice (for example, a daily nature walk, a mini-yoga session, or silent reading with a personally selected book) into their schooling. Curate and share age-appropriate lessons on topical issues such as the coronavirus and how to cope with it. 

The actions outlined above are some good first steps to ease students' anxiety, help learners feel empowered and supported, and build a sense of resiliency that will likely benefit children long after things return to a semblance of normalcy. 

For teachers and students alike, the best ways to cope amid the COVID-19 crisis include connecting with others, prioritizing one's personal health and well-being, and allowing oneself to feel stress and fear in the face of the unknown.

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