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As a classroom teacher, you’re “on” for several hours a day, with little to no down time to spare. Finding relief at home isn’t easy either, as workload—grading papers, planning lessons, contacting parents, often worrying about the well-being of students—piles up and encroaches on your personal life. It’s unsustainable for anyone attempting to live some semblance of a healthy work-life balance. No wonder the majority of nearly 5,000 educators reported that their jobs are "always" or "often" stressful in a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers. So, how to manage the seemingly inevitable stress of being a classroom teacher?
We asked several educational professionals, from a veteran educator to a school district administrator, what teachers can do to continue to thrive in the classroom. One recommendation came up repeatedly: take a break. It can take many forms.
Seriously, take 5.
When you’re feeling stressed on the job, even five minutes can help, says Kelly Knoche, a former teacher and founder of The Teaching Well, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that trains schools on wellness strategies for teachers. As part of the training, she urges teachers who are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated to find even a short period of one to five minutes during the workday, perhaps between classes, to sit calmly and take a number of deep breaths. This mindfulness activity is just one small piece of The Teaching Well’s comprehensive program model that, according to the organization’s performance data, has reduced teacher attrition by over 50 percent in schools where it’s been implemented
Create--and stick to--boundaries
“Society expects teachers to be on call 24-7,” said Stacey McAdoo, a 16-year veteran teacher and the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, noting that this “always-on” expectation is a significant stress inducer. It’s doubtful that anyone will tell you to take a break. It’s up to you. Whether it’s setting your alarm each evening at a reasonable time to stop grading papers and responding to emails, limiting the number of weekend hours you spend on work, or even curbing how often you talk about your job outside of the school building—give yourself a break.
Seek group support
Teaching isn’t the sort of job you can easily leave behind at the end of the day. But turning over a demanding day in your mind can make you feel like a hamster-on-the-wheel, leading you nowhere. Developing a support group—either informal or formal, teacher-based or not—may offer a better solution.
It’s a non-negotiable part of her life outside of school, says McAdoo, who teaches at Little Rock’s Central High School. One of her “chat groups” consists of “The Girls”: non-academic friends and family members to whom she vents. The other group she calls “The Educators”: fellow teachers and running buddies who lend each other support as they train for and travel together to races, like a half-marathon they did together in Canada.
Increasingly, administrators are recognizing the need to provide teachers with support systems like those offered by Happy Teacher Revolution, a professional development organization that trains teachers around the globe to facilitate wellness-oriented groups for their colleagues. Founder Danna Thomas, a former teacher in the Baltimore city public schools, recalls being so overburdened by her job that she’d weep in the parking lot each morning. She eventually left the classroom and—with input from mental health professionals, school administrators, yoga instructors, and nutritionists—launched the organization. “I wanted to normalize the stigma of seeking mental health support for teachers, rather than celebrating the ones who stayed until 10 p.m,” said Thomas.
Address mental health issues with confidence
Sometimes, it takes much longer than a few minutes a day or a monthly support group to recharge. Progressive school leaders are beginning to recognize and support the mental health needs of teachers—even those whose needs are severe enough to require a leave of absence.
“Across time, we’ve found an increasing need for longer absences due to mental health concerns,” said Bill Redinger, assistant superintendent for human resources at Missouri’s Park Hill School District. He says his own district has undergone a cultural shift, notably with administrators beginning to acknowledge the very real perils for teachers who struggle with mental health issues. We never question a teacher about a cancer diagnosis, notes Redinger, adding that a mental health illness deserves the same sense of urgency as physical health. “Now we have teachers approaching us with confidence, knowing there’s going to be support from the school district,” he said. He advises teachers elsewhere to do the same.
This notion of self-care may seem antithetical to the profession of teaching, which requires endless care of others. But, as McAdoo observed: “We have to take care of teachers, or public school education will cease to exist as we know it.”