Teaching is an all-consuming career often characterized as emotional labor. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. It’s also a job that’s almost impossible to “leave at work,” whether in the form of a stack of papers to grade or persistent thoughts about how to help a struggling student. Practicing self-care, for teachers, is both vital and challenging.
Why Self-Care for Teachers Matters
The term “self-care” might imply selfishness, but that’s far from true. Teachers who don’t practice self-care are likely to experience exhaustion and burnout. In that state, you can’t bring your best self to the classroom.
By taking good care of yourself first, you can take even better care of your students. You can access your brilliance, your composure, and your patience. You can greet your students with a smile, and answer their questions with a smile too. (Even for the fiftieth time.)
Self-care is even more important for teachers who work with students impacted by trauma. And considering almost 35 million children in the U.S. alone have experienced trauma, most teachers probably fall into this category.
These teachers are “trauma-adjacent” and may experience secondary traumatic stress, also known as compassion fatigue. Signs of compassion fatigue include anxiety, aggression, depression, difficulty focusing, excessive drinking, and sadness and/or anger. Trauma-impacted children need structure, stability, safety, and connection, which you can’t offer when struggling with these symptoms.
Sacrificing your needs for the needs of others will make you less effective at what you do, ultimately helping no one.
Self-Care for Teachers: 7 Tips
Take care of yourself—and those around you—by implementing these simple self-care tips.
1. Start your day with something positive.
Create a positive morning ritual, even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual. Write in a journal, meditate, stretch or exercise, or read a chapter in a good book while sipping your morning coffee. Listen to some of your favorite songs and sing or dance along. Cuddle with your dog. Take a walk, or say a prayer if you’re religious.
Whatever lifts your spirits and sets the tone for a positive and productive day, do it! It’s highly beneficial to spend some quiet time alone before the needs of others come rushing in.
2. Practice healthy habits.
Healthy habits include drinking enough water, eating balanced meals, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising. When you feel good physically, you also feel better mentally. These practices also keep you feeling regulated, stable, and strong.
If you struggle to set new habits, link them to existing routines. For instance, drink a glass of water before brushing your teeth in the morning and at night, or briefly exercise while dinner cooks.
3. Make time for activities that soothe your stress.
Find at least three stress-relieving activities that work for you. What helps you feel calm, happy, and at peace? These might include taking deep breaths, listening to music, squeezing a stress ball, writing in a gratitude journal, painting, etc.
Do these activities consistently. Pay attention to what triggers your stress, and learn to recognize the signs that your stress is building. Create an “emergency self-care” kit for work, so you can break out some of these activities as needed.
4. Take breaks.
As a teacher, your day is exhaustingly social. Take 10-15 minutes to decompress at the end of the school day or during your planning period. Sit quietly and reflect, or do a favorite stress-relieving activity.
If you can only grab five minutes, that’s OK. Just remember that you don’t always need to rush to answer the next email or plan the next lesson. Take a few minutes for yourself, and you can attend to these tasks with a clear mind.
5. Have reasonable expectations for yourself.
Teachers want to fix every problem for their students, take away their hardships, and change the world. When this isn’t possible by the time the bell rings, they feel a sense of failure.
Remember, even teachers are only human. Be kind to yourself by setting reasonable expectations. Think in terms of what you’d like to do and what you reasonably can do. For instance, you can provide a loving and supportive classroom environment. You can advocate for your students. You can take good care of yourself so you can show up as your best self every day.
End each school day by taking a few deep breaths and saying a mantra like, “I have done what I could do today,” or, “I have done good/important work today.” Then say, “I will let the worry and stress go until tomorrow.”
6. Set boundaries.
Similarly, it’s important to say “no” sometimes. You simply can’t do everything for everyone, even if you’d like to. Don’t try to volunteer at every school event, attend every game, or serve on every committee.
Another valuable boundary is to leave your work where it belongs—at work. However, some teachers report feeling more stressed when using this strategy. Find a compromise that works for you. Don’t work after 7:00 P.M., don’t work on the weekends, or designate every other weekend as “work-free.” However you choose to do it, make sure you hit the off switch sometimes.
7. Ask for help.
Interestingly, the people who offer the most help often have the hardest time asking for it. Create a strong support system both in and out of school, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you have a hard time. After all, you aren’t asking for anything you wouldn’t happily give!
Many teachers (and others in helping professions) also benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor. In addition, take time off when you need it. Your students will be OK for one day, and you’ll return feeling refreshed, recharged, and ready to offer love and patience to all.
Final Thoughts: Self-Care for Teachers
Self-care for teachers is an essential practice if you want to avoid chronic stress, burnout, and limited productivity. Banish any guilt you associate with self-care, and think of it as the only way to offer your best self to others. And remember, you deserve to be cared for too!
Follow these seven self-care tips, and you’ll feel much better—and teach better too.