While it may seem as though the world is focused on how parents and students are impacted by the pandemic, we see your struggle, frustration, burn-out, and resilience. You have had to completely change how you operate and educate over the last 2 years, and now we are entering your 3rd school year with pandemic level stress. You have been pushed to do MORE when the world is actively encouraging the public to do LESS.
For the first time, in what is most likely a long time (if not ever) you have felt lonely while teaching the minds of tomorrow; We can only imagine the emotions that occur when teaching to 20+ blank screens, or seeing your student's emotional breakdowns, or having students just disappear from class, or being told by administration “do it this way now.” Oh and what about your own family struggles?
Burn-out, exhaustion, and mental health concerns can occur for those in helping professions, especially ones that have had to endure major change. Then, add on the empathic response you may feel or hear carrying the pain and frustration of your students' reactions to the pandemic; we know they confide in you, and when they don’t you see their struggle through their behavior and grades.
While you work tirelessly to place your students' needs first, we are writing this letter to you, to remind you to “Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” Students are intuitive and teachers are human; It is okay to be struggling and students can tell when you are. In order to be the best you can for yourself, your students, your family, and your profession, it is important to remember the following things:
Know the warning signs your body is sending you, regulate often
Boundaries are critical
Taking time off is not selfish
Self-care is more than just a buzzword
Relationships are key
Your brain needs consistency to unwind
Warning Signs. While many mental health matters can show up in different ways, there are some common warning signs that your body tries to show you to communicate that it needs support:
Decrease in motivation
Feeling “meh” or apathetic or down
Irritability and anger
Anxious sensations in the body (jittery, nervousness, being “on-edge”)
Decrease in passion or interest in things you love or typically enjoy
Sleep disturbances (sleeping too much or not able to sleep enough)
Constantly needing a distraction
Feeling easily overwhelmed
If you are experiencing any of these or other concerning thoughts, sensations, emotions, or behaviors that stray from your normal, it can be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional and try to integrate preventative/responsive measures like boundaries, time for you, self-care, relationships, and routines.
So let's talk about what you can do.
Boundaries. Oh, boundaries. Probably one of the hardest, yet most important facets of a teacher's job. A job that requires so much of you outside of school hours, thus encouraging your home to also be your office - before and during the pandemic. Being able to separate your personal and professional lives is important to allow your brain and body to actually believe it is receiving some breaks, downtime, rest. How can you, as an active participant in such a selfless profession, create and maintain boundaries.
This will look different for every teacher, and there are some guidelines that can help:
Work and living spaces remain separate: designate a space in your home, even if it is just a corner, that is your “work space.” Then, reinforce the boundary by only doing work in that space (yes, we know you do work from home, because you care about your students). This will allow your brain and body a chance to leave the stress of work in that space.
Work and personal electronics remain separate: While not all jobs provide a work phone and computer, there are ways to create some distance between work and personal functions on your phone and laptop. When your working hours are done, set your email to snooze or completely log out of it: you are done working, you do not need work to keep notifying you it is still there...It will be there tomorrow. In addition, if you utilize one laptop or computer for work and personal tasks, create separate users on that device.
Have a consistent ending time for work: It is important to maintain as much consistency around start and end times with work as possible. We can understand that the tasks of your job as teachers go beyond the school hours, and probably late into the night a lot of time. For your sanity and prevention of burnout, have a consistent end time from work that allows some time for you to do you at night time. Then, remind yourself the following: “you have time, and being your refreshed self will lead to more effectiveness and productivity during your working hours.” You know the work will never end so just pause.
Time for You. The helping profession is a selfless one. We understand you are selfless, and it may feel selfish to take time for yourself. In reality, taking time for yourself is one of the best ways to provide support for your students, family, and your long-term career goals. We also understand, you may have already heard a thousand times that it is important to take a break.
We are wondering if you know WHY it is important to do so, like really why.
The WHY you should take a break:
Chronically Increased Cortisol Levels. Long-term, uninterrupted stress leads to consistently high cortisol levels. Why should it matter that your cortisol levels are high? Well, high cortisol levels are correlated with increased sickness times, increased fatigue, increased weight gain, increased mood changes, increase in feeling on edge, and is seen as a higher risk factor for major health problems in the future. Eventually your body is probably going to force you to take a break, and it would probably be better to take a break when you don’t feel like crap.
“Working” on an empty battery. Consistently giving without recharging depletes your “battery” to dangerously low levels. Attempting to keep working and giving when your battery is low leads to an increased risk for mental health conditions, chronic fatigue, decreased motivation, apathy, and suicidal ideation. If that's not reason enough, just think:
Self-Care. Since we have established it is important to recharge our batteries to continue being the selfless workers we would like to be...how do we recharge? What does it look like for you versus us versus your colleague? We will tell you this, it is going to look different. Self-care has become a buzz word in society today, and often is visualized as meditation, breathing, taking a bath, etc.
Of course, all of those things can be self-care, and maybe they are not the activities that recharge YOUR battery. When deciding what to do during your break to recharge, ask yourself these questions:
How do I know when I am feeling “good?” What are the sensations I notice in my body?
What things in the past have made my body feel that way before?
If those questions are not enough, it is okay to try different activities to find the ones that do make your body feel good, rather than only your brain being distracted.
Here are some to try to get you started:
Playing sports or games with others
Move night with a cuddle buddy (could be your dog!)
Treating yourself to a nice meal or spa day
Reading that book you have been wanting to
Make a craft, do your hobby
Complete a puzzle
Go on a vacation
Go on a long drive
Get a professional massage
Clean your space
Lay upside down
Play a game with your kids/partner
While it is mostly natural to be responsive to stress rather than preventative, attempting to be proactive in maintaining a low stress level and at least a half full battery charge, will go a long way in bettering your health, attitude, and passion for your work.
Relationships. Struggling, laughing, venting, watching movies, and many other things can be really difficult when doing so alone. Human beings are hardwired for connection, and if that doesn’t sound right to you just think about how you have felt when someone else says the right thing to let you know they understand your feelings. It is important for you as teachers to have a strong support system, even more, one that really understands the demands and stress of your job.
Relationships are an integral part of the systems in your brain that help you feel relaxed, focused, motivated, etc. We understand the global pandemic has made relationships and connections even harder, and for the same reason they have become more important than ever. Thankfully, technology is a way to receive some type of connection when a physical one may feel too scary.
Reach out to trusted friends, colleagues, family members, or health professionals when feeling overwhelmed: It does not make you weak or incapable of handling hard things. It shows your bravery and courage to risk being vulnerable and connect with another human to acknowledge life is HARD right now.
Routines. Consistency and the known are what help the brain and body relax easier. We have alert systems in our brain that quickly register when something is unfamiliar or familiar, and leads the body to respond accordingly. Typically, when the brain registers a scenario that is unfamiliar it will want to prepare you for anything and everything, therefore your body may feel on edge, tense, and super observant- this is called hypervigilance. Whereas when the brain registers a scenario as familiar, it does not need to prepare for anything because it has already done this before. Therefore, your body may feel more relaxed and sure. This is why we turn to old movies, favorite books, and songs to make something predictable and familiar- to destress us. This knowledge of how your brain and body work may help you decide to incorporate routines to begin and end your work day. Having consistency will benefit your stress level and lead to actual relaxation at the end of your work day.
Because you DESERVE IT.
Let’s not forget the added benefit that your students' brains work the same way! So, when there is consistency in your classroom, both you and your students will feel a greater sense of relaxed brain, thus allowing learning and executive functioning to have a chance to prosper! So set up a routine, expectations for your classroom and stick with them so your students find comfort in your room, allowing their brains to engage and LEARN when they are with you.
There are several suggestions to consider in this letter, and we know it may have been hard to even read the whole thing. We hope these guidelines have brought some help and support to you during this stressful time with an already, at times, taxing career.
Either way, we hope this letter at least reminds you that there are people, families, and organizations thinking about you and cheering you on.
We are here if you need us.
With love and care,
Olympia Therapy, PLLC