Teachers, How are You? Support your Students by Supporting Yourself First

Earlier this year, I was invited by a local elementary school to give a presentation on resilience and self-care for educators during the Covid-19 pandemic. I jumped at the opportunity—prior to my residency in child and adolescent psychology, I taught middle and high school language arts, and I think often about the overlap between those two roles.

With a cafeteria full of elementary school teachers, my co-presenter and I reflected on the heaviness of the past two years—the lingering feelings of uncertainty, the loss of routine, the absence of connection, the rapid shifts in expectations and responsibilities. Our hope was to provide a space that allowed educators to be honest about the impact the pandemic has had on them.

I wish I could offer you all that space. I’ve since reflected on the number of teachers who later shared their gratitude for being asked how they were feeling that day. They needed it. I remember needing it as a teacher, and I bet you might need it, too.

Below, I’ve put together some tips that I hope can help educators cultivate their own, well-deserved space of honesty and support.

Acknowledge what you’ve been through.

I’d like to offer some language to help make sense of these past two years. Together, we have experienced a worldwide collective trauma. Every system, comfort, and security we rely on has been uprooted and shaken. What we know about trauma is that it limits our ability to function and cope. It can overwhelm and affect us cognitively (e.g., memory loss, brain fog), emotionally (e.g., apathy), and socially (e.g., increased irritability with others) in ways that are easily overlooked. We wouldn’t minimize our students’ experiences of trauma, so let’s make sure we don’t minimize it in ourselves. I encourage you to be gentle and accepting of where you are and what you’re capable of right now.

Set boundaries. Stick to them the best you can.

When I was a teacher, I remember feeling like there was always something I needed to be working on. I need to call this parent, I need to finish grading, I need to finalize this lesson. In hindsight, I think few of those things needed to be done when I, for some reason, convinced myself they did. As much as possible, consider your in-the-moment needs alongside the work pressures of the moment. Sometimes, that essay really does need to be graded right now, but sometimes it doesn’t. Can you shut down your laptop and leave it closed for the next hour? The whole evening? Oftentimes, I bet you can. Admittedly, this sometimes takes re-evaluating your expectations of yourself a bit. That PowerPoint may not be perfect, or you may not feel quite as on top of everything as you have before, but can you be okay with that?

Ask others how they’re doing. Be honest when it’s asked of you.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at Clarity Child Guidance Center, it’s that “how are you?” can be a powerful question. We don’t ask it enough. Lean into your friends and colleagues that make you feel emotionally supported right now. Call your friend on the way home, if only to talk about what they’re watching on TV. Those moments and reminders that we’re connected are more significant than we’re often aware.

When I have the capacity, I really try to ask and listen to how my colleagues are doing. And I push myself to share honestly when I’m asked myself. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable helps foster authentic connections, and my work in mental health reminds me every day that healing happens through relationships.

Taking care of yourself is not selfish—it builds your capacity.

My experience of teaching was pre-pandemic, and I can only imagine how intensified the stress of the job has become since then. We can’t rely on routine and predictability anymore, and I remember how critical those are to feeling prepared and confident as a teacher. The increased stress on parents and family systems also trickles down to you, and that’s not even considering those of you who have children of your own.

I use the airplane example often, and it fits well here. What do flight attendants always tell you? Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. You must put yourself first to be present in your relationships and effective in your work with children. I know the words “self-care” inevitably yield some eye rolls, so instead, I encourage you to be mindful and attuned to how you’re doing. And not just how you’re doing professionally, but also physically, psychologically, socially, and professionally. As teachers, it’s an important main objective.

I’m grateful, every day, to have started my career in the classroom. I see how it shaped the way I approach my work with children, how it developed my patience and ability to problem-solve, and how it built my sense of self and resilience. Your students, more than ever, are looking to you for how to make meaning of a very difficult experience. I encourage you to model for them by making space for yourself.

  • Sharon Levine is a doctoral candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, completing a year-long psychology residency at Clarity Child Guidance Center. Her primary research interests are school-based mindfulness and the implementation of trauma-informed student supports. She has spent time as a middle and high school English teacher, a counselor for first-generation college students, and an instructional coach for first-year, K-12 teachers.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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