10 Anti-Hacks to Slowly Improve Teacher Wellness
What teacher isn’t run down? From planning to teaching, grading, supervisions, coaching, running clubs, dealing with administrators, students, parents and colleagues – teaching is the ultimate profession of multi-tasking.
Since many teachers tend to be type A perfectionists (like me), sometimes it feels like the to-do list is never ending! But ignoring teacher wellness is a one-way ticket to teacher burnout, and physical or mental illness.
How can we balance it all: work, family, self? Although I certainly don’t have it all figured out, I have been forced to develop a personal wellness plan as a teacher over the past 14 years to be content in my career, at home and in my personal life.
I’ll be honest – these tips are common sense, but they aren’t easy to stick to; I’m absolutely guilty of falling off the wagon here and there. When I’m on the wagon, though, man do they work; I’m energetic, mentally sharp and ready for anything. Read on for my 10 anti-hacks to slowly improve teacher wellness. Which ones can you add to your portfolio of wellness strategies?
In my opinion, sleep is by far the most important ant-hack to teacher wellness. What exactly happens when we don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of uninterrupted shut – eye? According to The Mental Health Foundation , sleep is instrumental in allowing our bodies and brains to rest, repair, consolidate memories and process information. Without this recovery time, our immune systems are weakened, mental and physical health declines and our blood sugar even becomes unstable – what a recipe for disaster!
When I don’t sleep well, watch out. The morning usually starts with a lot of screaming and rushing, and someone breaking down into tears (usually me). Next, I throw my dedication to live a caffeine free life out the window and march my way to the nearest Starbucks for a grande espresso. The school day usually ends up following the same pattern – I’m miserable and short with my students, forget half of what I wanted to cover that day in lessons and avoid all non-essential communication (not very good for relationship development).
Like many of you, sleep is essential for me so to make sure it happens on school nights, I follow these golden rules:
- I don’t bring work home, unless absolutely necessary (i.e. exams).
- I shut everything down by 9pm if possible to allow for at least an hour of relaxation before bed.
- I go to bed by 10pm every night.
- I avoid caffeine, sugar, junk food and alcohol during the week to ensure my diet doesn’t disrupt my sleep.
- I usually do a couple minutes of deep breathing with my eyes closed when I get into bed.
- I do my best to avoid social functions during the week unless it’s a Thursday night.
#2 Eat Real Food at Regular Intervals
This should be your next step in wellness, after you’ve figured out a great sleep schedule. Again, it’s common sense. Prepare and eat real food to balance your blood sugar, maintain your energy and optimize your brain power! Need some inspiration? Check out the Real Food Challenge or take a pledge to eat Real Food for 10 or 100 days. Both these websites provide ideas, recipes, motivation and research to support you in this goal. I personally also use MyFitnessPal to track what I eat and keep me accountable – it’s free and very effective. Check out my profile below:
The second part to eating ‘real food’ is ensuring that you do so at regular intervals. This is my biggest problem. If I miss a meal or a snack, I’m often on a one-way track to a splitting headache and a ‘hangry’ disposition.
To avoid this issue, make sure you’re prepared. Stock your desk, car and staff room fridge with healthy snacks you can grab on the go. This has been my saving grace. I simply add items like organic protein bars, extra fruit, cheese strings, veggies, etc. to my grocery list and stock my secret food cubbies for the coming week(s). This practice has saved both my sanity and waistline!
#3 Get Moving Anytime, Anywhere
According to Women’s Health Magazine, adults should fit in 30 minutes of ‘exercise’ 5 times a week to reap its benefits of mental and physical wellness, many of which are listed on this great article by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The beauty of it, is that you can really exercise anytime and anywhere if you have the right mindset. Stash running shoes in your desk and use your prep or lunch time to sneak in a walk; keep a set of light to medium weights in your classroom and bang out a couple supersets of strength exercises after school. Find a like-minded colleague who is interested in fitness and plan workouts after school by simply googling youtube HIIT (high intensity interval training) videos. If you are a coach – practice with your team (I do this one ALL the time with the volleyball team I coach). Here’s a sneak-peek at my classroom exercise cubby!
Today, I work out anywhere and everywhere: in my classroom, while my kids are at activities (I bring my running shoes and walk or run), and at home (thanks to Lindsay Brin – moms into fitness). Sometimes, I’ll only exercise for 10 minutes because that’s all I can fit in that day, but my goal is to do something – and that has done wonders for my physical and mental health. Start a exercise regime today and you’ll notice the wellness benefits immediately.
I’ve always been a water drinker, so this is an easy one for me – but it’s a huge challenge for my husband, who is also a teacher. Ensuring that your body is hydrated helps in flushing bacteria from your body, lubricating your joints, carrying nutrients to your cells and supporting your digestive system. When my husband is slacking on his hydration, sore joints and fatigue are usually his first signs to grab something to drink.
Staying hydrated is easy if you plan for it. Bring a water bottle to school and keep it filled with water. Avoid caffeinated, sugar filled drinks as hydration supplements as these substances can actually compound dehydration symptoms. Herbal tea is another one of my go – to’s for hydration. A pot’s brewing in my classroom right now……yum!
#5 Change Bad Habits
The first four ‘hacks’ in this list are pretty logical, but they are also things many teachers struggle with the most due to our busy schedules. That’s where habit tracking comes in. The days of checking off lists are long gone, my friends – enter the habit tracking app.
I’ve found that using a habit tracking app has worked wonders for keeping me focused on my personal wellness. There are many options out there, and most are free – I personally use ‘Done: A Simple Habit Tracker with Goal Streaks’. Pick one that works for you and download it to your phone. Then, simply add what habits you’d like to track, and voila! Immediate accountability. Check out my habits from yesterday below – yep the gray one is a miss – had a glass of wine with dinner :(
#6 Meditate for teacher wellness
Meditation is absolutely a current trend in personal health, and recent studies back its power as a wellness powerhouse. As noted in Psychology Today, benefits include: increased immune function, decreased inflammation, decreased stress/depression/anxiety, increased happiness, increased ability to regulate emotions, increased gray matter in your brain, improved concentration and focus, etc., etc.
I started meditating three years ago to help deal with anxiety and stress. At the suggestion of a colleague, I tried the Calm app, and have used it regularly since then. This app also has a free and paid version and teaches you how to meditate through a short program. It even tracks your stats!
Similar to exercise, meditation is something you can fit in anywhere, anytime. I meditate in my classroom, car, at home, in the staff room and gym with my girls volleyball team. Luckily, I happen to work in a classroom beside two other teachers who also happen to be yoga enthusiasts. Our students have walked in on many a meditation and yoga session, and they’re pretty used to it now. We usually put up a warning sign on our doors giving others a heads up, which tends to deter most intruders.
At home, meditation is more of a challenge but it’s absolutely improved my ability to tune out the world! A regular meditation session of 2 minutes or more looks something like this: dog licking my face or pawing at me to go for a walk, kids talking to me (or fighting in my immediate vicinity) , my husband walking in and turning on the tv or deciding to have a ‘serious’ conversation about something (without any reciprocation from me), my cell phone ringing, etc, etc.
Surprisingly, despite the challenges to meditation I face regularly, it has still significantly improved my mental health and ability to ‘reset’ my frame of mind. Trust me, you don’t need a special area, cool workout clothes or even an app; just close your eyes, relax and focus on your breathing – voila – you’re meditating; tune out the world and give your brain a much needed break.
Teachers are usually a pretty organized bunch, but if you’re not part of this crowd, now’s your time to get started. Grab an agenda, use an online calendar or app, or simply write a daily to do list to help you get organized.
Did you know that staying organized can actually improve your mental and physical health? Shape Magazine states that staying organized can help your: stress levels, eating habits, workouts, relationships, productivity, weight and sleep.
As teachers, modeling organization also benefits our students and family by creating environments that are stable, predictable and aesthetically pleasing. I do this by using the Google Classroom app. My entire course is listed there via daily agendas with all necessary links and documents. My students love this strategy, and so do I! It completely eliminates the ‘I forgot my binder at school’ homework syndrome and allows students who are absent to keep up with course work. See an image of a typical Google Classroom post in one of my courses below.
Prioritizing is the best friend of organization, but one that often takes second place. I’ve always been organized, but have struggled with prioritizing, because I want to do everything – an issue most teachers can empathize with. My daily agenda before I prioritize usually looks something like this:
And ends up looking like this after some pondering about prioritizing (you’ll notice a few things didn’t make the cut):
If your goal is to avoid overscheduling, take a couple minutes each day to prioritize your to do list – this will alleviate stress and make the rest of your day flow much easier. If you decide what really matters each day, the less important tasks can be pushed to another day or eliminated all together.
Do only what is necessary each day, and don’t forget to prioritize time for yourself – including exercise, time for cooking healthy meals, sleep, and fun!
#9 Ask for Help and Delegate
If you’ve organized and prioritized your to do list and you’re still overwhelmed, your next step is to ask for help and/or delegate tasks. This is tough for many teachers, as it feels as if we’ve failed if we can’t accomplish everything ourselves, but it can be very effective in relieving stress and improving relationships with students, colleagues and family members.
At school, ask your students for help organizing your classroom, handing out work or self/peer evaluating less important assignments. Connect with colleagues to share resources, create them together or purchase items from other teachers on the Teachers pay Teachers website. For home tasks, get your family involved in cooking, cleaning and owning their schedules (if age appropriate).
Personally, I find asking for help and delegating tasks very hard due to the loss of control, but to survive in this profession, it’s become a necessity. I’ve started to trust the resources and course plans of others whereas before I only used my own constructions, taken on an assistant coach to help with the paperwork and stats on my girls volleyball team, and will work on special projects for my principal or school board ONLY if I have a team to share the work with. My husband is also a teacher and works at my school, so I often use him as my ‘delegator’ or ‘teammate’ since I can keep him on track at home if necessary – this definitely has helped with the ‘letting go’ piece! Baby steps:)
Start with small tasks you can feel ok with letting go of, then work towards larger items. Before you know it, asking for support from those around you will feel like second nature, as it should – we’re all in this together.
#10 Talk it Out, Journal or Post
When life seems overwhelming, purge it from your system. Talk to a colleague, friend or spouse about what’s bothering you and options to solve your dilemma or just talk about your feelings.
If you’re more of an introvert, then write in a journal instead of engaging with another person. Both these activities allow for the expulsion of stress through activities that force your brain to work through ideas, problems and feelings.
You can even express yourself on social media (within reason). I often use my ‘teacher’ facebook page to vent, or joke about ‘teacher problems’. This is one of my favorite memes:
The Importance of Teacher Wellness
Wellness is a state of mind; if you are consciously aware of your personal mental and physical health you can make changes to improve it step by step. As a teacher, your personal wellness impacts others including your students, colleagues and family. Don’t you want the best version of yourself to be shared with others?
If this list seems overwhelming, pick just one idea to try this month and see how it goes, then next month pick another. Before you know it, you’ll have tried them all and will see what strategies work for you. Most likely, you’ve already got a couple of these strategies in your portfolio. Do some self-evaluation – what could you add?
If you take care of your own personal wellness, everyone will benefit from the new, improved, and energetic you: your family, students, colleagues, friends and especially the most important person – YOU!
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Pax Corps is a teacher-authored publication where K-12 classroom teachers share strategies and tips for becoming a happier, more effective teacher.