By understanding and measuring yourself against these tips for teacher wellness, you’ll be better equipped to handle what life throws at you in and out of the classroom.
You know those times, when you already have a to-do list a mile long, but then whatever it is you’re doing ratchets up a notch?
Maybe it’s report writing time or all those assignments need to be graded stat – whatever it is, it pushes you over the line from your personal level of coping into Stress City.
And while a little bit of stress is good for you, too much for too long causes a heap of problems from the inconvenient to the downright scary.
There are fundamental flaws in the education system that need changing, but while we work on those, we also need to work on ourselves and what we can do to cope in these situations.
Luckily, there is a way of looking at our mental health that gives us both strategies for coping when things are tough and all over increases our resilience.
They’re relevant to everyone but I think especially so for teachers who are so used to putting everyone else first.
You’ve no doubt heard the term wellness before. For the sake of this post, wellness is a term that defines not only how we feel but how we function in our lives.
Those of us experiencing a high level of wellness feel positive about our lives and do a good job of managing them.
Those of us who don’t, feel negative, or even depressed, and struggle to function with everyday living.
As in all things, wellness is a continuum that most of us move up and down on during different stages.
I was brought up in a time where the physical health and mental health were seen as completely separate issues.
The mind and the body were split, and we didn’t really believe that one had a huge effect on the other. Physical illness was seen as something to be pitied- and everyone rallied to take care of who was in need.
On the other hand, mental illness was seen as a personal weakness, something that could and should be controllable by the person suffering it, if they only made up their mind to “snap out of it.”
But the truth is, you cannot separate the physical and mental.
In fact wellness can be thought of as four essential elements: not only the physical and mental, but also the spiritual, and family and community.
When thinking about how they work together, imagine a house – one of those square ones that you used to draw when you were little.
Each one of these elements represents a wall of the house. The heavy roof is supported by these four walls.
Now imagine that one of the walls suddenly crumbles down. What would happen to the stability and structure of the house then? What if two of the walls came down? Three?
Looking at it this way, it’s not hard to see that optimal wellness means taking care of all of these aspects, and that the minute one weakens, you are in danger of experiencing greater stress, unhappiness, and possibly more serious mental health issues.
And that can be a hard thing to admit.
So let’s dive a little deeper into each one and see how you’re performing and what you could do to support yourself a little more.
You might also like: How to Create a Self Care Plan for Teachers
Physical health is divided into four main areas, and you’re not going to be surprised by at least three of them.
Sleep is one of the first things to go in your life when things start getting under the pump. After all, it’s the one supposedly easy thing that you can cut back on that will give you more time.
But please don’t.
We can’t make up sleep deficits the way we once thought we could, so getting by on five hours a night during the week and then trying to sleep in on the weekend just won’t cut it.
And the effects of sleep deprivation go beyond being a little grumpy in the classroom. Being sleep deprived can weaken your immune system, increase your blood pressure, cause weight gain and reduce concentration (source).
You need to have approximately 7-9 hours of sleep a night My magic number is seven and a half, and once I worked that out, things got so much easier!
Again, when things get a little crazy, it can be tempting to run for takeout and at least remove the job of cooking from the to-do list.
However that “quick fix” really only fixes the immediate issue of hunger and convenience. It doesn’t fix your need to have quality, healthful food that nourishes you inside and out.
Good nutrition affects both our body and our mind. Studies, for example, are showing increasing connections between gut bacteria and mood, in particular stress, anxiety and depression (source).
The easiest way to improve your diet is simply by trying to eat food that is as close to source as possible- food that your grandparents would have recognized as food!
If you want to explore gut health further, investigate kombucha, kefir or other fermented foods such as sauerkraut.
I’ve seen all kinds of numbers bandied around, but 30 minutes of physical exercise three times a week is a do-able number for physical health.
It doesn’t have to be sweat-inducing, exhaustion-provoking exercise either- walking is just fine!
Exercise is as effective as medication in some people who suffer from depression (source) and there are many other benefits to getting out there and hitting the pavement.
The fourth aspect of physical health is mindfulness.
It is stopping the endless rush and taking a moment or two to focus on just being. Triangle breathing (inhale, hold, exhale – each for a count of 4) is one way to do this. Even two or three times a day is enough.
As important as physical health is spiritual health.
Spiritual health is something that is defined by the individual. It can be a belief in a Christian god, practicing Buddhism, or simply the beauty of the universe, but at its crux it is about believing both in something greater than yourself, and that you have purpose and meaning within your construction of the universe.
For example, gardening can be an act of boosting spiritual health – as your body works your mind becomes still. You see the miracles of nature and you become part of that through your care of your plants.
Meditating, praying, or attending church, are other examples of activities which bolster your spiritual health.
Family and community health
Human beings thrive on connection to others (even when you’re an introvert like me and get all people’d out by the end of the school day). If you have a strong health in this area, you have a strong sense of family and community.
You communicate with your family members regularly, participate in family events and enjoy family traditions.
You feel like you belong in your community, you can locate yourself within a network of people, and you attend community events.
Note that your community can be as broad as a workplace or a sports team- it doesn’t necessarily mean where you live.
Mental and emotional health
Mental and emotional health refers to how well you enjoy life despite dealing with stressors.
If you have strong mental health, you have resilience; you might get knocked back but you pick yourself up again.
You have systems and routines in place that help you manage yourself, and these support you when times are tough. You also experience the full range of emotions- you can feel joy and sadness, as opposed to always feeling flat.
When all four walls are strong, we are primed to deal with the challenges that come our way. And the secret is, when those challenges do come, we need to keep taking care of all those aspects. Yet we often do the opposite.
Think about it- like I said above, when things get stressful, we tend to do things like isolate ourselves, eat highly processed food for convenience or binge on chocolate, skip the workout, and become so blinkered that we stop seeing the overall purpose of what we are doing.
So time to think about how you can take this information and use to improve your life!
How many hours of sleep are you getting a night?
How would you rate your diet?
How much exercise do you get a week?
Do you practice mindfulness?
Do you have a sense of who you are and what you want from life?
What gives your life purpose and meaning?
Do you have a religion or spiritual practice you are connected to?
Family and community health:
Are you connected to your family?
Do you attend family events?
Do you have a group you belong to?
Do you involve yourself in activities connected with this group?
Mental and emotional health:
Do you have routines and systems that help you cope with the everyday?
Would you describe yourself a resilient?
Do you have coping strategies for when things get tough?
If, by looking at these questions, you feel there is an area in which you are weak, it’s time to brainstorm what possible ways in which you could make your wall in this area a little stronger.
Remember slow and small is always more sustainable that fast and big, so pick some small changes and work on these first.
And remember too, that there’s nothing wrong with multi-tasking in this instance.
For example, my husband and I run together in nature. To me, this gives me family health, physical health, and spiritual health.
Maybe you want to have a family meal once a week where you cook delicious healthful food.
You could join a group of friends from school and start attending meditation classes together or get a yoga teacher to come in and run a class during the lunch break.
The possibilities are endless! All that you need to do is try something.
Wellness is multidimensional.
Start today by doing an assessment of where you are at, and come up with a plan on how you are going to fix those areas where you aren’t quite so strong.
Every day thereafter, work on building the walls of your house.
Finally, when you know times are going to be tough, shore up those walls by taking extra special care of your needs, so you can weather the storm rather being destroyed by it.
Did this help you think of wellness in a new way?
What area of your life could you work on more to support yourself more?