The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has turned our lives upside down. It has robbed teachers of the certainty and security that they are used to, affecting overall teacher wellbeing. Small or large changes to our natural routines and ways of living, to the curriculum, to physical ways of being able to teach and interact with colleagues and students... whilst one or two minor changes may not seem like a big deal, all of these changes have begun to build up across a long term period of stress. All of these changes, from the minor tweaks to the large changes, have led to a overwhelming feeling of stress and pressure.
In addition to this, for lots of us, our usual coping strategies may be interrupted; the time and space we have for ourselves is diminished, and our ability to cope becomes more difficult.
As teachers and students have returned onto school property, and have experienced the turbulence of year-group bubbles and self-isolation, teachers and education staff have all been pushed out of their comfort zones. There have been modifications to ways of working, higher risks, changes to pre-pandemic support mechanisms... the list goes on. Teachers aren’t just being asked to manage their own difficulties during this time, they inevitably act as emotional containers for students, parents, colleagues and their own families.
It feels apt then to discuss teacher wellbeing and what tips there may be to minimise the impact of all the stress. I offer the following ideas, not as a recipe to resolve all stress, but to prompt people to reflect on their own self-care and what they may be able to do to better look after their own needs.
4 tips for improving teacher wellbeing
1. Focus on what you can control
To help teacher wellbeing, we need to encourage focus towards the things that are in our control. As I mentioned earlier in this article, a great deal of certainty has been removed. Humans are naturally problem-solving creatures, and therefore, we have the potential to continue to try to mentally resolve issues that we have no power to influence. We can ruminate over decisions made at government and local level, mull over the hygiene behaviour of students, colleagues and families, and focus our mental energy on the global picture.
It is entirely natural to be drawn into thinking about these things, as they feel potentially threatening. However, with little power to influence it, our mental batteries become drained when they would perhaps best be reserved for focusing on what is within our control. That does not mean that we have to become apathetic about these issues, we are simply directing our attention and focus to the areas we have control over.
I may not be able to control the social distancing of others but I can control my own behaviour.
2. Take care of the fundamentals
During times of prolonged and extreme stress, we can be prone to running on autopilot and adrenaline. We can rely on quick fixes, as we don’t have the mental energy to think of more functional or healthier options that take that bit longer.
We reach for the sugar and caffeine to give us a short burst of energy, we drink alcohol to help us unwind or get to sleep, we can’t be bothered to exercise and instead spend time flicking through Instagram.
Again: all of this is entirely normal, we often take the path of least resistance. The difficulty comes with the protracted period this endurance is for. We end up relying on these for longer and longer and ultimately end up neglecting our needs. Take time to reflect on these actions, there may be points you’re more likely to struggle with.
It’s incredible how much impact the fundamentals of nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep have on our emotional health. This isn’t about living life like a saint, but to help teacher wellbeing, we need to make sure teachers are taking care of their body. If we don’t add petrol to our car, don’t get it serviced, and keep it running constantly, it might keep going for a bit, but it's likely to break down sooner.
3. Reach out to connect
Most of us are naturally social creatures. We don’t live as hermits and we mostly crave social interactions.
This new normal is different, we aren’t as easily able to do things as we were before. There is something hugely resourceful in maintaining the connections with friends, family, and colleagues, despite the challenges in doing so.
To help ourselves and teacher wellbeing, we need to be creative sometimes. Think of novel ways to interact without relying on the now ever-reliable group zoom quiz. You can host watch parties for your favourite films, send voice notes, get dressed up for a meal over video conferencing or go old school and write letters.
It doesn’t have to be all the time and it doesn’t have to be profound moments of talking about your deepest darkest secrets, it's just about staying connected and feeling part of something outside of your little bubble.
If you are struggling, be brave enough to be vulnerable and share it. You don’t have to tell everyone everything, but you might be surprised about who feels the same. I’ll never forget emailing four of my closest friends when I was at my lowest ebb years ago and being honest about how I felt. Not only did it help them understand why I was acting differently, it set the precedent for them to share things they may have been struggling with.
4. Validate your own emotions
We can often recognise that we are struggling long before we do anything about it. We switch to telling ourselves statements like: ‘You should be able to handle it!' ‘Think about it tomorrow!’ and ‘If they can do it, why can’t I?’ We put on a front and continue a performance of appearing to be ok when we’re not. That in itself is exhausting, on top of the performing nature of the role of teachers.
Putting a façade or brave face on it takes up huge amounts of energy that could be better spent looking after ourselves. It would be unrealistic to walk through these last few months and to not feel affected in some way. That doesn’t mean you’re broken or weak or less than anyone else. It means you’re human.
To improve your own wellbeing and teacher wellbeing in general during this time we need to notice it, acknowledge the impact of it, and take care of ourselves in the ways to suit us.
You don’t have to do it alone but it isn’t something others can do without your permission.
By dismissing your own feelings or bottling them up, you simply shame yourself. It’s probably not how you would respond to a friend or loved one, and it’s ultimately not what you need right now.
These points have been a starting point in what we hope to be an ongoing conversation about teacher wellbeing and what steps individuals, groups, schools and networks can take to make positive steps to ameliorate some of the stress you may be experiencing.
For more information and help on teacher wellbeing, please click here and/or to our podcast. For more whole-school wellbeing resources, click here. To sign up for a demo and free trial of our student wellbeing and personal development software, click here.
Written by Dr Alistair Bailie (AKA Dr Bear)