Self-Care Checklist

It’s so easy to ignore personal health as a teacher. It’s so easy to feel too tired, or too busy, to take care of yourself. Considering that, I’ve made a “self-care checklist.” I try to do one thing for myself from each category, daily, to take care of myself.

Mental Health

  • Meditate. I try to meditate daily, in the mornings. There isn’t a ton of research about meditation (at least, not credited research the way we think of it in the West), but the research that is there suggests you’ll benefit the most from it if you meditate between 5-10 minutes a day.
  • Write in a journal. Vent, reflect, do whatever you’ve got to do.
  • Laugh. Watch a stand-up comedy, listen to a funny podcast, laugh with your friends.

Emotional Health

  • Call a friend. Real communication helps with stress immensely.
  • Go all out on a “personal night.” face mask, wine, favorite movie, whatever it is. Spend the night relaxing.
  • Go out. Get out of the house. Seriously. Depending on what you need, it may not be a night at home alone, but a night with friends.

Physical Health

  • Take a walk outside. Sometimes, I’m so stressed after work that I need a physical separation between my hours at work and my hours at home. Walking for 15-20 minutes helps with that.
  • Exercise. Anything, really, helps you when you’re stressed. I love running, biking, lifting weights, and yoga. (Generally, my rule is that when I really don’t feel like working out, I have to work out that day.)
  • Spend time in nature. A growing amount of research suggests that spending time in nature – even an hour or two a week – helps lower anxiety, stress, and depression.  Take a hike.
  • Eat healthy. This is one I struggle with frequently, but it is incredibly important. The food you eat can drastically impact your mentality, and the healthier you eat, the healthier your mind and body become.

 

One of the habits that improved my mental health, generally, during my first year of teaching was when I began giving myself regular “check-ups.” I started to become more conscious of my behaviors and thought patterns as they related to my health. I began paying attention to the signals my body sent me, trying to figure out what I needed most on different days. I tried as many different ways to be healthy and to lower my stress level, but I focused heavily on physical health because I knew how much it could affect my mental health.

Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

October: the month that lasts two years

Year: 2

It’s six in the morning, and as I’m making lunch for today, I’m listening to a Spanish playlist and wishing I were back in Chile. This week, I’m teaching an argumentative essay for the second time. I feel as though I’m moving through mud. It’s October, and I am feeling this month in every part of my day.

Writing anything about teaching during October, November, or December runs the risk of just being a string of tired (very tired) complaints. It is a very particularly difficult time of the school year because, as students get more comfortable and begin to act out, teachers are just wearing down their energy. We’re entering a part of the year when I have to become much more strict (I am already very strict) and I enjoy this job much less because of it.

My school’s fall break ended yesterday, and rather than feeling refreshed and ready to teach, I felt as though I were dragging myself through each class. After this week, the quarter should be much easier to get through, as writing lessons are typically less enjoyable for me than other lessons. The days following any break, but especially a break in the fall, are rough, and it will get better as I get back into the routine of teaching.  I’m trying to focus on that as I go into today. I probably sound like a broken record, having said this so many times, but self care is going to be even more important for me this week: to all the other teachers out there, I hope you’re taking care of yourselves, too.

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.

The Process

Year: 2

I’ve said it before and I’ll say again: the second year of teaching is universally, infinitely better than the first year. It’s been so much smoother from the beginning; my discipline issues have been lower, my relationships with students have been better, my stress level is laughably lower than last year, my lessons have been more effective. Give me a choice between where I am now and where I was six months ago and I will take now, hands down, no hesitation.

But this past week, I realized I’ve stopped taking care of myself.

I think it probably happened because this year has started off so smoothly. Everything has been going so much better than last year that it’s really taken me this long to understand how much I’ve ignored caring for myself. I haven’t exercised (really) in about two weeks. (Cough, cough – should have started marathon training last month – cough cough.) I have meditated once a week, maybe, for all of September. And while I haven’t been overeating, like I was when under so much stress last year, I haven’t been eating particularly well lately.

But because school has been going so well, I barely even noticed.

I had to really take a moment to process that when it became clear to me. This career can be so demanding, so high-energy and high-focus, that when it’s going well, you can still forget to take care of yourself. This is because even a teaching job that is fantastic is still a job that can redirect all of the energy you have. It’s just that type of job. So far this year, I’ve been about 90% work, 10% me. Even with the school year going as well as it’s going, that’s obviously an unhealthy balance.

Over the last few days, I’ve taken a couple basic steps. I went to Target (oh, Target, I love you) and got a new planner that allows me to build in a “self-care checklist” so I can keep better track of whether or not I’m practicing self-care. Even something that tiny – have I exercised? have I meditated? have I done something emotionally beneficial for myself? – can feel huge after so many weeks of neglect. I meditated this morning, for the first time in too long; probably at least partly because of my meditation this morning and my choice to actually get out of bed and run before school, I had the best day at school that I’ve had in well over a week.

It is so easy to find yourself in a routine of mediocrity. That mediocre, “just so-so” routine is often because we forget to take care of ourselves. It is so easy, too easy, to find yourself in that pattern as a teacher. Eventually, of course, the pattern of mediocrity leads to a pattern of stress, which leads to burning out. Even though I’m out of one of the most difficult years of my teaching career (or so they say), I still have to check in with how well I’m doing in regards to self-care.

Self-care is a process to be continued throughout your days and months, not a single checkpoint to cross before being perfectly okay forever. I needed that reminder, and I will hopefully be able to remind myself of that more quickly the next time I fall short.

Dealing With Death

Year: 1

The week in which I learned about my student’s death was a haze. I did not know how to comfort my students or best control my classes. As I navigated the waters of a teacher working with grieving students, I tried myself to grieve. I felt oddly and uncomfortably functional. I expected to fall apart, but did not. It took me several days to understand how deeply not okay I was – not spending time with friends, not exercising, sleeping far more than necessary, and not really doing anything at all outside of work. I’d go home, eat, and sort of wander around or lay in bed until it was even close to an acceptable time to sleep. I repeated that process for the week leading up to her funeral.

I didn’t really talk to anyone about her. I had a few conversations, here or there, but I never opened up fully. A few days before the wake, I emailed a former high school teacher of mine, Mr. Lee. He was one of my favorite teachers; I’d considered him a mentor as a teenager, and I remembered that he’d taught in an inner-city school like mine. In his reply, Mr. Lee offered to call me and discuss everything.

That conversation was very likely the reason I made it through the following weeks. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, telling my former teacher about it all: my students, the school, the level of trauma and poverty in the area surrounding my school, my student who died, the wake and funeral that I would soon attend. I cried, a lot, as my teacher talked about his experiences working with similar kids. We discussed coping skills and how to move forward in the classroom, and for as long as I live, I will remember him saying to me repeatedly: “They may not act like it, Torey, but they need you. These kids need you really fucking badly right now.” It would be the only time I felt comfortable enough to cry about her death and about the overwhelming stress I felt; it would be the only time I would have a full, difficult, necessary conversation about an impossibly painful experience.

The week following my student’s death did not offer me much opportunity to process and grieve. On the day of her funeral, one week after my receiving the news, teachers in Arizona called for a statewide strike. I chose to attend the funeral rather than go to the strikes. I stood with our school’s principals, as well as a few other teachers who wanted to join us. While teachers around the state were preparing for protests at the capitol, I stood at the funeral, desperately hoping that never again would I hear the cry of a mother and father who have lost their young daughter.

The strike lasted almost two full weeks. Following my student’s funeral, I found myself swept along a current of protests, coffee with teachers to talk about the strike, many, many conversations regarding politics in the education system. I did not speak about her in those following weeks, trying to focus on the strikes, worrying about the safety of my employment as a first-year teacher. The clearest benefit of this strike to me, personally, was the way it shoved me out of my zombie-like state I’d been in prior to the strikes. By the time the strikes ended, though, I just remember a powerful sense of relief that I could go back to my classroom with the students I’d last seen on funeral grounds. I wanted to be back in the classroom. I wanted to finally end that year.

I don’t think I have more than one or two conversations about my student after the teacher strikes. Those conversations, if they could be called that, consisted of a sentence or two on my part before moving on to a different topic. Until about midsummer, when the panic attacks began, I did not realize how much I’d kept buried.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating or crying or both, the lingering scenes of my dreams still present. The dreams were almost always the same, with a changing cast: a funeral, seeing the casket, seeing people standing at the lowering of the casket. The dreams became increasingly difficult: it began with family members, but by the last dream, it was me in the casket. Until I woke up from that dream – a panicked, terrifying confrontation of my own mortality – I didn’t realize how little I’d addressed the death of my student.

The day after I learned of her death, I went to my tattoo artist. On my wrist now sits an M., the first letter of my student’s first name. She always talked about my tattoos – joking once with a friend that their parents would let them get tattoos in eighth grade, trying to convince me they were telling the truth – and it felt an appropriate way to honor and remember her. It is also a daily reminder that life is fragile, not guaranteed. It is a reminder that, for all the times they test me and frustrate me and try to truly cause me pain, my students are, at their core, children who need help and support. M. reminds me every day to be a little kinder, and a little more present and appreciative of the time I do have every day.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I just finished my first day of professional development for the year, and woah. I didn’t realize exactly how into “summer mode” I had burrowed myself into. I am not ready to leave summer mode. Helpful as the professional development was, it did send tiny sirens of panic into my head. Questions about classroom management, discipline, teaching effectively, and all that other good stuff left tiny stressful voices sprinting across my brain within the first few hours of the workshop. So this post is about stress, and dealing with stress.

This isn’t just for teaching, but it’s especially important, I think, for teachers. So much of the profession demands your attention and energy that it’s easy to forget that you need to keep a little energy and attention on yourself. I’m sure that this will become easier as I continue to teach, but for a new teacher, I need regular check-ins with myself to make sure I’m taking care of myself and not just taking care of my job. Consider it a mental garden: sometimes, you just gotta go in and pull some weeds. These are my favorite weed-pulling or weed-prevention strategies for that mental garden.

1. Learn when to say no and when to say yes in your personal life. I had friends who, during their first year teaching, all but disappeared from my life. They were and are wonderful friends, but one side effect of teaching was that it felt so draining to them that they almost forgot how to socialize. If you say no too often in your personal life, whether it’s seeing friends or talking to family or strengthening other relationships, you’re going to eventually feel isolated and even more stressed. Doing the opposite, though, can be just as damaging: I tried to overdo my social life when I began teaching. I had this stubborn mindset that I could have everything I had before I began teaching (why not try to socialize every day, train for a marathon, start three or four new hobbies, all while starting a new career? This is actually not an exaggeration for me). I had to learn when to say no to friends during the week. Other people I know had to learn when to say yes. This is going to be a learning process: if you’re feeling absolutely drained that day, tell your friends no. If you’re feeling that way for a month, maybe grit your teeth and go to yoga. You may feel better. Pay attention to your patterns of behavior and reflect on whether you’re overdoing the yes’s or the no’s.

2. Start paying attention to your body and what it needs. Nobody wants to hear “eat healthy and exercise,” but dammit, eat healthy and exercise. There’s no need to overdo it – balance it everything, of course – and sometimes you’re going to need that bag of chips and a good, long evening with your butt on the couch watching your favorite movie. But if you exercise regularly, and you avoid the junk food, you will feel better. You will handle the stress better. Exercise and eating healthy won’t be the one-size fits all, only way possible of dealing with stress, but it will help. (My personal favorites for relaxing after work: rock climbing/bouldering, yoga, running, hiking, biking.)

3. Meditate. When I was so stressed last year that I could barely see from November to December, I was trying everything I could find to help lower my stress level. I stumbled upon meditation. There’s a lot of “woo-woo” out there about meditation, and I’m sure I’ll write a separate post specifically on meditating at some point, but suffice it to say (for now) that there is a surprising amount of legitimate research out there to support the theory that meditation is really good for you. I now meditate for about 5 minutes in the morning every day, and I’ve personally noticed a difference. For stressed-out first year teachers, I’d suggest meditating right after getting home from work; I did that last year and it helped me separate work and home mentally and more quickly get out of “teacher mind.”

4. Use a notebook to record your days and reflect on everything. During my first year of teaching, I had a problem that I called the hamster wheel problem: I’d get on this hamster wheel of thought patterns and just go, go, go, around the wheel. I’d continue this thought pattern, whatever it was – I’m not sure if teaching is for me, I’m worried about this student, I’m so stressed out, etc. – and I would feel worse as I stayed on the mental wheel. When I began writing regularly about a problem, or about teaching in general, I found it easier to stay off the hamster wheel. I don’t have a strict rule about writing, just a few times a week, sometimes specifically choosing a topic to write about and sometimes writing with no plan in mind. It helps to write it all down (bonus: you’ll want to look back and remember all that crazy stuff that happened your first year and laugh later).

5. Get outside. This will definitely be something I write about in the future (hello, modern hippie here), but I think people drastically underestimate the effect that nature has on their bodies. We like pretending that we are above and beyond the outdoors; we’ve evolved past it; nature is just for those weirdo hikers and snowboarders and other fitness hippies (I am in all categories and hope you are, too). We aren’t above and beyond it. Our bodies recognize the deficiency and it does affect us. Please note that I am not saying you need to climb a mountain every other day to relax. Nope. Just walk around your neighborhood if that’s all you’ve got or all you want. Get home, walk around for fifteen minutes and stare at the trees (my case: cactus), stare at the sky, feel the sun and the breeze on you. I promise, I promise, you will feel less stressed.

Remember that no one solution is perfect forever. Vary how you process and deal with the stress of teaching, and know that tomorrow is a new day. Know that, however you’re dealing with the stress (in a healthy way!), you’re taking care of yourself and that is critical for not just this job, but for life.