For most teachers, the year doesn’t begin on January 1st. Rather, it comes at the end of an all-too-fast Summer break.
But whilst September reliably brings an abrupt end to some brief but much-needed R&R of the summer break, it’s also a time to reflect on past failures before acting to right them. A new school year means a new class of students but it also means new opportunities for a healthier, happier school life. For this, teachers should adopt the traditional New Years tradition of resolutions and apply them during this back to school period. But what resolution should you adopt? And how can you make it a success?
Deciding on a New Year’s resolution is always tough and rarely followed through on. When it comes to being an educator during the back to school season though, there’s one thing that I believe all teachers could benefit from – greater self-care and an improved work-life balance. One of the biggest concerns I have for teachers today is the incredibly high rates of depression and anxiety circulating within the profession. We live in an age where mental wellbeing is an increasingly rare commodity. In the US alone, 16.1 million people have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder whilst a further 6.8 million have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The rate of mental illness is at worrying heights and, what’s more, teachers make up a much greater proportion of depression and anxiety sufferers than most groups. It’s an issue that needs urgently addressing.
Central to why educators suffer from anxiety and depression is the overbearing workload that accompanies the job. People have a misleading preconception that because teachers don’t teach during school breaks, their work lives are easy. In reality, teachers don’t stop working because school’s out; grading and lesson planning takes up a huge chunk of time whilst at home CPD services can also keep educators exceptionally busy throughout school breaks. The average teacher works significant overtime whilst earning far less than the average US citizen. Frankly, teachers deserve more government recognition for the hard work they put in over the school breaks, but that’s a story for another day. What’s important to understand here is that teachers are not underworked but quite the opposite. Disproportionate damage to mental health is proof that the current work climate in teaching is failing its educators. This needs changing at its foundations but this doesn’t mean that teachers can’t help themselves at the most practical level.
Taking practical steps to develop yourself is rarely straightforward but creating a better self-care routine can be. If like many teachers you are putting in hours and hours of overtime, this can and should be addressed to make more time for yourself. Acting to make your work more efficient, more sociable and cutting down on any extreme above and beyond mentality will contribute to improving life for yourself but also your students. They rely on you to be a strong and enthusiastic role model able to carry out their duties year-round. Without the right mental state, your ability to meet these expectations becomes increasingly impeded and the damage to yourself could be permanent. Take steps to protect yourself for everyone’s sake.
It’s no secret that teachers spend an incredibly high amount of time planning lessons, creating PowerPoints and producing learning resources. This has long been the burden of teachers to create and update and for, for many, it still is – but it no longer has to be. Services like Twinkl offer hundreds of thousands of ready-made lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and more. The hours saved here can instead be added to educators’ limited free time and spent with friends, family or simply some peaceful alone time.
You can also encourage a healthier work-life balance by setting time boundaries for when and where you work. For example, refuse to do any school-related work after 8pm and always leave it outside of your bedroom. Burning candles long into the night marking papers or planning lesson activities will build stress and only lead to an inevitable burnout. When you make your bed your desk, you’ll also never escape your work responsibilities. When you make such rules, you’ll be minimizing feelings of guilt surrounding procrastinating work, keep your personal spaces sacred and maintain your sanity as you progress through this next year. In the short term, to overwork may feel like you’re helping your students but it’s unsustainable; you and your class will suffer because of it. The work should and will get done but only when it’s healthy and able to be done.
A teacher who goes above and beyond is a role model for all educators; however, when going above and beyond means sacrificing your mental health, it’s never worth it. As educators, we always want what’s best for our students and a passion for ensuring their learning experience is perfect can blind us of what’s important. Mental health is very important. Working double figures of overtime may deliver incredible lessons but a teacher who does so for months or even years on end will inevitably break. Teachers are quitting their jobs in record numbers and this trend will only continue so long as teachers maintain an unhealthy work-life balance. More has to be done by governments to ensure that teachers don’t feel obliged to work intolerable amounts for poor pay. However, teachers should take the first steps to help themselves.
Crucially, if you try to adopt greater self-care this year, you have to stick with it. As is all too common with New Year’s resolutions, failing to commit to them is a recurring obstacle. I could quote the frightening statistics surrounding January gym sign-ups and sudden New Year volunteering interest which both quickly dissipate as soon as February rears its disappointed head. The problem in these cases is that a hollow enthusiasm for self-improvement is quickly overcome by an even greater force: failing willpower. It may seem illogical to think that shifting the work-life balance in favour of life will be better for the students who depend on your hard work but it’s true. An educator who develops depression or anxiety from teaching will only struggle in the long term both personally and in their responsibilities to their students.
Work to get yourself to a position where this time next year you’re not only proud of your development but disciplined enough to continue it on for the rest of your teaching career. You’ll be thankful in the long run.