Teachers – Put your oxygen mask on first

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There is a reason that you are required to put your own oxygen mask on first in an emergency. You can’t help anyone if you yourself are incapacitated. Teachers are some of the most selfless people on the planet. We are constantly giving to others at the sacrifice of our own health. Whether it be time, support, a shoulder to cry, a conversation, teachers are as altruistic as they come. With the holidays approaching and the conversations I have had this week, I felt compelled to write this post.

Many teachers get sick on holidays because we run on adrenaline during the term, constantly moving from responsibility to responsibility. The finish line of the holidays approaches and instead of finishing with arms high and jubilation, we crawl over and collapse. The holidays then becomes nothing but rest and recovery. We catch up on everything in our lives that we have sacrificed for the past ten weeks.

This isn’t healthy.

This isn’t sustainable.

But it’s what we do. Balance in our lives is hard and the profession of teaching makes that all the more difficult. My friends constantly poke fun at me by saying that teachers have it easy. Start at 9, finish at 3.30, twelve weeks holiday a year. I laugh it off because it is a really funny joke. The last time I finished at 3.30pm was when I was in school. Teachers work incredibly hard and work incredibly long hours. They are as selfless as they come…and this is half the problem. Teachers need to be more selfish. There are teachers leaving our beautiful profession in droves. Burned out and done with teaching. The students who we sacrifice to help are now left without.

What can we do as a nation to look after our teachers?

I know too well the feeling of burnout. The feeling that you have nothing left in the tank. Your internal monologue is screaming for you to stop and you question why you are giving so much, especially when you have nothing left to give. The holidays serve to fill back up the tanks but come next term we will run them down once again.

For those who lead teachers, your core responsibility is helping those on the front line. The workload, the expectations, the balance…these issues you need to tackle head-on. I began teaching at the start of this century and the expectations are a world away from that. What can we take away from the teaching load? Innovation and creativity can’t survive in an environment where fight or flight is the prevalent state of affairs. I know that look in a colleague’s eyes when I share at a staff meeting. The look that says ‘I can’t take any more in’ or ‘This is my tipping point’. Our workload is huge. The expectations are high. Irresponsible news reporting and government finger-pointing doesn’t help either…but that’s for another post.

Teachers, however, you need to be receptive to the advice. You need to put your oxygen mask on first. Over the holiday period, rest up but once you feel recharged, reflect and take note of your stress trigger points. What are they? How are they caused? What can you do to alleviate them? Who in your school manages them well? What proactive steps can you take to look after your own health and wellbeing?

Sleep – how many hours a night are you getting? Do you have a routine for sleep? If you choose only one thing to focus on, make it sleep. After a really stressful period at work, I began tracking my sleep to see where things were going wrong. It has really helped. I work to get eight hours sleep a night and I have built a sleep routine that I stick to. If you get sleep right, you start the day on your best foot. If you can’t turn your brain off work, write down before your Most Important Tasks before you leave work. It helps to bookend the day.

Exercise – are you exercising daily? You don’t need to be an extreme endurance athlete but a 30-minute walk is easy to slot into a day, especially if you book it in your calendar and ask a friend to go for a walk with you. I walk every day and to fit it in a busy day, I make my meetings walking meetings. The conversation is different when you walk side by side. Fresh air, elevated heart rate, conversation with friends, what’s not to love.

Inspiration – what in your day do you look forward to? Everyone needs a passion project. An intrinsically rewarding project that you would do even if you weren’t getting paid. I’m not asking you add more to your day but to reflect on your day and to see if there is anything that you look forward to. If there isn’t, then you need to question that.

Email – are you checking email in the morning or at home at night? If so, stop. You set the expectations here. You know what happens when you don’t respond to an email till tomorrow? Nothing. You know what happens though when you shift the expectations from instant response to response when it works for you, everything! Put your oxygen mask on first. The people who lose out when you stress about work email at home are the people who you love the most. You are sacrificing their time with you. Stop it.

Diet – the food that we put into our body sets us up for the day. A balanced diet can help provide sustained energy and prevent the need to reach for sugary snacks in the afternoon. Carry a water bottle with you everywhere. Most of the time we are thirsty instead of hungry.

Mental headspace – for me, meditation has helped immensely with this. A daily journal can help also. Put five minutes on the clock and just write whatever comes into your head. Just keep writing until the five minutes are up. This daily practice can serve as a form of therapy. Often we need only to offload what’s on our mind to help us move on. Personal journalling can allow you to vent and do so without blowback. Everyone needs to let off steam and have their voice heard. Too often though we can get caught up in complaining. There is a difference. Talking through your feelings and debriefing is powerful. Complaining rewires your brain for negativity. Some people don’t even realise that they are constantly complaining. They will find the negative in everything. Life is beautiful…seriously! Take a moment to stop and find the positives in life. Negativity can be a merry-go-round that can be hard to get off. To combat this, write down at the start of your day five things that you are thankful. Saying thanks and being thankful help provide some balance. I write down ten ‘I am thankful…’ statements at the start of every day.

On a deeper level, we all need someone to talk to. Who is on your team? Who can you talk with to discuss the feelings, frustrations, aspirations you have? Who is in your corner? Everyone needs someone at their school and someone outside their school who they can turn to. Are you that person for someone else? Know your warning signs. Read them and cut them off at the pass. If you are feeling the pinch, a mental health day can go a long way to helping you get back on track.

If you need further help, please reach out to professional help. (RUOK, Lifeline)

Put your oxygen mask on first

Take a break these holidays, you deserve it. Rest, rejuvenate yourself, fill your buckets but remember that you need to look after you first. Thank you.

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