Today is Teacher Appreciation Day! In honor of the amazing teachers I currently work with, and have worked with in the past, I wanted to create a self-care guide for teachers in the last stretch of the school year. Although I’m not a teacher by profession, I feel a certain kinship with teachers because their work is very similar to social work. Their work is incredibly important, but it is often under appreciated and under valued. In my book teachers are heroes. They go into the profession because they recognize the importance of quality education and are aware of the role education plays in preventing poverty and challenging systemic inequalities. They build really important relationships with young people who may be facing immense challenges at home and in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in the day to day work of supporting their students who are coming in with family, community, and systemic trauma, dealing with bureaucracy and politics, and few support services (Did you know most Chicago Public Schools don’t even have one full time social worker on staff?), teachers become burned out.
When I was a fellow at Live Oak I attended a training that summed up the definition of burnout really well. “A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations; when what is asked of us is beyond our reasonable abilities to accomplish, yet we continue to strive to reach these expectations.” “‘Burnout has to do with the stress and frustration caused by the workplace: having poor pay, unrealistic demands, heavy workload, heavy shifts, poor management, and inadequate supervision’” (Mathieu, 2012, p. 14) This definition sums up a lot of teacher’s experiences. People who become teachers care deeply about the work and are excited to make a difference; they are typically the type of people who won’t easily give up, even when the administration has unreasonable expectations of their work. The continual stress and lack of support lead to frustration and even apathy.
So how can teachers prevent or manage burnout so they can continue their important work? One of the recommendations of the training I attended was to create a plan that incorporates personal, professional, and organizational strategies. Personal strategies can include taking care of the most basic needs such as getting restful sleep, eating healthy meals, and exercising. What might need to change so you could more easily meet those basic needs? Other strategies include acknowledging and honoring your emotions and seeking support from a therapist to help you process them, making time for having fun, spending time with friends, loved ones, and pets, and developing a spiritual practice whether that’s meditation, attending church, or using tarot/oracle cards. Professional strategies may include setting boundaries like not taking on additional tasks or requests, leaving work by a certain time each day, turning off your email notifications, or seeking training and support outside your workplace. Organizational strategies may include creating support systems within your workplace, seeking support from a supervisor or the administration, or organizing with other teachers to create changes. I recommend starting with strategies that feel the most achievable and you can build from there.
Some books I’ve found helpful on these topics are Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself As Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else* by Alice D. Domar *Please note this book is written with an emphasis on caregivers who are women. On a final note, when a work environment is toxic the best self-care strategy may be taking yourself out of the environment. All the self-care coping strategies in the world cannot negate systems or supervisors who are abusive to you.
Please express gratitude to all of the teachers in your life. Believe me they don’t hear thank you often enough! And if you’re interested in advocating for teachers to have more support please contact your legislators about the SB1941/HB2084 bills in the Illinois state legislature, which would create a grant program for schools to hire more social workers, create restorative justice programs, and provide students with wrap around services. You can find out more info and find your legislators by visiting: http://www.naswil.org/advocacy/advocacy-alerts/
Mathieu, F. (2012). The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Traumatization. New York: Routledge.
Zakhem, J. (November 2017). Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma & Resilience: Identifying Vicarious Trauma, Reducing Compassion Fatigue and Strengthening Vicarious Resilience. Paper presented at Live Oak, Chicago, IL.