Having worked with children for a decade – mostly as an Early Years teacher, though I wore a teaching assistant hat too in my early days of training – I know that this concept might seem hilarious to many of you. Back when I was one of you, my idea of taking care of myself was limited to a few drinks with colleagues after work on a Friday and falling asleep on the sofa in front of the TV. There may also have been a fair amount of takeaway food involved. (N.B. No guilt or shame here on any of these counts by the way!). I would push through long hours, take work home at night (often in a glamorous granny trolley purchased for this specific purpose – which I incidentally highly recommend, especially to any teacher without a car), and literally collapse as soon as the holidays began. I also know how common it is for teachers to be on (or past) the edge of burnout.
I speak as someone who regularly described looking after yourself to newly qualified and student teachers as part of their professional responsibility. “If you show up empty you have nothing left in the tank to give the children.” I said in earnest, whilst fairly comprehensively failing to follow my own advice. I left teaching in the end because I gradually came to terms with the fact that I had pushed myself too hard for too long. A diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis was a loud demand from my body to slow down and tend to it. I know how common many health problems are among teachers, and I want to offer some suggestions that may make it feel a little more possible to take a little care of yourself. The ideal is to slowly and gently cultivate an upgraded version of yourself, so that you can do the job you love for as long as you want to – and feel good while you do it!
At the time of writing we are still in the midst of the Covid19 global pandemic, and schools in the UK have recently begun opening up to more children – beyond those of keyworkers. This situation has taken being on the front line in school to an entirely new level, so while the principles below apply regardless of circumstance, there has never been a more important time for those working with children to take a few moments to think about yourselves. Even if those few moments are literally all you have, there are useful things you can do.
Please, please, please do not take these suggestions as another ‘to-do’ list, or a set of reasons to be hard on yourself about changes you are not able or willing to take on right now for whatever reason. It is intended as a menu of options, not a list of ‘shoulds’. If you want to, pick one that appeals (or something else entirely that feels a better fit) and see how it goes. If you have five minutes a day to spare, these are just a few ideas of how you might think about doing something nourishing for yourself with those few minutes, and feel good about taking a positive step. Wherever you choose to begin, every one of the areas I have identified below is intrinsically linked to every other so, however small a step forward may feel, each one has real power to be the initial grain in a snowball of goodness.
Self-care is not selfish – seriously
Going back to what I used to tell fledgling teachers, I do strongly believe that pushing yourself to (and often beyond) your limit is not the best way to be of service to the children in your care. Again, I speak from experience having dragged myself to work in many and various states of disrepair – once in so much pain that I couldn’t bend down to do up my shoes! Thankfully, on asking my teaching assistant to do them up for me when I got to school (having somehow managed the walk without tripping myself up), she very sensibly escorted me to the office to be sent home.
We have a broad problem. As a society we have talked ourselves into the fallacy that it is indulgent, even weak, to stop and tend to our own needs. That pretty much everything else is more important. This is a truly objectionable untruth. Humans that have all their most important physical, mental and emotional requirements tended to are stronger. They are better able to function on every level, more productive, kinder, better equipped to face any health challenges that may arise, and better role models for all our children. Your work matters, so it is worth trying avoid cramming in so much of it that you can no longer function properly. The version of you that the children benefit most from is the one that is well, energised and riding the wave of your enthusiasm for the job – not being dragged along by it or drowning under it.
There is also the consideration of how we need to rethink our attitude to turning up to work sick in general, given our new level of viral awareness. Whatever new normal we find as we move forward, it is hopefully going to be the beginning of a change in work culture, for both employers and employees, in appreciating that the responsible course of action if you are unwell is to stay at home and take care of yourself until you feel better.
I expect that it goes without saying, but from a Covid19 perspective, while you are at work it is vital to take all the advised precautions for yourself as well as the children.
Managing stress is critical to all elements of well-being. For more information on why and how (with plenty of scientific references if you are a lover of digging in to the actual evidence) see here, and here, just as a taster. The very short version is that your body does not know the difference between the stress of report writing, parents’ evening, or even just the pile of filing in the corner, and the stress of an actual threat to your survival. The most common example here of stress that your body has evolved to understand is being chased by a predator. Essentially, in the industrialised world we now live our lives in a permanent state of physical readiness to do something drastic about all the lions in our peripheral vision – whether that be fight, flee or freeze. This means that your body cannot prioritise ‘non-urgent’ processes, like repair, digestion, reproduction etc, as these are clearly not sensible things to be wasting precious resources on when we are in imminent danger. Living in this way has become so prevalent that it is now accepted as ‘normal’. I’m going to put a radical notion out there – I think that most teachers have a significant stress issue.
Pick something, anything, that helps you to relieve stress in a healthy way. What is most helpful looks a little different for everyone, and even from one day to the next, but here are some possibilities to get your thinking started.
Breathe – for yourself, and/or with your class (an approach that will pop up more than once).
If you don’t buy this idea, feel free to move on – or pause here. Check in with your body and notice how you feel. Are your facial muscles tense? How about your jaw? Neck? Shoulders? Belly? Is your heart beating a little fast? Take 3 slow smooth deep breaths, let your attention follow them in and out from your nostrils to your lower abdomen and back – close your eyes if you like. Can you feel a difference?
There are a million ways to use breathing to relieve stress, and lots of guided practices available online. If you want to keep it simple, just breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4 for a few breaths is great, or you could try in for 4 and out for 6 or 8. Whatever you go for, try to bring your attention inward to the breath as much as you can, and when it wanders don’t beat yourself up (it happens to everyone), just gently bring your focus back to wherever you feel the movement of the breath most clearly in your body – maybe your chest, maybe your belly, or maybe the flow of air in and out of the nostrils. You definitely don’t need to sit cross legged or chant (unless you want to).
Read / listen – books are an opportunity to take your mind wherever you want it to go, or if you don’t have time to sit and read, audiobooks or podcasts (or even the actual radio) while you cook / bath / walk etc. It is worth noting here that the news is unlikely to relax you, so maybe skip that when you are trying to slow down.
Music – it doesn’t have to be ‘relaxing music’, just music that relaxes you. This is another one that can easily come into class with you if you so desire, though perhaps more possible in a primary setting.
Sing – again, whatever you like, by yourself or with children. Singing has a naturally positive effect on your breathing patterns (depending on your choice of tune of course), as well as the fun – especially if you can let go of your theoretical audience’s imaginary criticisms!
Laugh – whatever works for you, maybe a chat with friend/s who make you chuckle, a comedy film, some stand-up, talking to children is often a good one – or if you’re feeling adventurous there is always online laughter yoga (seriously – a thing – and yes I felt insane doing it, but I laughed plenty! If you work with younger children, they might enjoy it too).
Say yes – to things that soothe you, like a bath, a foot massage (which you can definitely do yourself if other hands are not available), an online game or chat with friends, cuddling up with a pet or a loved one.
Say no – to things that make your heart sink at the very thought. Do you really need to do it? Are the reasons good enough to make it worth the effort? If not, say no! I’ll be honest, for a lot of people this one can take some getting used to – but practising with baby steps in low stakes situations can give you a sense of how liberating it can be.
Nature – get outside when you can. If you have accessible natural spaces on hand, great! If not, use what you do have in any way that works for you. Even having plants in the classroom (or your home) can be soothing, if you are less than green fingered (I hold my hand up here!) get something low maintenance, or even just sit by a window with a view over greenery someone else can take care of. Just listening to sounds of nature can bring some calm to the nervous system.
Play – whatever that means for you. We all know how vital play is for children (especially you early years people out there), and it really isn’t any less important for us – we just get out of the habit. Pick something you enjoy that involves you fully, whether that is a board game, hide and seek with your kids or exploring something creative…the list is endless. This is obviously another one where you can involve the children at school with a bit of creative thinking – what can you play with them that will give you all pleasure (while meeting learning objectives if you are pressed for time)?
Mindful movement – there are lots of free options to experiment with on YouTube.
Yoga –Yoga with Kassandra has many classes of various lengths, including a 30 day Morning Yoga Movement challenge if you like the idea of 10 minutes every day for 30 days, or you can of course dip in and out. Yoga with Adriene is great too, and also ranges from 5-10 minute practices all the way up to full classes. If neither are to your taste, keep looking until you find a teacher with a vibe you like.
Tai Chi – there are many beginner friendly options to explore. You can start with 5 minutes and go from there.
Qi Gong – YouTube strikes again with many quick ways to dip in – however would we have survived lockdown without online tutorials?!
Mindful walking – anytime and anywhere. Find some guidance here.
Meditate – I saw that eye roll! And it may be that this is not for you, or just not for you right now. I will say though that you might be surprised how many activities can be meditative if you choose to make them so, and the benefits are extraordinary and far reaching (again, backed up by a wealth of scientific studies). Even my extremely sceptical husband has developed a daily meditation habit having experienced the effects for himself. Again, 5-10 minutes can get you a long way, especially if you can develop a consistent daily practice.
There are many apps that enable free experimentation, including Headspace (10 minutes a day for 10 days free), Insight Timer (wide variety of free guided meditations, and a simple timer if you have an existing practice or just want to focus on your breath for a few minutes), Calm and many more.
If you really struggle with this idea, there is a book for you! Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics does just what it says on the tin. There are also some ideas in this article (and plenty of others all over the internet) about simple meditations using each of the five senses, again a great one to explore with kids of all ages.
We cannot do everything alone. We have to replenish our own resources somewhere if we are going to show up with something to give to the work we do. If you take a little while to think about it, you can probably come up with a list of things that help you to fill up your personal tank, and some that you know deplete it. Here are some starting points to kick off your thought process if you’re not sure where to begin.
Connect – however you can. Cuddle up with loved ones and / or pets, chat in person or on the phone – on speaker or with headphones while doing something else if time is tight, write a quick letter / postcard / text etc. Is there anyone you’d like to connect with that you haven’t been able to find time for in a while, perhaps because you feel a long and thoughtful message is needed and you just don’t have time? A quick note beats radio silence in most such cases – what’s the worst that could happen?
Help – ask for it when you can, and accept it when it is offered. This is another one I am only recently starting to get to grips with, ‘I’m fine.’ can be a tough habit to break.
Support network – even just taking 10 minutes to think about what support you have and how you might use it can be a source of some relief. If you don’t feel like you have any support, perhaps consider whether there might be someone you could reach out to, even just to let off some steam. For example, one option available to you right now is free health coaching for keyworkers from the UK Health Coaches Association – not to be sniffed at I’d say.
Purpose – this may sound a bit wishy washy to some, but research shows that being connected to our sense of purpose really does matter for our overall well-being. It can’t hurt to remind yourself why you care about the work you do, and what drew you to it in the first place – I’m guessing it wasn’t the glamour, the high rolling lifestyle or your love of admin. If there are other things that give you a sense of purpose too that’s great.
This is another area that is huge, both in the struggles we have with it and the benefits that improvements can bring. Essentially your body can only perform certain vital functions while you sleep. If you think about it, it is difficult to see how evolution could have left us so vulnerable for so many hours if not for extremely good reasons. Burning the candle at both ends can seem like an obvious way to buy yourself some more time, but sleep deprivation is nobody’s friend – as we can probably all attest from personal experience if we are honest with ourselves, assuming we can see far enough into our own past to find a time when we really were consistently well rested.
Bedtime – one of the things that can really help your body to manage this well is keeping a consistent sleep schedule, as far as that is possible – obviously many factors come into play here, particularly if you are a parent. If you can, consider setting yourself a bedtime and try to stick to it. Start with something that feels realistic for you if the ideal 7-9 hours of actual sleep feels a long way off.
Natural light – your brain works out what time it is based on light exposure. You can help it to learn when to wake up and when to wind down by getting outside as much as possible for some natural light, especially first thing in the morning. Even throwing the curtains open as soon as you can after you wake up can be helpful.
Artificial light – you can also support sleep rhythm by avoiding blue and green light (from artificial lights, backlit screens, and those pesky LED indicator lights on everything) for at least an hour or two before bed, as this kind of light completely confuses your brain and gets very much in the way of sleep hormone production. This means keeping lights low in the evening, ideally in the orange/red spectrum, and avoiding phone, computer and TV use for a while before bed. If this feels impossible you can minimise the damage by investing in some slightly crazy looking but honestly quite magical blue blocking glasses. For sleep you really need the amber lenses rather than just blue blocking computer glasses, though these can be useful for daytime use if you are exposed to a lot of artificial light. Amber glasses are available fairly cheaply online, or if you want to cut straight to the high quality premium option these are my favourite (worth hanging on for sales and checking around for discount codes as there is import duty to pay unless you live in Australia).
Dark – is it becoming clear how crucial light is yet? Making your sleep environment as conducive to sleep as possible includes making it as dark as you can. If your bedroom at home is pretty light, do you notice a difference in your sleep when you stay in a hotel with thick curtains? Or perhaps even more when camping in the deeper dark (depending on comfort levels and presence of offspring)? Blackout blinds or curtains can be a great help, as you will know if you have ever installed them in a baby’s bedroom, and don’t need to be expensive. It is possible to get blackout liners to hang behind existing curtains if you are attached to what you have. If curtain shopping is a step too far, you can go smaller scale and use an eye mask for your own personal darkness.
Wind down – taking even just a few minutes to chill before you head for bed can make a real difference. Any of the ‘unwind’ options listed above can be great here, or whatever gives you that feeling of a real deep exhale – the one that I get whenever I arrive by the sea. If you want to read, maybe consider an option free of murder, zombies or major tension. If you can build whatever you choose into a regular routine, it will help your brain to learn when it is time to start slowing down for the night.
If you can’t sleep, give yourself permission to rest – this was a game changing realisation for me. If I was awake in the night I used to mainly lie there and stress about the fact I wasn’t asleep, not a restful state of mind! I then decided that my time in bed, if I couldn’t sleep, could just be a precious chance to lie down with my eyes closed in the dark. As you can probably guess if you read the sleep section, getting frustrated enough to resort to your phone or TV in the middle of the night will not help the situation. If you really can’t lie there and rest, try to keep anything you do get up to do as soothing (and low light) as possible. I’m also going to mention meditation (again) as an amazing option to help your time in bed feel more rejuvenating, even if you haven’t slept as much as you would like.
Note that this section is not called ‘exercise’ – though I am of course not anti-exercise! It is easy to underestimate the value of building in small amounts of movement throughout our day. Like meditation, there is enormous benefit to be gained from emphasising consistency over quantity, regular small amounts of activity that can become a part of your daily life can have greater benefit than occasionally exhausting yourself with a hardcore workout and being sedentary the rest of the time.
Non exercise movement throughout day – another perfect one to build in with the kids! Regular breaks for any kind of movement can undo a lot of the damage that prolonged sitting can do, as well as giving you a boost of energy, and perhaps even fun! Stretch, dance, jump, skip, PE warm-up type games, brain gym…you get the idea.
Set a reminder – a simple timer in your classroom set to remind you all, or just you, to do something physical every 30-45 minutes can work wonders. You could even have a pot of 1-2 minute activities you create together and let the kids pick, even teens may be persuaded if they have some input.
Get outside – with kids and / or just for you, whenever you can. A little walk outside kills many birds with one stone, natural light to help sleep (see above), movement (which can also help sleep, and stress, which both affect pretty much everything), being around nature reduces stress (see above), and you might even get a little vitamin D depending on the sunshine situation. Obviously you get a lot of these even sitting on a bench near some greenery.
Walk – or bike / scoot / jog if that is more your bag. To or from work if that is doable and you don’t have time before or after work for such things, perhaps part of the journey if the whole thing is not practical. If you have to go somewhere anyway, is it walkable? Walking is the ultimate scaleable activity, so fit in however much you can, whenever you can, and go as fast or slow as you like. Again, you can maximise benefits if you make it a walk that is also mindful (see mindful movement), or in a natural environment, or just outside anywhere.
We are all familiar with the idea that our diet has a significant impact on our overall health, and making some small adjustments here can give your body a great boost of nutritional goodness, as well as that nice warm feeling you get from doing something you are confident is good for you.
Readers with autoimmune disease – please note that not all suggestions included here are AIP compliant. A series of AIP basics articles are in the works, so hang in there if you are keen for specifics that will all be appropriate for you. If you want to know more about the basics of AIP see here.
Eat real food when you can – I am in no way suggesting that you spend every waking moment making everything you eat from scratch. Rather, if it is out of a packet, try to make it something with a short list of ingredients – ideally with as many as possible that are recognisable to the average person as food. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.
Add one extra portion of fruit or veg to your day – if you’re used to powering through on sugar and caffeine, might it be possible to swap some of your sweets for a piece of fruit, or an easy to buy prepared or make at home veg based snack like carrots and houmous? Perhaps you could throw a small side salad in with your lunch or dinner? Your body needs nutritious food that it can recognise and process to fuel its myriad processes, not least to meet the demands of your extremely nutrient hungry immune system. If you want to know more about why vegetables and fruit are awesome see here and here.
Breakfast – eat something with some protein, fibre and healthy fat if you can, easy on the sugar. Your body will thank you for some steady fuel to help avoid the blood sugar crash that gives us those delightful afternoon cravings that call us to the staffroom treat table, or that drawer in your desk. Good sources of protein include animal products (especially meat and eggs, and to a lesser extent dairy if you tolerate it), and it is worth noting if you are super tight for time in the mornings that scrambled eggs can be made in a big batch and kept in the fridge for 5 to 6 days (e.g. see this recipe). Vegan protein options include nuts and seeds (and their butters), or legumes like lentils, beans and peas if you do well with them. Fibre is found in useful quantities and variety in vegetables, particularly roots and tubers, and fruit. It is also worth noting that mushrooms are full of various types of fibre not found anywhere else, if you’re interested in more on that (and other brilliant features of edible fungi) see this article. Also, if you tolerate them, fibre is found in grains such as oats and wheat – though this is a complicated topic for another day!
Batch cook / use leftovers – the best tactic here will depend largely on how much and when you already cook. As someone who has learned to cook well into adulthood, and really only out of necessity, I tend to keep it simple. Some useful tricks to save cooking time and effort while maximising results can be:
Make a double portion (or more) of whatever you are having for dinner, especially if you do have time to cook a reasonable quantity of vegetables. Use leftovers for lunch or dinner for the next day or two. This can work with one pot meals or single items such as burgers or roasted veggies.
If you have the oven (or steamer) on for one thing, is there something else you can easily throw in at the same time (e.g. broccoli – which incidentally is perfectly possible to roast from frozen)? Then you have cooked veg on hand ready to warm (or eat cold) and add to whatever meals are coming up for a little nutritional boost.
Soup – honestly, my favourite easy way to have a range of ready made meals on hand, stored in portion size containers in the fridge and freezer. A super easy way to get more veg in too!
Don’t forget to drink – this is another one where you can get the kids to join in. Hydration affects kidney health, neurological function, circulation, body temperature regulation and gut health – not trifling aspects of our ability to function. They need to stay hydrated too, and how much will they love being able to remind you to drink more water?
Again, none of this is intended to be prescriptive, just a starting point and some food for thought. If you have a go with any of these, or if it sparks any of your own little nuggets of self-nourishing gold that can sneak into your day without derailing everything else you have to do, please share – I’d love to hear about it.
The main message is just do the best you can. Fit things in to what you are already doing. If all you have is 5 minutes a day, pick a place to start that feels right and use that 5 minutes for you – you are more than worth it. Beyond the basic principle that looking after yourself will make you feel better, I confidently predict that the positive ripple effect on those around you will be bigger than you imagine.
Much love to you all for doing what you do.