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The Mental Health Goals I Made for Myself as a Teacher

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Dear teachers, educators and school leaders,

As the school year progresses, please pause. Take a deep breath. Pause again. Think about how you are going to put yourself before anyone else this term. This is so incredibly important. It might seem backwards, but you can only take care of your students and teach them to the best of your ability if you pause, pause again and remember to look after yourself first. You must come first.

It took me 17 years of teaching, numerous years of leading and an eventual breakdown to work that one out. I always felt there was more to be done (let’s face it, there always is) and that I had to do it. I always moved at breakneck speed throughout the day, the working week and the term, and didn’t consider slowing down. I always pushed myself to the limit and still felt like it wasn’t enough.

In the end, I paid the consequences heavily with a severe depressive episode and post-traumatic stress disorder. I had given so much to every other area of my life except myself that when faced with major trauma, I had nothing left, mentally or emotionally, to help myself cope. My mind folded. I crashed, burned, suffered enormously and wondered whether I would ever resurface.

Thankfully, 18 months later, I have fully recovered. I am back to being the active, energetic and enthusiastic wife and mom I always was. I was back in the classroom doing the job I love, too. Having been physically and mentally strong all my life, the experience was a shock to me, my family and all those who know me. It’s been a profound and steep learning curve in developing self-awareness, and understanding and accepting that it is OK to put myself first.

So, as the new school year continues, this is how I intend to look after myself. I hope my list inspires you. Maybe you can relate and copy a few ideas; or perhaps you can write your own list to suit you:

1. Take self-care seriously. I know being tired affects me. I know mid-week alcohol consumption does me no good. And I know that feeding myself poorly brings me down too. So, the ABC’s of eating and sleeping well are at the top of my list. It may seem boring, but dealing with the irritability and tiredness that comes with not doing so is far worse.

2. Exercise. For those who aren’t very active, this is one of those suggestions that might make you groan. Yet exercise makes a big difference in my mental health. On a concrete level, I will cycle to school twice a week and run twice week. The variety will avoid boredom or giving up, which impact my mental health significantly. Experience tells me I will be more alert and energetic, sleep better and benefit from that time to myself that cycling and running provide.

3. Breathe. Does that sound daft? It definitely would have to me 18 months ago, but now that I’ve experienced the benefits of breathing properly, I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s not just for moments of tension either. Sure, it helps if you are stressed, but it helps to prevent stress too. Just before my class comes in and during every break throughout the day, I’ll spend two minutes using the box method of breathing. It’s quick, easy, can be done anywhere and brings you calmly right back to the moment.

4. Say no. Being passionate about your job and your students is great. However, learning to say no is just as important. In teaching, the job will never be done. What’s vital is finding the balance so that you can be dynamic, enthusiastic and supportive whilst also looking after yourself. I’ve promised myself that I will sleep on any decision that will have a significant effect on my workload. This will give me the chance to think about it, discuss it if necessary and then commit with conviction if I know I have the time and energy to do it.

5. Incorporate mental wellness into teaching. Mental health awareness is increasing all the time. In England and the U.S., mental health education is becoming compulsory. This is excellent news, but as teachers, we can make an extra difference with our own students, too. Small initiatives that I will continue to incorporate in my classroom will be: breathing and relaxation for the whole class after each break, a careful balance of lively and calm lessons, relaxing music during appropriate moments and ensuring I always make time to support my students with emotional and/or social issues. I will also stick to a 1,000 m. walk outside with the class every day (my school asks all teachers to do this during curriculum time and it’s such an effective way to help students relax and refocus). Each of these steps will benefit my students in the short-term, and will hopefully make them more aware of how they can look after their mental health in the long-term, too.

I could go on. There are many more goals I would like to make, but I also need to be realistic. This is a good starting point and the list can be tweaked as I go. No doubt, in the chaos of family and school life, I won’t manage to fit in everything all of the time. But I know that writing my goals is the first step, reminding myself to go back to them regularly is the second and the third? Well, that’s the most important one: go back and read the first paragraph of this article as many times as I need to.

Teachers, educators, leaders, colleagues, friends: please remember to put yourselves first!

Unsplash via kyo azuma

Originally published: October 23, 2018
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