With two weeks of winter break under their belts, teachers return to their classrooms in January rested, refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges of the teaching profession. The problem, of course, is that the challenges of the teaching profession don’t go away, but rather seem to compound each and every year. Winter break may be a nice respite, but it’s not a long-term solution to the stress teachers cope with day in and day out.
And the stress that teachers face is reaching epidemic proportions. According to a 2017 study released by the American Federation of Teachers, teachers report finding their work stressful 61 percent of the time, as compared to the general public, who find their work stressful 30 percent of the time. Worse, a 2018 study by the University of Missouri found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers report a high stress
level. The University of Missouri study also looked at ways in which teachers cope with the tremendous stress in their jobs, with only 7 percent of survey respondents identifying themselves as having low levels of stress and high levels of coping with their jobs.
Nationally, 45 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of teaching, according to 2014 data from the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The problem appears to be twofold: teacher burnout and, to borrow a term coined by Doris Santoro, Assistant Professor of Education at Bowdoin College, teacher “demoralization.”
Teacher burnout implies an individual’s failure or inability to cope with the demands of the teaching profession, which certainly happens. Teacher demoralization, on the other hand, suggests that teachers aren’t given the support they need to successfully navigate the waters of being an effective educator. The onus of burnout is on the individual; the onus of demoralization is on the system including policymakers, administrators and communities.
While individual teachers cannot control the policies governing education (at least without adding political activism to their already full plates), they can take steps to manage stress, avoid burnout and see to their own self-care.
This is the mission behind the Happy Teacher Revolution (HTR), the brainchild of Baltimore educator Danna Thomas. Thomas taught for seven years as a kindergarten teacher, a job that was incredibly demanding.
“Happy Teacher Revolution was born honestly from a place of pure desperation,” she says, describing a teaching environment she calls toxic: 39 kindergarteners in one classroom, no heating or air conditioning, asbestos in the building and sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Happy Teacher Revolution is a program built by Thomas. She, and her team of “revolutionaries,” work around the country to educate schools about the importance of self-care for educators.
The consequences of teacher demoralization are real. Extrapolating data from the University of Missouri study, if 93% of all teachers experience overwhelming levels of stress, this means there are 3.3 million stressed out teachers in the United States, says Thomas – teachers who are responsible for 800 million children.
And, concludes the University of Missouri study, a stressed-out teacher is a less effective teacher, often resulting in lower test scores, lower grades, and
Stressed out teachers don’t just impact the students in their classrooms – the problem of teacher attrition nationally costs the government $2.2 billion a year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
“Imagine if we invested that money is our teacher wellness programs,” Thomas says.
The Happy Teacher Revolution works with school districts to provide professional development focused on self-care during the contractual workday.
“What if PD was self-care for teachers. What if it was a useful way during an in-service day to build and foster community because ultimately, what we want to prove with HTR is when you invest in your employees, employees are more productive, they take less sick leave, they come back the next year,” Thomas says.
Because self-care is a life skill useful not only for teachers but pretty much anyone, Thomas recommends that teachers model mindfulness in their classrooms. This has a dual benefit – teachers get to practice self-care on the job, and students learn to center themselves, too. A low-stress environment is more productive for everybody – teachers and students.
With that in mind, here are some easy ways teachers can incorporate self-care into their daily classroom routine.
1. Keep snacks and treats in your desk:
These are just for you, you don’t have to share. They aren’t everyday snacks but treats for moments when you’re feeling especially stressed and need to take a quick break.
2. Practice some desk yoga:
Consider replacing your desk chair with a yoga ball. Several times a day, take a few moments to stretch. Stretch your legs, your arms, your torso. Focus on the sensations in your body.
3. Focus on your breathing in a mindful moment:
Thomas recommends taking a moment to focus on your breathing. Deep belly breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
4. Make positive connections with parents:
Positivity breeds happiness, so take a moment to call or write a note to parents/guardians to tell them how awesome their kid is doing in your classroom.
5. Keep a happy file:
Collect the notes from students, parents, colleagues, administrators that praise you and tell you about the difference you are making in the lives of students. Put them in a file folder in a special place in your classroom. After a discouraging day, flip through the contents – it’s guaranteed to give you a smile.
6. Drink water:
Put down the soda, coffee and energy drinks and hydrate.
7. Bring comfort into the classroom:
Personal comfort items, like a fuzzy rug for under your desk or a framed family photo, bring a touch of home into your classroom.
8. Set an end time for the end of your day – and stick to it:
It’s easy to listen to the siren song of “one more thing” calling your name at the end of each work day. Decide on a time to “clock out” each morning and leave the building.
9. Shut your door, put up a do not disturb sign and get some work done:
Self-care isn’t always fun. Sometimes, the most important thing you can do for yourself is cross things off the do-to list. It’s okay to politely tell your colleagues at the end of the day that you would love to chat but really need to get some work done instead.
10. Eat lunch with colleagues, not kids:
Make time to talk to fellow adult friends every once in a while instead of staying in your classroom to tutor students or run lunchtime clubs.