How to help teacher wellbeing – 4 tips from Dr Bear

The current Covid-19 has robbed teacher’s of the certainty and security that they are used to, which has affected overall teacher wellbeing. We have all been pushed into changes to our natural routines and ways of living. Each of these changes may not seem sufficient to lead to people struggling, but as you start adding up all the minor tweaks along with bigger changes the stress and pressure build up. Add to this that for lots of us our usual coping strategies may be interrupted; the time and space we have for ourselves is diminished, and our ability to cope becomes more difficult.

As schools are asked to allow students onto school property, teachers and those working in schools have all been pushed out of their comfort zones, in an already stressful job. Modifications to ways of working, being asked to be present in a personally more risky situation, being shifted from existing support mechanisms, the list goes on. Teacher’s aren’t just being asked to manage their own difficulties during this time, they inevitably act as emotional containers for students, parents, colleagues and their own families.

It feels apt then to discuss teacher wellbeing and what tips there may be to minimise the impact of all the considerable stress they are under. I offer the following ideas, not as a recipe to resolve all stress, but to prompt people to reflect on their own self-care and what they may be able to do to better look after their own needs when they are being pushed and pulled in so many different directions.

4 tips for improving teacher wellbeing

  1. Focus on what you can control

To help teacher wellbeing we need to encourage focus towards the things that are in our control. As I mentioned a great deal of certainty has been removed. We are naturally problem-solving creatures and therefore have the potential to continue to try to mentally resolve issues that we have no power to influence. We can ruminate over the decisions made at government and local level, to mull over the hygiene behaviour of students, colleagues and families and to focus our mental energy on the global picture.

It is entirely natural to be drawn into thinking about these things as they feel potentially threatening and as humans we do our best to avoid this wherever possible. However with little power to influence it, our mental batteries become drained when they would perhaps best be reserved for focusing on what is within our control. That does not mean we have to become apathetic about these issues, we are simply directing our attention and focus to the areas we have control over. I may not be able to control the social distancing of others but I can control my own behaviour.

2. Take care of the fundamentals

During times of prolonged and extreme stress we can be prone to running on autopilot and on adrenaline. We can rely on quick fixes as we don’t have the mental energy to think of more functional and healthy options that take that bit longer. We reach for the sugar and caffeine to give us a short burst of energy, we drink alcohol to help us unwind or get to sleep, we can’t be bothered to exercise and instead spend time flicking through Instagram.

Again all of this is entirely normal, we often take the path of least resistance. The difficulty comes with the protracted period this enduring is for. We end up relying on these for longer and longer and ultimately end up neglecting our needs. Take time to reflect on these actions, there may be points you’re more likely to struggle with.

It’s incredible how much impact the fundamentals of nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep have on our emotional health. This isn’t about living life like a saint, but to help teacher wellbeing we need to make sure teachers are taking care of their body. If we don’t add petrol to our car, don’t get it serviced and keep it running constantly it might keep going for a bit but at some point its going to break down.

3. Reach out to connect

Most of us are naturally social creatures. We don’t live lives as hermits and crave social interactions. The new situation just imposed means we aren’t as easily able to do that as we were. There is something hugely resourceful in maintaining the connections with friends, family and colleagues despite the challenges in doing so.

To help ourselves and teacher wellbeing we can get creative with it. Think of novel ways to interact without relying on the now ever reliable group zoom quiz. Host watch party’s for your favourite films, send voice notes, get dressed up for a meal over video conferencing or go old school and write letters. It doesn’t have to be all the time and it doesn’t have to be profound moments of talking about your deepest darkest secrets, its just about staying connected and feeling part of something outside of your little bubble.

If you are struggling be brave enough to be vulnerable and share it. You don’t have to tell everyone everything but you might be surprised about who feels the same. I’ll never forget emailing four of my closest friends when I was at my lowest ebb years ago and being honest about how I felt. Not only did it help them understand why I was acting differently, it set the precedent for them to share things they may have been struggling with.

4. Validate your own emotions

We can often recognise that we are struggling long before we do anything about it. Instead we switch to a ‘you should be able to handle it’, ‘think about it tomorrow’, ‘if they can do it why can’t I’. We put on a front and continue a performance of appearing to be ok when we’re not. That in itself is exhausting, on top of the performing nature of the role of teachers.

It takes up huge amounts of energy that could be better spent looking after ourselves. It would be unrealistic to walk through these last few months, and the next however many before some form of normality returns for us to not feel affected in some way. That doesn’t mean you’re broken or weak or less than anyone else. It means you’re human. To improve your own wellbeing and teacher wellbeing in general during this time we need to notice it, acknowledge the impact of it, and take care of yourself and the ways that you need. You don’t have to do it alone but it isn’t something others can do without your permission.

By dismissing your own feelings or bottling them up you simply shame yourself. It’s probably not how you would respond to a friend or loved one and it’s ultimately not what you need right now.

These points have been a starting point in what we hope to be an ongoing conversation about teacher wellbeing and what steps individuals, groups, schools and networks can take to make positive steps to ameliorate some of the stress you may be experiencing.

For more information and help for teacher wellbeing please listen to our podcast.

Written by Dr Alistair Bailie (AKA Dr Bear)