The first few weeks of school can be overwhelming. Luckily, you’re on your A-game. You have lesson plans at the ready, and you have boundless energy to make a great first impression on your students and start the year strong. Sometimes our best laid plans fall apart. On those days when you wish you were still relaxing poolside, there are ways to channel your summertime “chill.”
My friend Dr. Michael Davidson is an experienced, practicing psychologist in Memphis, TN, and we recently chatted about teacher health and well-being. He offered his top five tips below for staying mentally healthy during the first few months of school. Use his tips all year to be your best self at work and after the bell rings.
After a long day or a stressful class, use a pen and paper (not a keyboard) to record your observations and feelings. Not only does this give you clarity on whatever happened, it also allows you to detach and re-read your thoughts later from an objective perspective. Dr. Davidson points to studies that show journaling improves the function of the immune system.
A mentor at Teach For America gave me a similar tip. He said I would have some bad days as a teacher. He told me to write down three good things that happened every day at school, even little things, like making a student smile or getting a class to successfully complete their bellwork. I did what he said. At the end of the year, I had a notebook full of hundreds of things to be proud of.
Those yogi Zen-types you see hanging out at your local coffee shop really are more relaxed than you. Follow their lead by paying attention to your breathing. When you are stressed, your respiratory system goes into overdrive, causing you to breathe harshly and rapidly. Make a note of when this happens to you. The next time you feel stressed, take deep, even, full breaths from the belly. Avoid shallow breathing. According to Davidson, this helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and forces the body to relax.
3. Nurture yourself.
Remember those safety demonstrations at the beginning of your last flight? When the gas masks fall from the overhead compartment, you’re supposed to put on your own mask first before helping the child next to you. I like to think of teaching the same way. It’s easy to start thinking of yourself as imprisoned by your role as teacher. Don’t. Don’t spend every evening hunched over your laptop planning lessons. It may seem like a good idea now to get ahead, and you’re right, but not at the cost of your physical well being. From your perspective, you are the most important person in your classroom and always will be. If you can’t relax and enjoy what you do, you will burn out quickly. Take a sick day when you need to, even if it’s in the first month of school. Play a game or show a movie in class the next day so you can finish grading those papers. Get some exercise. Eat healthy. Be smart and take care of yourself, first and foremost.
4. Set realistic goals (emphasis on “realistic”).
Your school will ask you to do a lot of things this year. But only you work with your students every day, and only you know what they can individually do. Stay true to this because setting big goals only matters if they are goals your kids can feasibly achieve. “I think transformational change comes one-on-one in a real connection with another individual when we communicate that we see them, acknowledge them as a a person, and value them,” Davidson says. “As a teacher, you may not see the results of your work firsthand. But as a psychologist I’ve seen those results in patients ten years later.” Teachers make a difference in the lives of their students in many more profound ways than test scores and growth measurements. Be someone in their lives who loves them. That’s infinitely more important than meeting your benchmark for growth.
5. Don’t forget who you are.
I’ve walked out of my classroom, mid-period, nearly in tears several times. It’s hard to see past those moments when you’re in them. The rest of your life–the people who make you laugh, the things you love to do–can seem very far away at those times. Much like depression, it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong has happened and you can’t imagine ever feeling better. Davidson offers this mantra for times like those: “This is where I am, not who I am.” Bad days happen to everyone, in every field. It’s crucial to remember that you are more than your job, more than this one bad week.
You were selected for this role because many brilliant talented people believe in you. For those dark moments, keep photos of family vacations, old cards, or funny notes from friends in your desk drawer. Pull them out when you need a reminder of who you are when you are at your best.