Why Self-Care Strategies for Teachers Are So Important
Teachers, like other public sector employees, have suffered an erosion of their living standards and job security over the last 10 years. But this doesn’t seem to be the primary reason why teachers come to therapy. They seem more troubled by the negative effects of a pervasive culture of control in schools, increasing workloads and an ethos that prizes systems over people and data over human experience.
When we consider that these dedicated individuals are dealing everyday with our children and young people then surely it is something to be concerned about, particularly as we know that depression and anxiety in children is a growing problem. Surely part of addressing this would be to have a focus on the mental health of the people teaching them?
Most schools and colleges now function like businesses and need to perform competitively, economically as well as academically. As I write this, many students are supporting a strike by their lecturers because they feel unhappy about the marketisation of higher education. This has put a price on something that to many, cannot easily be measured – the impact of learning on the individual. Education professionals come to therapy to talk about their experiences of trying to perform against externally set criteria which sometimes seem far removed from their self-identified priorities defined by the environment in which they work. They are required to do ‘more and better’ but with diminishing resources whilst still attempting to maintain the integrity of their chosen profession and, being faithful to their training and their intuitive skills and responses to the very diverse needs of their learners. Inevitably some of the joy and creativity they have expected from their work has gone and they feel exhausted and demotivated.
Whilst teachers are told that learning has to be personalised for every child, they themselves are being forced to fit into a homogenised mould so that children have the same experience from class to class no matter who teaches them. I know and hear about the sense of devaluation this brings for a those who have been attracted into the profession by the promise of using their creativity, ingenuity and enthusiasm to inspire young minds. The message seems to be, “Your individualism, personal experience and imagination is no longer needed”.
One outcome of this is that older, longer-serving teachers describe a situation in which experience is not always valued as much as the ability to just keep up and adapt to constant change. Statistics show that they are leaving teaching in significant numbers, but how will this affect children’s attitudes to and experience of their education? Teachers trying to stay in the profession often talk about having no voice or feeling bullied and intimidated by inflexible management teams or by a conspiratorial ethos in which their professional autonomy is being eroded.
And what are the feelings underlying these upsetting narratives? Fundamentally work acts as an expression of ‘self’. And those in particular who have been drawn to teaching often desire to make relationships through energy, warmth and creativity. Teachers report that they are carrying an unbearable workload preventing them from being who they are. In therapeutic terms we might say that they have to develop a ‘false self’ in order to survive the experience. Many cut off from or bury the aspects of themselves that make working life difficult. They slowly become less aware of what they need personally in an effort simply to meet the needs of their job. Many speak of working every evening and much of the weekend without much reflection time on just how unsustainable or reasonable this situation is. Most of those who seek therapy seem to be looking for a way out of teaching. This in itself brings feelings of insecurity and loss.
Teaching in particular is a job carrying with it some intrinsic meaning because it is human-facing and relational. Historically the profession has been respected for providing a means for young people to escape poverty of experience, of love or of environment. Teachers have been revered for wanting to spend their working lives in pursuit of future potential. But teachers now explain that the future has been rewritten for them. Children have become units of economic value and the curriculum has narrowed because of the desire to measure only those skills deemed to be economically useful. Many of the creative aspects of teaching have been taken away which minimizes the opportunities teachers have for building warm relationships with their students, acknowledging their individual strengths and to seeing the ‘whole’ of them.
Teachers describe working in an environment lacking in trust. They describe being under constant scrutiny and having written judgements formed of their performance based on short and sometimes unexpected observations. Good performance is expected to improve further and poor performance invites additional scrutiny and monitoring. Therapeutically speaking this system creates a constant attack on the ‘self’ in which the individual becomes hyper-vigilant, and lacking in any kind of reliable view of themselves. The stakes are high which makes any kind of real learning unlikely. One can’t help reflecting on how this would affect children. It would be considered highly detrimental to their self-esteem and would create an ethos in which they were too anxious to take risks and learn. Recent reports have suggested that teaching is becoming a job that it is impossible to do well and yet one that takes up enormous amounts of time and mental energy often leading to poor sleep, excessive tiredness, a changed relationship with alcohol or food, feelings of overwhelming anxiety, panic attacks and lack of confidence.
Having a therapeutic space in which to share ones’ difficulties can really help with managing stress. Other actions to support self-care include:
- trying to put boundaries around how much work you do at home-if possible having at least one work-free night a week and at least one whole day off at the weekend
- getting into a routine of sleep that works for you
- making sure that you recover properly before returning to work after being ill
- seeking advice from your GP if you are worried about your health in any way
- asking for any Work-Life Balance policy that may be in place
- taking a proper lunch break of at least 30 minutes away from your room/desk
- ensuring you make time for things you enjoy such as exercise, music, seeing friends, reading, films etc
- accepting that some things won’t get done but feeling good about the things you have done
By looking after yourself, you are doing the best thing you can to protect the children you teach.