This is a letter for the teacher who has been playing teacher since their youth and dreaming of their own classroom one day. The teacher who thrives on the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils and feels giddy creating a supply list for their incoming students. If you are already planning and preparing for the warm and welcoming classroom you’ve been dreaming of for your students, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and focus on creating something that will benefit you and your students more than you can imagine- a thorough and thoughtful self-care plan for the academic year.
Being a teacher has brought some of the happiest moments in my life. There is really nothing like leading seven-year olds in discussions about history and current events or sharing the joy with a student that their reading has improved. One of my favorite moments in teaching was when my students had turned all of the sentences in her paragraph into similes because I had just taught that lesson earlier that day. To watch children take charge of their learning and apply what you’ve taught is powerful and I am so grateful that I was able to teach for the time that I did.
Aside from bringing me endless amounts of joy and laughter, being a teacher has also resulted in a lot of sadness, stress and anxiety for me. Throughout my work as a teacher, I have found it to be an extremely abusive job. The expectations that are put on us, the tasks we are asked to complete and the behaviors we are asked to manage in our classrooms are alarming. I would prefer for the system itself to change- shorter days for students, more planning time, a fair teacher to student ratio, mental health resources for students, smaller classrooms, teaching resources and of course, more funding for resources and qualified teachers. The list of ways we can better our outdated education system is endless but after five years of being in the classroom, I’ve seen very little change. What has stayed consistent in the education system is the amount of work teachers put in every single day to assure that our students succeed.
As a teacher who grew up in a high-need community and has worked in high-need communities, I understand the urgency of prioritizing our students. I understand that we need quality and committed teachers in our classroom. I am in no way trying to discourage teachers from being teachers or asking teachers to do less. I am asking you to make thoughtful choices and take care of yourself so that you could be there for your students, because you do make a difference in their lives. It is also a cry for undoing a system that will eventually abuse the very students you’ve served.
As you enter the 2018-2019 school year, I urge you to be a part of something big. I urge you to end the cycle of overworking yourself. I urge you to prioritize finding a balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your students. I want you to challenge your leaders and your colleagues when they tell you to “put students first” because while our students are in need and extremely important, asking us to put them before ourselves is a form of abuse. Creating a self-care plan and sticking to it might not seem like a big deal but I assure you this – it will be extremely difficult in a system that expects you to put your students before anything, including yourself.
In addition to personal realizations, the “students first” mentality is essentially what drove me out of the classroom and made me lose my love for teaching. After five years, June 1st was my last day as a classroom teacher. The reason I am writing this is because deciding to no longer be a teacher was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I am an immigrant, Latina, native-Spanish speaker who grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. I believe in the power of education because it changed my entire life and existence in this country. I so badly wanted to give that to my students. The connection I had with many of my students was so real that I truly believe it impacted their learning for the better. Throughout my career, I’ve watched excellent teachers get driven out of the profession and for a long time, I had no idea I would be next in line. The saddest part of this, has been watching teachers that reflect the population they teach and have been proven to create more of an impact leave the classroom because the work isn’t sustainable. Creating a self-care plan and modeling self-care for other teachers in the education system, might seem like band-aid over a bigger issue but the goal of this is to help you bring your whole-self to work while still honoring your needs. I hope it helps and I hope it helps keep you happy and effective in the classroom.
So- how do I take care of myself and also give my students the quality education they deserve and need? The first step in creating a self-care plan is to remember two things.
- You are a human being who teaches. Sticking to a self-care plan will not work if you don’t remember one thing- YOU ARE HUMAN. Teachers are asked to complete an overwhelming amount of work. In order to take care of yourself, you need to remember that before a teacher, you are a human. You are a human who teaches. You are a human with an actual body and physiology that needs attention and nurturing. You love teaching and you love your students but you must meet your human needs in order to be the best first version of yourself for your students and for yourself.
- Be transparent with your team about your boundaries around work and self-care. Working hours outside of your work schedule is somewhat of an expectation in a school. In my opinion, it really shouldn’t be. Setting clear expectations and boundaries with your team about when you can have meetings and plan together sets you and them up for success. Before the academic year starts, sit down with your team and set norms around how you operate during the school year. Self-care does not mean being selfish Honor your work and honor your team by communicating your needs and being transparent with them. They are also working extremely hard and you don’t want to put the entire work load on them.
- Remember that you are doing this for you and your students. For a long time I confused taking care of myself as choosing myself over my students. I shamed myself and made up stories in my head about what my colleagues thought of me and what leaders thought of me. As I reflect about my teaching career, I wish somebody would have told me to create a thoughtful self-care plan. I wish that I would have figured that out on my own before I lost my love for teaching. I know the happiest I felt in my career was when I felt a balance between taking care of myself and being a great teacher.
Now… the fun part! Create a loving mindset for yourself in a comfortable environment and start writing down how you want to take care of yourself this academic year. You can use the SMART goal format or other goal-setting formats to invest yourself in the what and why. Below I list some things to consider when creating your self-care plan and also, some things I practiced during times where I felt like my best self and my best as a teacher.
- Consider your basic human needs when creating your self-care plan- healthy eating, sleeping well, exercise and water. I don’t want to come off as condescending. Obviously, you know what your basic needs. I am only telling you because of my own experience in the classroom. There were days where I actually forgot to drink water. By this last year, I made it a student job. One of my wonderful students would literally just fill up my water bottle when it was empty and it was so freaking great. Maybe you want to write down the types of energizing snacks you will keep in your classroom. Do you need a refrigerator and microwave in there? Is it time to go to Target and get yourself a really cool water bottle? How many hours of sleep do you need to feel you most successful? How many times a week do you want to exercise and why? Where do you want to exercise? Get clear on these basic needs and how you will be sure to do them!
- Make an emergency plan for your tough days in the classroom. There will be difficult days in the classroom. Try to think and write down a list of people you can count on after a tough day to cheer you up. Write a list of activities that energize you. One of mine was leaving the building and taking a walk.
- Make multiple emergency sub plans. At the beginning of the year, teachers are often asked to create emergency sub folders. The first two years, this was the last thing on my list but I actually think it’s one of the most important parts of getting ready for the school year. Take a day to create multiple sub folders and resources. There will be days when you will be dealing with personal situations that require a day of dealing with and recharging for work. There were so many days I brought part of myself to work instead of my whole self only because I didn’t have sub plans. So, seriously get on that! It would be great if you never need them but the likelihood is that you will at least once during the school year!
- Honor your weekends: You might not mind working on the weekends but my suggestion is don’t. If that truly feels impossible, leave the more mindless tasks for the weekend, like entering grades- something you can do while watching TV or listening to music.
- Honor the people around you- the people that love you deserve to spend time with you and you deserve to spend time with them.Make plans with your friends and family and stick to them. People will be kind to you and understanding because you’re helping mold the future of America but that doesn’t mean you should just ditch the people who love you.
- Use your planning time wisely- the best thing you can do during your planning time is plan and meet with your team.
- Make goals around how often you want to stay late or go in early. There are endless amounts of tasks to complete before and after school. You must set boundaries! I would only stay after school for parent meetings or emergency/urgent meetings.
- Explore and get clear on when you are the most productive. I am so productive in the morning. So, if I had multiple tasks to get done, I would go in early to get them done. When I realized that I was practically useless after school, I stopped making plans to plan after school.
- Go to therapy: Even if it’s once a month, I think therapy is a necessity for teachers. Denver Public schools offers 5 free therapy sessions through the Employee Assistance Program.Therapy will help you manage any stress anxiety that you might experience as a teacher.
- If you are a first year teacher- don’t spend your first year figuring out how to get all of your work done for school. Spend your first year trying to find the balance between taking care of yourself and being a professional. More often than not, first-year teachers are not fully effective their first year. I don’t think the question we should ask is “How can I become a more effective teacher for my students?” I think it needs to be “Teaching is an extremely demanding job. My students deserve the best. How can I ensure that I am being an effective teacher while still taking care of my needs?” When we are only asking ourselves how to be effective teachers, it is easy to lose sight of ourselves as humans since the list of things teachers need to do is extreme. Rely on the experienced teachers in your building and use the resources they’ve created especially if they offer them to you. This will give you more room to complete the tasks you need to complete, build relationships with students and solidify your classroom culture.
- Stick to your self-care plan. This is the hard part. I’ve worked in two schools. One where the work truly felt overwhelming. It had a lot to do with the role I played and the fact that I didn’t really have a team to work with. At my latest school, my team was so experienced and established, that when I walked in my first year there, I was truly set up for success. I used and tweaked the unit plans they had already planned and it gave me the opportunity to improve my craft. I can see how sticking to your self-care plan might be easier in one school than it is another. At the same time, I do not think this system will ever change if we just keep overworking ourselves and not challenging the expectations that keep us from being able to balance work and life. It should not feel so impossible and in a system that doesn’t seem to be changing, we need to be very clear about what we will do.
Five years ago, I was really excited to walk into my second-grade classroom for the very first time as Ms. Vivanco. Butterflies wandered my stomach and I could not contain the anxiety and excitement that intertwined within me. I wanted my students to take me seriously so I tried my best to avoid smiling too much but when my first class looked up at me from their small square carpet spots, I didn’t understand how I was supposed to not smile at their angelic faces. Their eyes literally twinkled on their first day of school. I had just stepped into the most challenging experience I’ve ever had but I had all of the energy in the world for it.
Until I didn’t
By the end of my second and third year of teaching I became violently sick. The first year, I had a really awful stomach flu and the second year I got mono. And no, I didn’t get mono because I was going around kissing errbody at the club. I worked 8-12 hours a day and then somehow I would try and make it to a 7pm yoga class and then I would cook something, get things done on my computer, go to sleep and wake up and do it all over again. I was so stressed out physically and mentally that I became physically sick and unable to be there for my students. I hardly had an evening to just do whatever I wanted. I truly believe that if you can spend even a portion of your time before and during the school year, being thoughtful and thorough abut your self-care, it will make a world of a difference.
As you enter the 2018-2019 school year, I really hope you make time to honor yourself as a human so you can bring your best self to work everyday for your students. I believe that educators are a gift and so are our students. As I reflect on my career as a teacher, I’ve uncovered many mistakes I made but I have also reflected on my successes. It has been an honor to work with the educators I worked with and life-changing to watch my students grow. One of the biggest mistakes I made as an educator was selling myself short. That is what prevented me from bringing my whole self to work. Through my reflection and advice, I hope that I can encourage you to do something different this year in hopes that you spend more time, if not the rest of your life impacting our students.