By Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., coauthor of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior
As a special education teacher, I have worked with students who had some pretty deep emotional and behavioral concerns. I would show up to school, sometimes still exhausted from the day before, to try again to reach a student—to teach him how to read, how to use calming strategies (usually after a big incident), or how to make amends to others. When students would eventually catch on to what I was trying to teach them, it gave me an immense feeling of joy and relief. Unfortunately, these feelings did not come often, and most days I left school feeling defeated. In addition to my students, I had other commitments: school committees, after-school activities, curriculum meetings, paperwork for IEPs, and lesson plans. On top of that, I had my husband and son and wanted family time with them. And then there were friendships, which I sorely needed in my life.
A while ago I read that in my home state, about half the people holding a teaching license are not currently teaching, and I can understand why that might be. Teaching can be the most rewarding profession, but it can also be draining. In order to stay in the teaching profession, I developed a few self-care rules for myself. They are the ABCs of self-care for teachers: Attitude, Balance, and Compassion.
- Attitude. A Google search on improving attitudes presents articles and inspirational quotes that describe how changing our attitude can improve our outlook. Getting into the daily habit of writing down five things we’re grateful for is a way to bring more positivity and improved attitude to our lives. Our gratitude can be as small as, “I am grateful for the coffee I had this morning,” to as big as, “I am grateful the principal acknowledged my hard work in front of the staff.” By writing down things that we are grateful for, we can begin to see the world in a new way, with more joy and peace. Another way we can change our attitude is to keep conversations and ideas positive. Instead of saying, “I am horrible at working out every day,” honor small changes by saying, “I had a healthy lunch, and that is a positive step toward my overall health and wellness.” These changes will help our brain readjust and get out of the rut of thinking everything is terrible when in reality there are a lot of great things happening around us all the time.
- Balance. This can be hard for teachers to achieve because of the huge workload and time commitments. But if we don’t figure out how to do this effectively, burnout happens before we know it. I would often bring home a backpack full of work to do in the evening. Most times I would just let it stare at me, propped up against the chair in the living room until I took out at least one folder to deal with. And when IEPs and other school documents went online, I could do my work anywhere, anytime! While some days I could be grateful for that, other days I would curse my good internet connection. Whether you are busy doing work or scrolling through social media sites, it is important to take time to shut off the computer and to remember to be where you are. Notice your interactions with your family and friends—are they healthy and happy? A teacher friend told me that her friendships with nonteachers were important to her because they made her think of things beyond the classroom. These friends weren’t always interested in hearing about her students, struggles at her schools, or the state of public education. Find a hobby or join a group that inspires you. Check out Meetup to find a group that interests you, or start your own. Many groups are free or low-cost. Our brains like to be active—they are muscles! And while binge-watching a show or playing video games long into the night might bring some relief from the teaching world and release that good-feeling dopamine in the brain, in the long run these activities can make a person feel depressed once all the episodes are viewed or the video game is lost. And I find it hard to shut down my brain to sleep. A better choice is to get outside in the fresh air, engage with friends and family, eat some vegetables, limit alcohol consumption, and get some exercise. Everything in balance and moderation.
- Compassion. Education has a long history of believing that we could discipline students to new and improved behaviors. The thinking was (and still is for many) that, with enough suspensions and detentions and with enough lectures about how the horrible behavior is leading them down the wrong path, eventually students would learn how their behaviors were making others feel and they would change the behavior to get into the good graces of adults. Now we know that many students who show the most challenging behaviors need us the most. Students who hoard food may be doing it because they learned that if they don’t, there won’t be enough. Students who yell at their teachers may be displaying a self-preservation technique; yelling keeps adults they don’t trust at bay. These are the behaviors that used to make me feel exhausted and ineffective toward my students. Compassion toward my students removed the guilt and blame I felt and lessened the need to strictly discipline them. Compassion made me try to understand the cause of their behavior. Students who come to school hungry also come to school crabby. A social worker taught me to keep simple snacks in my desk drawer to help out hungry students until lunchtime. She got our school connected to a local food shelf to provide food for our students over the weekends and long holiday breaks. This act of compassion toward the students helped us create a sense of trust and understanding. When students feel trusted and heard, challenging behaviors will often decrease.
Caring for ourselves keeps us in shape mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Happy hours after school can be a fun way to connect with colleagues and blow off steam, but we are no good to anyone if we show up to school the next day sick and tired, exhausted, and spent. While no one is ever 100 percent perfect, we should all do our best to give attention to the areas of self-care. As teachers, we are there for others all the time. Self-care is about being there for ourselves. And we can start with this simple ABC recipe.
Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., is a teacher and an advocate for students with special needs. During her twenty-plus years in education, Beth has taught in self-contained special education classrooms, implemented and coached PBIS teams, and worked as a behavior specialist. She was also a district program facilitator assisting staff with professional development around social-emotional learning and coaching them in supporting students with emotional-behavioral needs. Recently she has been teaching abroad and implementing PBIS at international schools. Beth loves creating positive paths to behavior change whenever and wherever she can. She presents frequently on social-emotional learning and PBIS in the US and internationally. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Beth Baker is coauthor with Char Ryan of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior
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