You Seriously Need to Sleep More
You don’t sleep enough. At least, statistically speaking. You see, you need sleep in order to think clearly and react quickly to your environment. And it is during the later hours of sleep (often between hours six and eight) when the brain does some of its richest, most healing, and rejuvenating work. But you? Well, the average teacher only sleeps six hours a night. Which means you’re not getting these benefits. And I’m sure many of you wish you could manage even six hours! So it is no surprise that 64% of teachers report feeling drowsy during the school day and only a third of you admit to getting a good night’s sleep most of the time. On top of that, 45% of teachers are working part-time jobs just to make ends meet. But maybe there’s no news here. You live it every day. Education World is here to tell you, however, that there is hope.
Why You Need It
You probably don’t have to be convinced of the virtues of finding more time for sleep. In fact, some of you might want to scroll down and skip right to our ProTips. But maybe you—like so many of us—need a little encouragement to prioritize it more than you do. “Yeah, I know…everyone needs to sleep more, what are you gonna do?” isn’t really addressing the potential impact it is having on your students and work community. Some studies show that sleep-deprived individuals take 14% longer to complete assigned tasks, and make 20% more mistakes than their well-rested colleagues. In the teaching world, that could mean misgraded assignments, unclear lessons, or ineffective classroom management that could have troublesome repercussions to your classroom culture.
Another interesting benefit to improving your sleep patterns is the fact that our brains often continue to “think” while we sleep. Maria Konnikova’s 2015 article in the New Yorker, “The Work We Do While We Sleep”, gives a fantastic overview about how we tend to continue a lot of the day’s work and problem-solving throughout the night. Have you ever had an issue at school and decided to “sleep on it”, waking the next morning with a new, clearer perspective? A part of that is due to the added quiet time your brain has been given on the issue. A lack of sleep could mean you are missing out on key problem-solving time, leaving you resigned to needlessly carry the frustration through another day.
On the administrative side, the total cost of sleep deprivation across the United States is estimated to be $100 billion annually from workplace accidents, decreased productivity, and absenteeism. This statistic does not only include teachers, but the point is, putting your own self-care on the “back burner” could be costing us more than cups of coffee and precious time. It is time to bring sleep to the forefront. It is time to prioritize you. So let’s get to the best scientifically-backed practices available to help teachers get that rejuvenating night of sleep.
1. Stop staring at that screen...No, really. You’ve heard about this, but how many of you have actually adjusted your practice? Numerous studies show that screen time before bed is keeping us up at night. The recommendation is to avoid looking at bright screens 2-3 hours before bed. This might seem impossible to the modern-day teacher. More and more, we spend our time grading Google Docs and Slides...on screens. Our gradebooks...are online. We research for our lessons…online. Almost all of our communication is streamed...through email. You’re online right now, getting some good tips on sleep. Our entire profession has become quite digital.
Nevertheless, think about how you might be able to leave some of your “screenless” work until the end of the night. That stack of paper worksheets? Maybe they get graded by hand at the end of the work session. Maybe you can input those actual grades online tomorrow morning, over a cup of coffee. Do you absolutely need to brainstorm that lesson on a device, or would you survive using a notebook every once in a while? Perhaps you let your parents and students know that you do not answer emails after a certain hour at night. Understand, however, that recreational use of your devices—your tablet, smartphone, and television—also contribute to this effect. It might feel like they are helping your mind to unwind, but biologically, you’re likely stimulating yourself. Some educators attempt to avoid these consequences by setting non-negotiable “power down” times for themselves. How you decide to tackle your own unique schedule is ultimately up to you, but recognizing that you have choices in how you organize that schedule could be the key to a deeper night’s sleep.
2. Get a bedside journal. Journaling tends to frighten off many adults. For some, it feels juvenile, for others there’s a fear of “doing it incorrectly”. Here’s the thing: your worries and anticipations are certainly interrupting your sleep patterns—even if you don’t feel stressed. Much of what goes on in our minds occurs at an unconscious level. You might feel like you’ve “let it all go”, but your mind might still be plunking away at the day’s distresses.
Writing about stressful feelings and events reduces both avoidant and intrusive thoughts concerning our day. It also has been proven to improve working memory. In a very real sense, these improvements actually “free up” cognitive resources so that you can focus on other mental activities—including stress maintenance. In the process of exploring your feelings on the day, you are also committing to the scientifically-backed best practice of teacher reflection, which is a win-win. And there’s no wrong way to do this!
Yet, if you’re the type that prefers a writing prompt, there is one pre-bed writing exercise from Swiss psychiatrist Paul Dubois that has been proven to reduce nighttime anxiety. Each night, draw two columns in your journal or notebook. Thinking back on the day, list the things that troubled you in one column. Then, add things that went well or were favorable in the other. Just be sure to create at least one favorable entry for each troubling one. The science shows that realizing that you have good things happening in your life every day helps to keep you from solely focusing on the negatives, which we tend to do. Going to bed with a sense of balance is sure to lead to a more restful night.
3. Get a schedule. This one’s going to be more difficult for those new to teaching. You have not yet figured out your teacher rhythms. Your grading flow. But even the seasoned veterans sometimes descend into the randomness and chaos of a busy teaching week. The suggestion here is that building a regular schedule into your day is going to lead to more regular sleep habits, too. Having a daily routine—from where, when, and what you eat to when you start and end working to when you go outside each day—is associated with better sleep. You’re already changing up your schedule to better monitor your screen time, why not extend it to the rest of your day?
One benefit teachers have in this respect is how our day is often automatically regulated by bells: *ring* class one, two, three, *ring* lunch, *ring*. But what time do you get up in the morning? How do you spend your prep periods? What time do you stop working at night? Do you make sure to find time to sit and eat lunch each and every day? If these things are not consistent, you could be throwing your entire rhythm out of whack. Surely, variety is the spice of life, but perhaps not at the expense of a good night’s sleep. Plus, the variety of students in your classroom tends to be enough spice for a lifetime.
4. Get moving. We know. Maintaining a regular workout schedule has been on your “to do” list forever. It’s difficult, but it is also essential to getting that good night’s sleep. The trick, they say, is to be patient. Recent research suggests that the sleep benefits of regular exercise increase over time, but not immediately. In time, the research suggests that when insomnia patients add even moderate exercise to their daily routines, they experience less anxiety and more sleep. Adding some flexibility, data also shows that getting 150 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” activity weekly can lead to a 65% improvement in sleep quality. In short, it works.
Easier said than done. For educators, the real key might lie in your ability to “make it part of your day”. Psychologists say that “taking away the choice” of whether or not you’re going to work out on a given day is the answer to maintaining regular exercise. Getting that “moderate” rate of exercise might be as little as taking a 30-minute walk around campus every single day before you head home for the night. It might include the gym. It might include a favorite athletic pastime. The goal is to do it every day. Trick yourself into thinking it is a part of your contract. Tell yourself, “my workday is not over until I’ve done this, too”. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it normalizes.
5. Try an App. A lot of folks have had great success with the large varieties of apps available to help improve and understand our sleep patterns. Many of these will collect data on your sleep habits, which can help you to make better choices long-term. The only challenge here is that if you’re more likely to play with your phone or tablet if it is near your bed, they might not be worth the benefits they provide. If you have more self-control, check out some of the popular free sleep apps below:
SleepBot is a smart alarm, motion tracker, and sound recorder that gathers information in an attempt to gently wake you during your lightest sleep. The sound recorder this app provides can be an extra cool piece of data when thinking about environmental variables that could be interrupting our sleep. It also provides actionable tips, based on your specific data.
Sleep Better is another sleep tracker and smart alarm, but allows more note-taking options. Enter daily habits (caffeine intake, stress level, alcohol consumption), log a dream diary, and keep track of moon phases.
For those looking for guided meditations with relaxing visuals and sounds, this is the app for you. Including binaural beats, ASMR audios, mantras, quotables, and an emotional state tracker, Zen is an all-in-one relaxation app.
Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor
Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.