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Staying Healthy: To-Do Checklist for Teachers

teacher meditation           

For the first few years of my career, I was sick about every two weeks between October and May. I tried everything: taking Vitamin C, washing my hands religiously, and wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant spray in my classroom. I even tried drinking a brand of orange juice that claimed to boost my immunity. Nothing worked, and I hung on through those early years until my system finally developed better resistance to all the germs that circulate in schools.

With all our focus on staying healthy this year, it is ironic that so many teachers are feeling less healthy than ever before. Educators may not be health experts, but it can help to develop some organizational tools that boost efficiency around taking care of every aspect of ourselves: our physical bodies, our mental states, our professional well-being and our personal lives. Below are checklists for each area of health. Customize as needed!

Physical Health Checklist:           

This is probably the list that contains the most obvious to-do items, but that doesn’t mean we are taking care of everything we know needs attention. Consider this an official reminder!

  • Schedule and attend regular well check-ups: annual physicals, dental cleanings, well-woman exams (if applicable), and any other medical appointments that need periodic attention from a licensed medical professional.
  • Do not ignore symptoms that persist over many months, like regular stomach pain or a vicious headache that keeps coming back. Get it checked out. Now.
  • Try and incorporate movement into every day, even if just for a few minutes. A 10-minute walk, a few jumping jacks, or a stretch series can reboot not just our bodies, but also our minds.
  • With faces behind masks all day, taking care of our skin is more important than ever. Cleansing and moisturizing our faces at night can help prevent the dreaded “maskne” from happening.
  • While we may not feel like anyone is looking at us, keeping our physical appearance in a place that we find both comfortable and acceptable is important. We all have different thresholds, but if someone needs a manicure to feel good, get one. If our hair is out of control, get it cut. Whatever works!

Mental Health Checklist:           

As we know, and as this writer puts it, teachers are not okay. With an uncertain end in sight to difficult circumstances, staying mentally healthy is not an easy accomplishment. Here are a few things we can do to try and keep our heads above water:

  • If we are struggling, we need to get help. Often, therapy is uninsured and therefore too expensive, but there are ways to get financial assistance. For example, Open Path offers affordable therapy options for anyone who is on a budget. Other online options, such as Better Help, provide virtual therapy on a flexible schedule.
  • Some cost-free options to maintain our mental health are readily available. As mentioned above, exercise has been clinically proven to improve our mindset. Another source of support is regular interaction with friends and family. When we socialize with others and resist the urge to isolate ourselves, we are happier and more productive.
  • Meditation is highly recommended as a coping mechanism for mental health. While many of us have no idea where to start, there are a number of recommended apps (such as Calm and Ten Percent Happier) that offer guided meditation in a variety of time increments and formats.

Professional Health Checklist:

What is professional health? It is exactly what it sounds like: keeping well at the jobs we do. Many people struggle with private mental health battles but still show up each day as professionals. When we can no longer be productive at work because our jobs are causing undue stress, our professional health is at stake. Here are some ways to manage job angst:

  • Everyone at work needs not just a buddy, but also a champion. This is not a colleague who complains or feeds into negativity; it is a teacher friend who encourages our work, collaborates with us on lesson ideas, and listens to us when we are not okay. This person is solutions-oriented and helpful. If we can find that person, it’s a total game-changer.
  • Our workload is often untenable, and it is not possible to get everything done every day. For that reason, setting attainable goals is a vital part of being successful. Starting with just one non-negotiable action for the day is a good practice. When we pick one thing and get it done, we instantly feel better about our level of accomplishment.
  • While it might feel like a total impossibility, take a break. Even a tiny one. I used to wash my hands in warm water and call it a “spa moment.” If we can manage something longer, pause and eat. Breathe. Listen to music for a few minutes. It can completely make the rest of the day possible.

Personal Health Checklist:           

Contrary to what our students think, we do not sleep under our classrooms like vampires each night. Eventually, though it might not feel like it, we have personal lives to attend to and homes to sleep in. In the spirit of saving the best (and most important) checklist for last, none of the above list items work even half as well if we do not prioritize our personal lives. Before we even think about fixing anything else, doing just a few of the items below can help us remember that we do not live to work: we work to live.

  • Hugs are incredibly therapeutic, especially with our family and personal friends. Physical contact is generally frowned upon at work, particularly in covid times, so taking extra care to hug our loved ones before and after each workday can go a long way toward keeping us connected to what really matters.
  • Everyone needs a spot at home that provides respite. Whether we claim a corner of the couch with a specific blanket as our own or feel our best chatting at the kitchen table, spending time each day in our special place can add to our overall sense of wellbeing.
  • Sleep also ties in strongly to mental and physical health, but home is where it happens. We might be tempted to stay up bingeing the latest season of British Bake-Off, but it will be there tomorrow. Going to bed refreshes us from every angle.
  • A change of scenery provides a total reset. On weekends (if possible), taking a day trip to a nearby town or heading into nature with people we enjoy spending time with can make time stand still in a very good way.
  • If we cannot get away for a day, even a few hours can help. Going out for a meal, cooking something special with loved ones, or building a fire while sipping on hot drinks as we make time for conversation is yet another form of self-care. Yes, we have papers to grade. Yes, they can wait. Really.           

The lists above are incomplete, but they provide a jumping-off point. We know ourselves best, so customizing each category to what we know will work is the most important part of taking care of ourselves. Let’s be frank: we cannot count on our jobs to provide the level of care we need. It is not a realistic expectation. Instead, we must help ourselves stay afloat. It is not possible to help other people unless we look at our own wellness from each angle. If the way we feel better is to finish our to-do lists at work, then absolutely, that is what we should do. However, we would do well to remember that our lives go beyond our teaching identities, and that when we nurture ourselves as people, we make space for a fuller life.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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