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Teaching Wellness: It’s a Different Animal

I used to have fantasies about sitting down to lunch with other adults, using the bathroom when I wanted to and going home without piles of essays to grade. I would watch television shows that took place in sleek, modern offices where employees had access to good coffee. On the days where my sense of humor was intact, I compared my friends’ early morning rituals (yoga at seven-thirty in the morning) to mine (killing the ant infestation in the team room at five-thirty in the morning). On the days when I struggled, I reflected on the obstacles to teacher retention that are not related to instruction. Work conditions in schools reflect a growing urgency to implement strategies for staff wellness. What can be done to address some of the most pervasive obstacles to well-being for teachers?

Bathroom breaks need to happen. Full stop.

For years, I held it in. Most teachers do, since they are legally responsible for monitoring the students in their classrooms at all times, and they often teach for long stretches without a break. When I was pregnant with my third child, I went into early labor and wound up in the hospital. The culprit was a urinary tract infection, a condition that teachers experience as a profession at higher rates than adults in all other fields. Instead of forcing teachers everywhere to suffer silently, school leaders should collaborate with staff to create a relief system. Five-minute breaks can be orchestrated so that adults in the building (especially those who are released for non-instructional purposes) are on hand to help out their comrades in arms.

We spend way too much time in the dark.

My typical work day used to begin around 5:30. School starts early, and it’s standard for teachers to stick around after the day ends to provide academic support for kids in need, to run extra-curricular activities, or just to try and get some work done. Add to that a frequent dearth of windows and the inability to leave the building for lunch, and adults in schools easily commune with cinder block walls for 10 hours or more each day. To ease the oppressiveness of fluorescent lighting, the school can provide a “sun space” equipped with light boxes that mimic sunlight or organize a daily walk around the track, both of which would mitigate some of the effects of seasonal affective disorder. When teachers see literal light, they might feel some metaphorical lightness as well.

We go to work to create more work.

Teaching is completely absorbing; no multitasking is possible when we work with students, nor should it be. I remember teaching a scary story unit around Halloween, when the biggest challenge was to write something that actually scared the class. Some students took this in a humorous vein, writing stories about the college application process or a bad hair day. For those who really threw themselves into the task, the stories I collected for grading were often quite impressive, and quite long. Considering that teachers often have multiple classes in a day and as many as 150 students, that is an awful lot of work to take home. While there is no way to put an end to grading (there would be no teacher shortage if that were the case), there are ways to lessen the load. Not all work needs to be graded, so leaders should empower teachers to be selective about what they assess. Sometimes, students undergoing the process of an assignment is enough to spark the cognitive process without a grade being attached. Not all assessments need to be long, either; one or two questions or sentences typically tells us what we need to know about student mastery of concepts. Think about doing less to achieve more.

Our work environment is emotionally charged.

There’s really no way around the fact that kids need us; in fact, it is one of the primary reasons we come to work. Every day at lunch, my desk was crowded with kids who were there to get a healthy snack, or who wanted a safe refuge from the hallways. On some days, I remember feeling acutely tired or hungry. But I couldn’t let that show because the kids always came first, and they needed a stable adult who would let them get a real break in the middle of the day. It is not uncommon for teachers to go home at night feeling emotionally done in. During the day, it would be helpful to create relaxation zones for teachers as well as students. One of the best teacher appreciation moments in a school I worked in occurred when security closed off one hallway to students during lunch, letting teachers having the whole space to themselves. That day, people sat back and relaxed with their lunches and adult conversation, and headed into the afternoon with renewed energy. The best part? Nobody had to spend any money to make this small token of appreciation possible.

Systems for self-care are difficult to come by.

Whenever teachers are asked what they want most, the answer is almost always “time.” That makes sense, since there are not enough hours to get it all done. However, the problem with giving people time is the same problem as giving them space: it will be filled, and not for purposes of wellness. In fact, it is entirely likely that teachers might place more demands on themselves. For that reason, a more tenable solution to helping teachers involves the implementation of systems that support the priority of self-care. For instance, setting up a “lunch bunch” group dedicated to conversations about life outside of school can set important boundaries in a profession that is typically obsessive about shop talk. Teachers can even share personal skills (knitting, journaling, music) and share with one another. Adding in mindfulness practices, such as meditation or technology-free social time, can help teachers complete the day without feeling as though demands never cease.

While wellness is an achievable goal, it has to be implemented with intention. One of the most valuable leadership moves is to visibly and transparently prioritize wellness by ensuring that it is not just a nice idea; it is actionable and embedded in each day. If school leaders partner with teachers, they can begin to prioritize a higher level of emotional health for staff with one simple question: “What do you need?” With the follow-through, results with not only be gratifying for staff; they will translate to a healthier, happier school.

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