Self-Care for Teachers Facing Pandemic Decision Fatigue

More than two years after the first schools closed because of COVID-19, many educators feel like their lives have returned to normal. Some schools returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, and both parents and students have grown accustomed to district guidelines.

So why do you still feel so tired? Why are you overwhelmed by the smallest problem or change in your schedule?

The pandemic has left its scar on teachers. Many educators are experiencing fatigue, burnout and decision paralysis after two years of being constantly on guard. The omicron variant that swept through the country in early 2022 didn’t help.

Fortunately, you can take steps to restore your mental health and feel like yourself again. This guide is here to help.

Educators Have Incredibly High-Stress Jobs

At the start of the pandemic, it became immediately clear that educators have stressful and exhausting jobs. Elementary teachers tried to keep the attention of entire classrooms through video calls, while high school instructors created science experiments at home. Two years since the first school closures, teachers are still working to balance their lesson plans with the needs of students and in-person safety regulations. It’s enough to wear anyone out.

“We make decisions for not only us but for all of the young people around us,” writes teacher Whitney Ballard. “We carry the weight of those decisions. We stress over those decisions after they’re made. Our brain constantly resembles our internet browsers with too many open tabs.”

Not only is education itself exhausting, but America has a work culture that values exhaustion as a sign of effort and care. In many companies, employees work late as a badge of honor, showing how much they care about the organization. As a teacher, it’s easy to get caught up in this mentality as well, causing you to give energy to your job that you don’t actually have.

“Exhaustion is not a marker of success,” says Robyne Hanley-Dafoe, Ed.D., author of “Calm Within the Storm.” “The pace society sets for us is not a pace that leads to a high quality of life. It is not easy to put ourselves, our wellness, and our self-care practices above the bustle of life and the hustle of a demanding career.”

Your efforts are enough. You do amazing work as an instructor. You don’t have to keep burning yourself out to keep up with your peers or to prove your worth as a teacher.

“Self-care, under these circumstances, is nothing short of an act of defiance in the face of exploitation,” says Christina Katopodis, postdoctoral research associate and associate director at Transformative Learning in the Humanities.

If you want to really succeed in education, one of the best things you can do is prioritize your mental health and set yourself up for a long, fruitful career.

Mother And Daughter Meeting With Teacher; self-care tips for teachers concept

The Pandemic Left Many Educators Feeling Burned Out

Entering 2022, many educators feel like the pandemic has chewed them up and spit them back out. Teachers who might have been struggling before the world shut down now feel even more burned out and exhausted by their work. Throughout all of this, there seems to be no help in sight.

“Even before the pandemic struck, the push for teacher ‘self-care’ often seemed to address the symptoms of burnout rather than its root causes,” says Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. “The disconnect between prescriptions for self-care and the harsh conditions teachers face can be jarring. In the face of a mortal threat, tips like ‘laugh and learn from your mistakes’ and ‘find ways to work on and improve your self-image’ seem absurd.”

Some education experts are calling on district leaders to help teachers remove what they don’t need while prioritizing effective tasks. What teachers need is high-level assistance rather than self-care platitudes.

“[School leaders] should be asking educators, ‘what is the most time-consuming part of your job, what tasks aren’t as important and what are the systems that we can put in place so you can do the work that you think matters most?'” says Doris Santoro, a professor of education at Bowdoin College and author of “Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay.”

These efforts would make teachers better and more effective. Many educators wouldn’t have survived the pandemic emotionally had it not been for their inner drive to support their students. They don’t want to quit teaching, but they do want a reasonable workload.

“Suffice it to say, educators truly want to be with their students, in-person and in the classroom, in order to provide the highest quality instruction,” writes former teacher Audrey Campbell. “[But] there needs to be a balance between teachers’ well-being and the well-being of students, families, and communities.”

Educators tend to give their students everything they have throughout the day. This has a major impact on their personal lives. It’s harder to recover from burnout when you don’t have the energy to enjoy the hobbies and activities you used to love. It’s hard to keep up with your family and friends because you have nothing left to give them.

“Teachers have dealt with every scenario at school—physically, emotionally, intellectually,” says former middle school teacher Katy Farber, Ph.D. “That’s why our loved ones sometimes see an empty stare at the end of the day. We teachers have used up all our energy for decisions, protection, care, safety, emotions at school. There is often nothing left.”

two older adults hug; self-care tips for teachers concept

Build a Support System

One way to develop a process of self-care is to build a support system within your school or peer network. Fellow teachers likely know more about how you feel than anyone else right now.

“If you’re not currently working in the world of education there’s no way that you can understand what is going on in schools right now,” says high school guidance counselor Danielle Christian, whose Facebook post on the subject has since gone viral. “Probably 95% of parents drop their kids off at school, no matter their age, and don’t even think about what’s going on in there to make it all work right now.”

Christian highlights several challenges that her school is facing, including issues with staffing and teacher burnout. Educators are constantly asked to do more with less. “Teachers are exhausted and wiped out,” she adds. “The education world is tired.”

It’s possible to find time to connect with other teachers without continuing to drain yourself. Even a quick chat can help relieve some of the stress. Plus, this allows you to support other educators you work with.

“Try to schedule a regular check-in with colleagues, once a day or once a week,” write Dr. Gene Beresin and Sara Rattigan at the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “This can be a way to support each other and talk through common challenges you face, like ways to adapt education plans, or responding to parent communications and concerns.”

Simply taking steps to share your frustrations can have a significant impact on your mental health. Plus, you can use this time to bounce solutions off of other educators to see if you are handling a situation in the best way possible. Establishing this support system is particularly important for new teachers learning the ropes.

“Decision fatigue happens even more for newer teachers, as many decisions involve situations they haven’t encountered before,” says David Weller, educator and author. “Before they can respond, they need to assess what’s happening, consider their options and the pros and cons of each. Compared to more experienced teachers, who can respond immediately, it’s exhausting.”

As you grow in your experience, you can start to help other educators who are facing the same problems you did when you first started teaching.

Train Your Brain to Focus on the Good

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with stress. Over the past two years, feeling stressed might even feel comfortable. Across social media, countless people spend the day “doom scrolling” or spending hours online tracking negative news. This can have a long-term effect on your brain.

“Circumstances cause the lower areas of the brain to secrete stress hormones to prepare our bodies to react to a perceived threat,” writes psychiatrist Candace Good, author of “Own Your Present.” “Primed for survival, it doesn’t matter whether you are being chased by a lion or thinking about it; the nervous system reacts. These thoughts trigger a similar stress response in our bodies.”

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, fanatical news articles predicted massive famines across the United States and rolling power outages. However, the world kept turning.

Instead of feeding into fear and stress, identify which problems need to be at the forefront of your mind and which are out of your control. This can help you remove stressors from your brain while freeing up room for better thoughts.

“Look for moments of joy and connection and hold on to them,” says special educator and teacher trainer Brittney Newcomer at Understood. “Try writing down humorous moments, something that made you smile, or something you’re thankful for.”

This can be as simple as writing the moment down on a sticky note near your desk. You can also ask your students to share their funny moments and times they felt joy during the day. By making room for joy, you push away unnecessary stress and negativity.

a student hikes in nature; self-care tips for teachers concept

Do What is Right for You

There are countless social media posts, podcasts and news articles about self-care. However, none of these experts know what is right for you. You are the only one who can identify which needs aren’t being met and how you can fulfill them.

“Given the abundance of advice about self-care, most of us are operating with a set of assumptions about what wellness should look like,” says Alyssa Westring, an organizational psychologist and professor at DePaul University. “But only you can determine what your mind, body, and spirit need to thrive.”

For some, self-care is curling up with a book or soaking in a bath. For others it can mean getting involved in charitable organizations, learning a new skill, putting yourself out there to make friends. Find something that charges your batteries.

“The pandemic has taught me that giving 100 percent to my students is not the same thing as giving away 100 percent of myself,” writes high school science teacher Veronica Wylie. “Who am I preparing for the future if I am exhausted to the point that I am not mentally present? What kind of fire am I going to light if I am burning the candle at both ends?”

By carving something for yourself, you can recharge and return to the classroom ready to support your students.

This mantra of doing what is right for you can also help with decision fatigue. Susan Jerrell, former teacher and founder of Time Out for Teachers, encourages educators to learn when they make the best decisions and when they are the least decisive. This way you won’t place added pressure on yourself to make decisions when your mental battery is low.

It’s not uncommon for teachers to get stuck in a self-care paradox. They don’t have time to care for their needs, and they can’t find time because they don’t care for their needs. Self-care isn’t always easy. It might involve setting hard boundaries and disappointing some people in your professional or social circles. Do what it takes to bring the best of you to the classroom and the best of you to the life you live.

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