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Self-Care for Teachers and Educators: How to Balance Passion and Wellness

April 19, 2024
An illustration shows a woman reading a book as she sits in a lounge chair beside a lamp and potted plant.

Written by Ava Kensing ‘24

Teaching is undoubtedly one of the most important and rewarding professions, but it also comes with its fair share of challenges. In the world of K-12 education, where educators play a crucial role in shaping young minds, maintaining one's wellness is often overshadowed by passion and dedication to the job. While the commitment to students and the joy of teaching are undeniable, it's equally essential for teachers and educators to prioritize their own well-being. 

“The world of an educator can feel like a 24/7 job. There is always something that needs to be done, and it is no secret that there is not enough time during the contracted teacher day to accomplish it all,” says Alivia Kramlick DeVere, an alumna of York College of Pennsylvania’s education program. Mrs. Kramlick DeVere is an elementary school teacher, and like many teachers, she is dedicated to nurturing the minds of the next generation and guiding them toward a brighter future. However, the demands of teaching often place educators at risk of neglecting their own health and wellness. The pressure to meet academic standards, manage a classroom, and provide adequate support to students can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.

This passion-versus-wellness dilemma is nothing new. It's a tightrope walk that educators have faced for years. They are passionate about their work, yet they need to find ways to navigate stressful conditions and logistical obstacles to continue providing their best to their students. Finding an equilibrium between these two aspects of a teacher's life is crucial — and that's where the concept of self-care becomes indispensable.

Challenges of Maintaining Wellness as a K-12 Educator

Stress and Burnout

Stress is an ever-present companion in the life of a K-12 educator. “Teaching is an 8 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., or 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. gig, and lots of teachers, especially new teachers, bring work home with them,” explains Nicole Hesson, Ed.D., Director of Middle Level, Secondary, and K-12 Programs and Associate Professor of Education at York College of Pennsylvania. This prolonged exposure to stress can lead to burnout, a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can be detrimental to both the educator's personal life and the quality of education they provide.

Work-Life Balance

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is another significant challenge for K-12 educators. The nature of teaching often demands long hours both inside and outside the classroom. Grading assignments, preparing lesson plans, and participating in extracurricular activities can consume valuable personal time. Finding the balance between professional commitments and personal life is crucial to preserving overall well-being for teachers.

Emotional Demands of Teaching

Teaching is not merely an academic endeavor; it is an emotional one as well. Educators are not only responsible for imparting knowledge, but also for providing emotional support and guidance to their students. Dealing with diverse needs, student or parent conflicts, and challenges in the lives of young learners can be emotionally draining. Nurturing the emotional health of students while safeguarding their own wellness presents a delicate balance that educators must navigate.

Insights for Education Faculty

Tips for Managing Stress and Preventing Burnout

  • Prioritize Self-Care: New teachers must understand that taking care of themselves is not a luxury — it’s a necessity. Setting aside time for self-care, such as exercise, relaxation, and hobbies, can significantly reduce stress and help prevent burnout. “Recognize that your first couple of years of teaching will not be perfect! Perfectionist tendencies will not translate well into the classroom,” Dr. Hesson says.
  • Seek Support: Don't hesitate to lean on your colleagues and mentor teachers. They've been in your shoes and can offer guidance and support when you encounter challenges or feel overwhelmed.
  • Time Management: Effective time management is critical. Plan your lessons, grading, and other responsibilities well in advance to avoid last-minute stress. “Use your prep periods wisely! Getting into the habit of using 45 minutes to an hour to really pump out some material will make life feel better overall,” Dr. Hesson explains. Creating a realistic schedule and sticking to it can help you maintain control over your to-do list.

Strategies for Balancing Work and Personal Life

  • Set Boundaries: Define clear boundaries between work and personal life. Avoid overextending yourself by constantly bringing work home. When the workday is over, make an effort to disconnect and focus on personal matters.
  • Time for Yourself: Allocate regular time for self and family. This time should be considered non-negotiable, just like your work commitments. Use it to relax, pursue your interests, and recharge.
  • Say No When Necessary: New teachers often feel pressured to take on extra responsibilities. While it's important to contribute, it's equally important to know when to say no. Overloading yourself can lead to burnout. “It is very easy or enticing for new teachers to take on too much. Learning how to say no and be particular about the things you take on [is a key component to maintaining wellness as an educator],” says Collen Carney, a 2017 graduate of York College of Pennsylvania’s bachelor’s degree program in Education. Ms. Carney works as a high school teacher. 

Coping with Emotional Demands

  • Seek Guidance: If you're dealing with challenging emotional situations involving your students, don't hesitate to consult with a school counselor, social worker, or experienced colleagues. They can offer advice and resources to help you handle emotional demands effectively.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself. Understand that you won't have all the answers, and that's okay. Teaching is a learning journey, and you're allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Mindfulness and Stress Reduction: Explore mindfulness techniques and stress reduction practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises. These can be valuable tools in managing the emotional aspects of teaching.

Integrating Wellness and Self Care into Education

Recognizing the critical role that wellness and self-care play in the lives of educators, educational institutions are increasingly taking proactive steps to integrate these essential aspects into their teacher education programs. By doing so, they prepare future educators to navigate the challenging landscape of K-12 education while maintaining their own well-being.

Curriculum Enhancements

One of the essential steps in integrating wellness and self-care into teacher education is teaching aspiring educators practical self-care techniques. These techniques encompass a variety of strategies, such as stress management, relaxation exercises, time management, and emotional resilience. By equipping future educators with these tools, educational institutions empower them to address the stressors they will encounter in their careers.

In addition to teaching self-care techniques, institutions are now emphasizing the significance of well-being in pedagogy during undergraduate courses. The philosophy is that educators who are well and balanced in their personal lives are better equipped to inspire, guide, and nurture their students effectively. Future educators are encouraged to integrate well-being principles into their teaching methods, creating a positive and supportive learning environment.

 Mentorship & Peer Support

An invaluable aspect of integrating wellness and self-care into education is mentorship. Experienced teachers can provide crucial guidance and support to newcomers, helping them navigate the intricacies of teaching while prioritizing self-care. These mentors serve as role models and sources of advice, offering insights into managing stress, work-life balance, and coping with the emotional demands of teaching. “Lean on your team or those who have taught your area prior and can help with tips for the first year. It might not be exactly what you want or pictured, but they've done it before, and it's a way for you to get your feet wet and then reflect with changes later,” suggests Ms. Kramlick DeVere. 

Educational institutions are also making efforts to foster a culture of self-care. By encouraging both staff and students to prioritize their well-being, they contribute to a healthier, more productive learning environment. Workshops, seminars, and support groups are organized to promote self-care and well-being, making it an integral part of the educational community.

The incorporation of wellness and self-care into teacher education is a promising step toward preparing new educators for the demands of the profession. By providing them with the knowledge and support they need, institutions can contribute to the overall well-being of teachers, ultimately benefiting both educators and the students they serve.

Self-Care Tips for Teachers

The Role of Self-Care in Daily Life

Self-care is an essential component of a healthy, balanced life. It is an investment in your own well-being, which, in turn, benefits your students and the entire educational community. Prioritizing self-care means acknowledging your needs and taking steps to fulfill them.

Practical Self-Care Strategies

Setting boundaries

  • Time Management: Efficiently manage your time both in and out of the classroom. Clearly define your work hours and make an effort to stick to them. Avoid excessive overtime, which can lead to burnout. “If you do not make time for wellness, you make time for illness,” Ms. Carney adds.
  • Digital Detox: Take breaks from technology, including emails and grading, during your personal time. This break from digital demands allows you to recharge and be fully present with your loved ones.

Stress Management Techniques

  • Breathing Exercises: Practice deep breathing exercises during stressful moments to regain your composure. Slow, deep breaths can help reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm.
  • Physical Activity: Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine. Exercise is a proven stress reliever that boosts endorphins, your body's natural mood lifters.
  • Journaling: Maintain a journal to process your thoughts and emotions. Reflecting on your experiences can help you better understand your stress triggers and develop effective coping strategies.

Mindfulness & Relaxation Exercises

  • Meditation: Devote time to meditation or mindfulness practices. These techniques encourage living in the present moment, reducing worries about the past or future. They can be particularly beneficial for calming a racing mind.
  • Yoga: Explore the world of yoga, which combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. Yoga promotes relaxation, flexibility, and stress reduction.
  • Creative Outlets: Engage in creative activities, such as art, music, or writing, which allow you to express yourself and find solace in your personal interests.

Nurturing Educators for a Brighter Tomorrow

For both seasoned educators who have already embarked on their teaching journeys and aspiring teachers who are about to begin theirs, supporting your personal well-being is crucial, not only for your own sake but for the sake of the countless students whose lives you will touch. By prioritizing self-care, you can sustain the passion, dedication, and effectiveness that drew you to this noble profession in the first place.