Looking after yourself during the year ahead | Education Support
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Looking after yourself during the year ahead

9th September 2020

In England, this week marks the first full week of the academic year 2021. In Scotland, school staff have now been back for several week.

Nothing is ordinary, and yet occasionally we find ourselves lured into a false sense of normality before we catch ourselves about to pat a student on the shoulder or put a pen in our mouths or give a colleague a much-needed hug before remembering we just can’t. The rules and risk assessments seem endless.

But we are back: back in schools, in the job we have chosen for ourselves. Back to being able to see the whites of our students’ eyes, to the thousands of interactions a day, to the fight for glue sticks and the laughter and the learning. And school staff are resilient – all the ones I’ve met in the last week have been smiling, positive and strong.

Every year, many of us repeat the same mistake of riding this wave of energy and positivity and overdoing it in the first days and weeks, finding ourselves collapsed in an exhausted heap, unable to string a sentence together, by Friday evening.

And yet we are, as we repeatedly remind ourselves and one another, “humans first, teachers second”. Don’t we deserve to still be feeling human by Friday – to have some energy in reserve for our families, our friends and our interests?

In our upcoming book, A Little Guide to Teacher Wellbeing, Adrian Bethune and I find ourselves repeatedly returning to the same refrain: you have more control than you think you do. You are not at the whim of supernatural forces insisting you stay up until 3 a.m designing intricate Powerpoint presentations. You have responsbilities, of course – and these are demanding – such is the nature of our job – but you also have the capacity to shape boundaries, to say ‘no’, to actively cordon off time for the most important activity of all: self-care.

Here are some practical strategies you may wish to consider to keep your oxygen tank topped up.

Have at least one day a week when you leave soon after the children

This piece of advice is an old one but a good one. Whether you’re taking your own children swimming, going to an exercise class, nipping to the shops or simply going to look at dogs in the park, make sure there’s at least one day in the working week when you leave the work building whilst there’s still a bit of the day left to enjoy. Let your colleagues know you’re not available during that time. Whatever your role (I’d argue it’s all the more important if you’re a leader because you’re setting the tone) you’ll find it’s contagious – soon, others will be doing the same.

Plan for the year ahead

When we work with schools on wellbeing and resilience, at Education Support, we encourage participants to reflect on the shape of the school year ahead.

When we consider the unique and rather bizarre phenomenon of working in schools, it’s worth considering that we are all rejuvenated around the same time – and pretty-much all on our knees with exhaustion by the end of November. It’s little wonder, then, that we struggle with basic tasks during this period and that relationships at work come under strain.

When you’re planning for the year ahead, you can, again, take some control. We each have our unique challenges and pressure points during the year – some find Christmas genuinely stressful, for others, there are anniversaries of bereavements, house move, separations to contend with. Not all of these can be controlled, but some can. If you know which weeks are likely to cause you the biggest challenges, you can actively plan to give yourself a little breathing space during those weeks – use others’ lesson resources, leave soon after the bell on more than one day, plan in time with trusted friends and don’t take on extra responsibilities during that time. Emma Turner (author and research and CPD lead) suggests that you actively mark the periods of high-stress at work and at home in colour in your calendar so they don’t ambush you when they come around.

Actively schedule time for you

This is one of those ideas of simple genius (credit to Hannah Wilson, coach and education consultant) that has the potential to be transformational. It’s the calendar again… Choose a colour and block out time for yourself each week. This is not time for domestic duties or errands – this is time to do whatever rejuvenates you – to cackles with a close friend, have some exercise, cook, do some gardening. And then stick to it! Trust me, it will make a huge difference.

Make a pledge to yourself

Many of us (guilty as charged) have fallen into some bad habits over lockdown. Eating and exercise may have gone to pot and you may know deep down that it’s time for a change. Others will have found ways of being during that strange period that were actually very positive – you may have taken up yoga, actively planned mealtimes or simply become closer to family members. You owe it to yourself to make those changes or keep those good habits. Make a pledge to yourself – and then tell people about it so they can help hold you to account. It might be Couch to 5k, cooking, taking up a new language or seeing friends more regularly.

Safe people and safe spaces

Teaching is a noisy, hungry job which can consume us if we don’t keep it in check. It involves huge emotional investment and the emotions involved are often tricky and difficult. Find a space in school (or just outside) where you feel safe (I used to hang out with the guinea pigs in the ASD base); find somebody you trust, to whom you can vent in confidence (the librarian has always been a good choice for me) or talk to the Education Support Helpline. Don’t feel you have to be strong all of the time – you can be human too, and that’s ok.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching 

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