Self-care habits to help beginning teachers move from surviving to thriving

As a beginning teacher you hear about the necessity of self care A LOT.  It can, however, quickly become yet another thing on your ‘to do’ list and feel like a burden rather than an act to strengthen your well-being.  Mindfulness, exercise classes and sports clubs, religious worship, time with friends, hobbies and time for yourself are all important for achieving a well-rounded work-life balance. When I talk to my PGCE cohort about self-care though, the focus of my thoughts is on small day-to-day actions which can make a real difference to a beginning teacher’s resilience.

So, what do I really mean when I talk about getting into good self-care habits?

  1. Getting to bed at a reasonable time and giving yourself time to wind down.  This means understanding your own body and ways of working and ensuring that you get the rest you need.  If you are an early riser (either by nature or necessity), it is important that you get to bed early enough for your body to have the sleep it needs, whether that is 7 or 10 hours.  It means making sensible choices like swapping to decaff in the afternoon, giving yourself time to wind down, not working right up until the moment your head hits the pillow and understanding that your ability to manage the demands of the next day is more important than marking the last 10 books on the pile.  Our resilience (capacity to cope, regulate our emotions, and continue learning) and sleep are inextricably connected.  Self-care through sleep is vital.  You can get some more helpful advice about sleep here
  1. Making sure you eat regularly and healthily.  If you’re bad at making a packed lunch and eating during the school day, this means planning ahead for the sake of your own well-being.  This might look like making a whole loaf of sandwiches and popping them in the freezer at the start of the week (yes it does work!), supersizing your dinner so you have leftovers for lunch, or cooking up a batch of pasta through which you can stir some frozen veg, cream cheese or a tin of tomatoes. And I could wax lyrical about the value of slow cookers for busy teachers.  Making sure you have something filling and relatively healthy to eat goes a long way to building your resilience.  The training year can feel like a bit of a marathon at times, and you wouldn’t run a marathon on a coffee and a chocolate bourbon, so make sure you’re fuelled appropriately.
  1. Getting out in some daylight.  From November through to March, it’s not uncommon for teachers to arrive and leave work in the dark.  We know the body needs vitamin D to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.  Taking a supplement might be a good idea during the winter, however, it is no replacement for also getting outside, breathing fresh air and enjoying daylight.  A quick turn around the field at lunchtime (with a flask of tea in hand, obviously) can really help to clear the mind and reset for the afternoon.  Does it cure all ills? No.  But it can help to ward off that feeling of being trapped inside a school building during the winter months, and can help you keep going.
  1. Making changes to your commute.  Commuting is an unfortunate element of most teachers’ day.  Watching the minutes tick by as your allegedly 30minute commute creeps closer to an hour is incredibly frustrating.  Experimenting with different leaving times can make a huge difference.  Leaving home 10minutes earlier to avoid peak rush hour, if you are able, can often mean arriving at school 45minutes before you would have if you’d left at your normal time.  Planning to use commuting time purposefully, for example to listen to a podcast or reading a book on the bus or the train, can also nudge help whittle away at subject knowledge development and make planning quicker when you get to it.
  1. Sharing our disappointments and having another go.  As I’ve said before the training year is more like a marathon than a sprint. If a lesson doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped or expected, especially once you are a few months in, then allow yourself to feel disappointed and frustrated but don’t allow yourself to get dispirited or feel you should give up.  Share that disappointment with your mentor and hear loud and clear that it’s ok that these things happen because this is what learning looks like – you work hard at something, give it a go, learn from the mistakes and give it another go.  It’s ok for progress as a beginning teacher to look a bit wibbly wobbly.  It’s the overall trajectory of progress that is important – remember just a few months ago back in September you’d never done this! Sharing your disappointment and anxiety about this is important for your resilience – mentors are usually able to empathise and provide you with the nudge you need to put these experiences in perspective. 
  1. Celebrating and recording successes.  We’re notoriously good at remembering the bad and forgetting the good in our work lives.  When things go well, we need to stop, reflect, and celebrate these successes (and have our colleagues, mentors and friends recognise them and celebrate them with us).

A few years ago, I worked with a beginning teacher who was unable to recognise their ‘little wins’ and the things they had done to support children into learning and enthusing over history.  When they came to evaluate the outcomes of their week, they would be entirely focused on the one or two children who had talked over them, not handed in their homework, or misunderstood a lesson objective.  The other 148 children they had taught, who had worked concertedly, completed extra independent research for homework and who had made significant connections with knowledge already in their schema, would be instantly forgotten.  It’s not that I’m saying the one or two children don’t matter, of course they do.  Nor am I saying we shouldn’t strive for ALL the children we teach to be well supported and successful learners, of course we should.  It’s that this beginning teacher was not able to evaluate their own practice fairly and this could have resulted in them leaving the profession altogether.  To combat this skewed perspective of their own teaching, we started a RAG rating system in their diary where they would rate each day as:

RED – Overall most children I taught learnt very little in my lessons today and there were some very difficult situations I didn’t manage well.

AMBER – I had a positive influence on the learning of most children I worked with but there were some tricky moments which I want to address to see how they can be improved.

GREEN – Overall I had a positive influence on the learning of most children, and it was a good day.

For the rest of the year this back page of their diary – as they looked down on a page of mostly green and amber dots, with only the very occasional red – told a very different story to the one they had been telling themselves. 

We need to allow ourselves to celebrate the good. 

Self-care comes in many forms.

This list of suggestions is by no means exhaustive, nor does it provide all the answers.  It’s simply a list of good daily habits that I’ve witnessed make a real difference to the beginning teachers with whom I work.  For some, adopting these habits has made all the difference, and has enabled them to shift from simply surviving to thriving instead.    

References and further reading

Building Resilience in Teacher Education – BRiTE (n.d.) Available at https://www.brite.edu.au/ [accessed 22/01/2023]

Marcus O’Donnell (n.d.) Sleep on it: how sleep helps build resilience. Available at https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/professional-resilience/0/steps/36705#:~:text=So%20sleep%20is%20essential%20for,reaction%20and%20careful%20decision%20making. [accessed 22/01/2023]

Others ‘Becoming a History’ Blogs on related topics:

A shape-sorter understanding: Why mentees find changing teaching placements so hard – Becoming a History Teacher (school.blog)

Lessons in resilience for early career teachers – Becoming a History Teacher (school.blog)

Perfectionism and the honourable art of being good enough – Becoming a History Teacher (school.blog)

The Comparison Compulsion: Sailing your own boat – Becoming a History Teacher (school.blog)

Worrying about Wanda: Supporting your mentee’s well-being and workload – Becoming a History Teacher (school.blog)

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