Voices in Education

The 3 R’s for Teacher Self-Care: Reflect. Release. Recharge.

  • SHARE:

Teachers have been put to the test this year. There is no doubt about it. In this pandemic era, schools are dealing with rapidly shifting mandates around vaccines and masks, teacher/staff absences due to COVID, increases in violence among students, teacher/staff strikes for better work conditions and pay, more students with mental health concerns, larger special education and counseling caseloads, job insecurity surrounding personal health choices, strained relationships between teachers and school leaders, and now trauma associated with witnessing community violence including the recent mass and school shootings. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) 90% of educators reported that burnout is a “serious problem.” 

Don’t Wait for the “Big” Break to Self-Care…Start Now!

When I worked in schools, I remember getting to a point in the school year, usually December and May, and counting down the days to vacation. While it was exciting to make vacation plans (often only in my head) and daydream about lazy days where I would do absolutely nothing, it was also a sign that I was feeling the stress of the school year. For some, you might be fantasizing about changing schools or even changing careers. If you are, you are not alone. The American Psychological Association (APA; 2022) reports that nearly 50% of teachers surveyed shared a “plan or desire to quit or transfer” schools. At the root of it all, is stress. A solution: self-care. While you may be tempted to wait until the vacation to begin a self-care routine, the reality is that you probably need it sooner than that. Don’t wait for the “big” break to pour back into you, start now. A half empty cup will refill faster than a completely empty one. 

Tap into These 3 R’s to Support Your Emotional Well-being Now and During the Summer

1. Reflect
In 2021, I created the My Time To Thrive emotional wellbeing card decks to provide tools for people looking to start a healing journey. One of the categories in the card deck is Self-Reflection, which I describe as “necessary to fostering emotional wellness as it allows us to avoid unhealthy patterns and live a fulfilling and authentic life.” Reflection also gives you the space to identify emotions and to consider different perspectives. During these challenging times, it is essential that we connect to our emotions by naming them and expressing them.  You may experience a range of emotions including rage, anger, sadness, numbness, hopelessness, or even hopefulness. Whatever emotions you are having, name them. Additionally, during stressful times, our perspective narrows and we tend to hyperfocus on what is not working well. However, a practice of reflection can help to widen your perspective and allow you to look at your situation more objectively. While this school year might be really hard and sad, there are likely some moments of joy or small wins that you experienced. Bringing these positive moments to memory can help you to push through these difficult times, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed. 

Consider these prompts for your daily reflection:

  • What has been a challenge for you today? 
  • What is one win or a joyful moment that you had today?
  • Think about one person that helped you out today and send them a thank you email or text expressing your gratitude.

As you head into the summer, here are some additional reflection prompts:

  • What metaphor would you use to describe the past school year? 
  • What is one challenge that you had this year? What would you do differently?
  • What are 2-3 wins that you experienced this year? What resources helped to achieve these wins?
  • How have you put others’ needs ahead of your own needs?
  • How do you want to feel at the end of the summer? 
  • What are 10 activities that you intend to do this summer that will help you feel like yourself again?
  • What are you looking forward to in the upcoming school year?

In working with student interns for over 15 years, I have developed a release ritual that has been powerful in helping them to let go of unfinished business, grief, and other regrets that they inevitably have at the end of their training year. I explicitly ask them to share their feelings (such as grief, regret, ineffectiveness, inadequacy) with me. Without exception, they would be hesitant at first, but with support, would lean into the vulnerability exercise and share their feelings. High on the list would be regret and grief over failures or perceived lack of success. With this exercise, my goal is to create space for them to verbalize their regrets and grief, out loud, so that they do not carry them to their next role. I have found that holding on to regrets can fester and create self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and can leave people feeling stuck. As Brene´ Brown says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” So, I give them a chance to ‘speak’ their regrets so that they do not develop shame around them. With grief, it is important to recognize the losses you are mourning and to honor your grieving process. You grieve at your own pace, but acknowledging the losses is important. 

It is hard to recharge if you are holding on to negative emotions. It will tear you up and block your ability to really unwind, relax, and release. Now, I am inviting you to express your grief and to leave your regrets here…with me. Take some time to reflect on them. I know you have some…we all do.

Releasing Regrets Exercise:

  • Take 5-10 minutes to reflect and think about the year. Consider how you have been feeling, thinking, and living and then identify emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that you want to release.
  • Create a release list by writing down all the words or phrases that capture your regrets and grief. Alternatively, you can draw images that capture your emotions or record them on an audio or video device. 
  • Engage in a ritual to release your regrets. You can tear up the paper, crush it into a ball, or shred the paper. If you created a recording, you can delete it. Whatever you do, the goal is to leave these regrets behind so that you do not take them into the next day, year, or vacation. You can listen to a favorite song or a guided meditation as you engage in your release ritual.   
  • Notice how it feels to release regrets. People often share a sense of relief and a lightness as if they have let go of a weight they were carrying. 

In facilitating teacher and other professional workshops on trauma, mindfulness, and self-care, I often included tons of self-care strategies that participants could use to reduce stress and increase self-care. However, I started to notice that for most people, new strategies were not really what they wanted. They already had strategies, they just weren't using them. It was a pivotal moment for me. I started to interrogate what was getting in the way of their self-care routine. What I found was that the top three barriers to practicing self care were: time, fatigue, and consistency. People were too tired, felt they did not have enough time, or just were not engaging in self-care activities regularly. Coincidentally, a friend introduced me to the book Atomic Habits by James Clear and through that, I discovered that I could help people shift their mindsets in three ways by prioritizing themselves; approaching self-care in small, bite-sized activities; and creating visual cues for change. 

“People cannot change their habits without first changing the way they think.” Marie Kondo

Here are three tips to help you recharge on a daily basis and during the “big” breaks:

  1. Prioritizing You: Many teachers often feel guilty focusing on themselves as they are so used to putting their students’ needs ahead of their own (school cultures also support this). We go hard at our work and center the students' needs, forgetting that we perform best, and that our students benefit, when we are emotionally well. Teachers and school leaders, you deserve to feel rested and you deserve to have peace of mind. Here is to prioritizing you:
    1. What do you want to invite into your life? 
    2. What is an activity that brings you joy or makes you laugh out loud?
    3. Finish this statement: I deserve____________ or I am worthy of___________
  2. Bite-sized Self-care: Often when we think of self-care, people often assume that they have to engage in the activity for hours in order to obtain some meaningful benefit or results. However, what we have found is that engaging in activities for small periods of time, helps to build a consistent practice or habit, which helps to promote more long-standing change. 

    Here are a few tips to changing habits:

    1. Choose one habit that you want to change 
    2. How have you practiced this habit in the past? What helped you to stay consistent with this habit?
    3. What would it look like to engage in this activity every day for 5 minutes? 
    4. Who would you do it with?
    5. Where would you do it?
    6. When would you practice this habit?
  3. Create Visual Cues: Visual cues serve as great reminders to help you reach your daily goals. As James Clear suggests in Atomic Habits, having visual cues around us, increases our likelihood of engaging in a particular activity. The more we engage in the activity, the more satisfied we feel. For example, if you want to stretch for 5 minutes every morning: set an alarm, set out your yoga mat next to your bed, pick out your work out clothes the night before, and choose the video and cue it up on your device ahead of time. 
    1. Think about the habit you want to change and identify and implement 5 visual cues that you can use to support the habit.
    2. For your summer recharge list, you can write down 10 activities (or create a collage with images of the activities) that you want to do. Put this list or collage in a place where you will see it every day. For example, your fridge, bathroom mirror, or the screensaver on your phone or computer.

Bonus: Keep yourself accountable

Write a letter to yourself that you will open at the end of the summer including specific activities that you have done and the way that you intend to feel. Alternatively, you can write an email and schedule it to arrive in your inbox at the end of the summer.  These resources make it easy: futureme.org (email only) or Hifutureself.com (iOS & email).

Your Peace of Mind Matters

As you move through your remaining days of the school year, remember that your students benefit when you are at your best. Spending a few minutes engaging in an activity that you love stimulates happiness hormones and does wonders for your peace of mind. 

The unfortunate reality is that teachers are also coping with the trauma of teaching in a pandemic and the secondary trauma of witnessing the murders of children and other teachers. If you notice that the strategies above are not working for you, consider meeting with a therapist or engaging in body-based therapy approaches such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Processing, or trauma-informed yoga.

Remember, self-care is not selfish. You are worth it. 

Dr. Charmain Jackman

Dr. Charmain Jackman Harvard-trained licensed Psychologist Learn more at: www.innopych.com | www.drcharmainjackman.com Twitter: Connect on Twitter & Instagram at @InnoPsych and @AskDrCharmain

Dr. Jackman is a Harvard-trained licensed Psychologist with over 23 years of experience in the mental health field. She is a national spokesperson on BIPOC mental health and advocates for emotional wellness for all. Dr. Jackman has worked in schools for over 17 years and served as the Dean of Health & Wellness at Boston Arts Academy for the past 10 years. Dr. Jackman consults with schools and organizations on topics including emotional health & learning, employee wellness, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and mental health.  She is the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc. an organization on a mission to disrupt racial inequities in mental health.

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!