Your first year of teaching is exciting, exhausting, scary and rewarding. There are so many new things to learn and so, so much work to do. Non-teaching friends and family don’t really understand the demands of the job, you are still feeling like a bit of an imposter (are they really letting me in the classroom by myself?) and the students can and will test you because you’re new. There are so many expectations to meet, a lot of new names to remember and lots and lots and lots of paperwork.
It is all too easy as a teacher to always put your needs at the bottom of the list. This is even more of an issue in your first year as you are eager to prove yourself and likely trying really hard to avoid any negative assessments of your abilities. But with anywhere between 8% and 50% of early career teachers leaving the profession in Australia, it’s absolutely vital that you look after you.
Here’s a few dos and don’ts for self-care in your first year:
- DO prioritise your sleep. I cannot stress this enough. It’s too easy to stay up until the wee small hours every night trying to get your preparation perfect and finish all the marking and get everything done. But without adequate sleep, you are no good to anybody, especially yourself. You will be far more productive and efficient with proper rest. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and good sleep is what will keep you carrying on for the whole term, semester and year. Practice sleep hygiene and be disciplined about making sleep a priority — everything else will be easier because of it. And, if you are having trouble sleeping seek help sooner rather than later.
- DON’T talk about teaching with people who don’t get it. Unfortunately, there are still people out there who think it’s “9 to 3, all those holidays and full of softy whiners”. If you are anything like me, you’ll be tempted to engage in a debate with them or try to convince them that actually, you are doing 60 hour weeks minimum and the holidays are often spent working too. But don’t do that. Conserve your precious energy and also your even more precious mindset. Just give them a token response and change the subject.
- DON’T over-schedule yourself. Err on the side of under-scheduling so that you build some slack time into your life for when things take more time than anticipated. And they will. Everything will take longer to do in your first year, so give yourself the benefit of being prepared for that. Be very discerning about what commitments and engagements you say yes to, both at school and at home.
- On that note, DO make time for a social life. It’s really, really important for your mental and emotional health. However, don’t spend the whole time talking about school! If you socialise with other teachers, make sure you plan to do some things that will completely distract you from schoolwork. Also, allow yourself to say no to social engagements that you know will leave you feeling drained. You know, the ones that you feel obligated to attend, the ones that you know you will have to spend time with people who distress you, and the ones that are on the night before report cards are due. DO socialise, but make it enjoyable rather than another stressful item on your to-do list.
- DO remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. This disaster of a lesson, this crappy day, this boring staff meeting, this stressful reporting period, this hectic term, this full-on first year….it WILL pass. But remember that that applies to the good stuff as well as the tough stuff, so remember to enjoy the great moments as they come and go too!
- DO incorporate some kind of daily relaxation practice. When we are chronically stressed we operate a lot of our day in ‘fight or flight’, which isn’t good for us over the long term. The antidote is to activate our relaxation response and trigger our body to ‘rest and digest’. I recommend doing this in the evenings, before bed. It makes for much better sleep! There are many ways to do this: a variety of types of meditation, guided relaxation, visualisation, EFT, sex, yoga….the list goes on. The trick is find what works for you. There are loads of videos on YouTube to get you started for free.
- DO plan snacks, and lots of them! There will be days when you will only get 5 minutes to eat here and there between classes and playground duties and lunchtime lesson prep and after school meetings. Have an abundance of quick, healthy, filling snacks to grab and go so that you can keep your motor running all day.
- DON’T be an island. Communicate with your colleagues and speak up if you need help, sooner rather than later. It’s so easy to be worried about being a burden, and sometimes our pride makes us feel that reaching out is weak. But remember that most people are happy to help, and it’s much easier to plug a small leak than repair a sinking ship. If you’ve made a mistake, admit to it early on — we’re all human, everybody makes mistakes. If you don’t know something, ask — we’ve all been first years, we know there’s a lot to learn. If you need to vent or help finding resources or back-up with a student’s behaviour or advice on how to discuss something with a parent, your colleagues are a wealth of knowledge. Yes, we’re all busy but we know that a rising tide lifts all boats. Reach out, communicate, speak up — you won’t regret it.
- On that note, DO find a mentor, coach, professional adviser (or one of each!) and also DO practice discernment in your choice. Take note of how you feel after you speak with them. If you leave feeling worse than when you arrived, find somebody else to debrief with and ask for advice. It could be a trusted colleague who will be your mentor at school, or you might seek out the services of a professional outside of school.
- DO monitor your expectations. It’s going to be a busy year. You aren’t going to be perfect. You aren’t going to be able to do everything like the experienced teachers. You are going to get sick (kids love to share their germs!). You are going have good days and bad days with the students in your class. You are going to be completely exhausted and it is going to be a roller coaster ride.
Ultimately, it’s an amazing, exhausting, scary, rewarding learning curve. Remember to prioritise your needs. Self-care is so important and will be vital to your success both professionally and personally this year. If you would like some extra support, come and join the Self-Care For Teachers Facebook Group. And stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post!