Self-Care for first year teachers PART 1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Personal barriers to self-care

There are five main facets of self-care: physical, personal, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Most of us find one or two of the facets to be natural strengths. Similarly, for most of us, there are one or two areas that don’t come naturally to us. IMG_2715

I’m no different. Emotional self-care comes naturally to me. It always has. For as long as I can remember I have been very in tune with my emotions and I have found it like a default for me to consciously practice emotional self-care. I naturally, intentionally and consistently employ strategies to ‘tend and befriend’ my emotions, seeking extra care when I feel I need it in a timely and determined manner.

It’s partly a case of nurture also: simply be being female I have had more encouragement in our society to engage with my emotions than I would have had were I male. I also was fortunate in that my parents are both emotionally intelligent people with experience as counsellors, so that has definitely helped. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that I have developed a fascination with and strong desire to help others tend and befriend their own emotions.

I realise that’s not the case for everyone — many of the coaching clients I work with are looking for some support in the area of their emotional self-care. Simply reaching out to a coach and acknowledging that this is something you’d like to work on is an important step, because it requires both awareness and action. There are also many people for whom coaching or some other form of therapy would be of great help, who either ignore their emotional needs altogether or who are aware of their needs but do not intentionally care for them. Self-care of all types requires both conscious awareness and intentional action to be successful. The emotional side of things just happens to come naturally for me, and was then further encouraged through nurture.

Personal care, on the other hand, does not come naturally to me. Of the 5 facets of self-care, this is the area that I have consistently put last. It’s the area that I have to put the most conscious awareness and effort into. In all honesty, I’m a bit lazy. I have often been known to try to stretch my hair another day before being washed, my legs another week (or three!) before being waxed. I would frequently have either no polish on my nails, or it would be chipping off. It was not uncommon for me to get 3 haircuts a year, and still feel like that was too many! I just find personal care to be a big effort and it always ended up last on my list of priorities. (I feel I should mention here that personal care and hygiene, although overlapping, are slightly different. I brush my teeth and wash my hands and bathe every single day. I’m good at hygiene!)

As a high school teacher it doesn’t really matter what I look like (as long as I’m dressed modestly) and, in fact, in terms of behaviour management, I find the plainer I make myself the better. The longer I have been teaching, the more comfortable I have become with making less effort with my outfits, and easily settled into a boring, comfortable uniform of polo shirts, jeans or denim shorts and sensible black sandals. In a small country school, this is perfectly acceptable. On special occasions like ANZAC Ceremonies and Awards Nights, I dress up a bit. But after my first year I pretty much completely stopped wearing make up to those events and I never wear it on a normal school day. I have friends who won’t leave the house without a full face of make up on, which I’d like to point out that I have no problem with. It’s just that I’m the opposite — whether from laziness, defiance or lack of time, I rarely wear make up on special occasions let alone day to day. Even wearing make up to my own wedding was a big decision, and I wore hardly any.

Personal care just doesn’t come naturally to me. I have realised, though, that just because it doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. I did have to examine what about it I do and don’t like, and what parts exactly were barriers for me, in order to put it higher on the priority list. For example, it makes me feel really nice when I have neatly manicured hands and pedicured feet. But, I prefer to do this myself  in the comfort of my own home than have others do it. Similarly, eye make up is just a no for me, but I’m learning to appreciate a good base and blush and lip gloss!

So these school holidays I’ve been consciously and consistently making personal care a top priority. I had a massage a fortnight ago. I had my hair cut (at a nice salon too!) last week, and I took the time to straighten it the day I took this picture. I have been making sure I get dressed in nice clothes every day (not “holiday clothes” a.k.a. track suits) and have put on some makeup and jewellery almost every day. I had my eyebrows waxed today and I booked my next appointment as well.

I know for some this would all seem terribly ordinary, but it’s a big thing for me. It has required conscious awareness of my weaknesses, the obstacles and how to overcome them. It has also required intentional, consistent action. In other words, it requires discipline, which doesn’t sound very sexy or exciting.

Often people say the reasons they don’t practise more self-care is that they don’t have enough time and/or they don’t have enough money. Except, it’s not actually about the time or the money. It’s about what you value, and your priorities. People find time and money for things they really value. But, it’s also about discipline. Self-care requires discipline to be consistent, which is the only way to make it effective. It also is about having an understanding of yourself and your own personal strengths and weaknesses, and applying that discipline accordingly. What requires a lot of discipline to me (like putting on make up every day) is a piece of cake to someone else. That’s the thing about barriers to self-care: some of them are individual to us. A facet that comes naturally to one person is a conscious acquired skill to someone else.

So, which facets of self-care come naturally to you? And which require some more discipline? I’d love to know, so let me know in the comments below!

How to keep that New Year’s Resolution with 2 words and 3 steps

Happy New Year! I hope you were able to welcome 2016 in a way that was enjoyable for you. Me? I opted out of the party scene this year and was happily asleep!

Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I spend a lovely chunk of my New Year’s Eve writing some reflections on 2015 and I began my planning, goals, core desired feelings and creation list for the new year. My lists are not done yet but as usual, I hope for more happiness and self-care in 2016.

“Happiness is a consequence of personal effort.”

One of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, said that. She would know; she went on a world-wide personal quest to heal her depression and find happiness. She wrote about it in a little book that you may have heard of called Eat, Pray, Love. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

What I like about this quote is that it cuts through a lot of the crap about happiness that is floating around, spoken and unspoken, in our lives. For example, “I’ll be happy when” or “If only” and “It shouldn’t be this hard, it should just happen.” The thing about all of those messages that is wrong is that they ignore personal responsibility. Sure, you might be happier when or if, and sometimes it does just happen. But most happiness experts will tell you that that kind of thinking is keeping you unhappy, and that if you want to be consistently happy, or at least happier, you have to make an effort.

I’ve been mulling this idea over and I realise that it’s the same with self-care. It’s a consequence of personal effort. It doesn’t just happen, and it isn’t a do-it-once-and-it’s-over kind of task. Consistency is key. So is sustainability. And I believe that’s where a lot of people get stuck — their resolutions are dead in the water by Valentine’s Day, probably because their resolutions focused on a big, hairy audacious goal (which is a great start!) and ignored the consistency and sustainability factor of actually making that happen.

Do you want to avoid that pitfall and actually make more self-care happen for you in 2016?  Me too! And here are the three steps I’m using to help me keep that New Year’s Resolution:

  1. Less is more.

  2. No comparisons.

  3. Build your trust muscle.

Less is More

Small changes over the long term add up in incredible ways. Compound interest is a great example of this. If you want to make a big change in your life, break it down into the smallest part and just focus on that. Forget about the big goal, just focus on the smallest, easiest action and then do it sustainably and consistently. Small changes are easier to implement and are therefore more sustainable. A small change that you actually DO is way better than a big change that you make for 3 weeks but can’t sustain for the year, right? A bird in the hand, etc. Small changes are also much easier to be consistent with, which means the changes will become a habit. Habits are what make up our lives. Another one of my favourite authors, Gretchen Rubin, has a book about building habits that is high on my reading list this year: ‘Better Than Before‘. As a recovering perfectionist, I love the idea of not having to be the best, but just being better than you were before. So, do less but do it better!

No comparisons

Stop comparing yourself to people way further ahead on the journey. If you want to make a big change, it’s great to have role models and experts to follow and learn from. I love reading and listening to podcasts on my favourite topics, and I follow many different people who are further along the journey than I am in a bunch of areas: health, marriage, writing, happiness, business etc. But I often remind myself not to compare myself to where they are — that gap is way too big and it ignores all the effort and time (probably years!) that they have been working on getting to where they are. Comparing yourself to others further along the road is setting yourself up for failure: it is unsustainable and ruins consistency. It is unrealistic to expect yourself to be at their level in a short period of time. When you can’t sustainably meet the expectations, you’ll likely feel awful and lose your momentum, if not some self-esteem, and stop being consistent. Instead of comparing this year, I’m modelling others. Modelling means you incorporate into your life the actions and beliefs of the person who is where you want to be. It doesn’t mean you copy everything about them or their journey. You are not them, you are learning from them, and it’s important to recognise the difference.

Build your trust muscle

Trust in yourself, like happiness and self-care, is a consequence of personal effort. Trust in yourself is important when you want to make a change in your life, such as keeping a New Year’s resolution.  Trust in yourself is built when you follow through on small actions. I can certainly think of a number of areas in my life where I said I was going to do something and then didn’t follow through. If you don’t trust yourself, it’s likely that it’s because you have a lot of evidence to suggest that you don’t follow through on the things you say you are going to do, in one or many areas. In other words, you have evidence to suggest that you won’t be consistent with your actions. And I could be wrong, but perhaps that’s because the actions you are measuring are actually unsustainable over the long term. Are you noticing a pattern here? Sustainability and consistency are important for trust-building. The other steps of doing less but doing it better, and avoiding comparing yourself to others are also important in trust building. Focus on what you are doing, instead of worry about others, and building your trust muscle with the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself.

Bonus step: Know Yourself

There is actually one more step, and its importance will depend on your personality type. Which is kind of ironic because the bonus step is to know your personality type. Gretchen Rubin has a great system called The Four Tendencies, which is all about how different personality types respond to internal and external expectations. Knowing which is your tendency can help you with your resolutions, because it will help determine what is sustainable for you and how you can support yourself to be consistent. I am an Obliger and knowing this about myself has helped immensely. I highly recommend doing the quiz here to find out which type you are.

So that’s it. Less is more, no comparisons, build your trust muscle and know yourself. Focus on being consistent with sustainable actions and you will be well on your way to keeping your New Year’s Resolutions. Happy 2016!