Anne started her teaching career in a position funded through Teach for America, working with students who experienced some of the highest poverty levels in the country. Chronic HVAC issues led to frequent school closures, and administrative inefficiencies left teachers struggling to make up for lost time. “I would find myself thinking about my students at all hours of the night,” Anne explains. “And I always had grading and lesson planning to do on the weekends.” But no matter how exhausted, she always felt the need to give more.
“There’s an expectation that as a teacher, you are also a therapist, after-school caretaker, college counselor, and more,” Anne says. For two years, Anne was on her feet 10 hours a day, including the half-hour lunch she ate standing up while supervising in the cafeteria. After work, she would go home and go straight to bed. “The sheer effort of making one more decision about what burrito to microwave was just too much for me most days.”
Eventually, Anne left the teaching profession altogether. “I loved being part of the school community, and I loved going to work never doubting that what I did was important,” she says. “But in the end, I think I just wasn’t made to be a teacher.”
She is not alone.
Teachers Are Leaving in Record Numbers
According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 44% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. The reasons range from lack of autonomy and low pay to behavioral problems within the classroom and constantly shifting standards for evaluating teacher and student success. There’s also the suffocating amount of paperwork and the extra time teachers are expected to dedicate outside the classroom to serve on committees, coach student teachers, and the like.
“In tech, people get paid for freelancing, consulting, or building great things,” says Dawn Casey-Rowe, a former teacher who now writes on the topics of education, sustainability, and practical living. “In education, teachers are expected to ‘jump in,’ ‘help,’ or ‘join.’”
With fewer than one-third of K-12 educators leaving the occupation due to retirement, it’s no wonder that half of the nation’s schools are struggling to find and keep quality teachers. What we’re calling a teacher shortage is actually an exodus, according to Casey-Rowe.
If we’re going to fix it, we need to have a long, hard conversation about self-care—what teachers can do to sustain it and what schools can do to support it.
Nurturing the Nurturers
“Most educators are nurturers,” says Adam Saenz, a psychologist and bestselling author of The Power of a Teacher
. “The downside of being a nurturer, though, is that the nurturer will often sacrifice their own well-being for the benefit of others.” While incredibly noble, the dynamic isn’t always sustainable. In his work facilitating workshops in stress management and teacher well-being, Saenz often reminds educators that “one of the most loving things we can do for people depending on us is to offer them the best version of ourselves. And the way we do that is by loving ourselves well enough to practice disciplined self-care.”
Saenz advocates a holistic approach to self-care—in essence, asking yourself, “What does it look like to be a good steward of my occupation, my emotions, my finances, my body, and my soul?” While there are any number of tactics that can be used to support life balance and well-being, it’s important to remember there is no one way to take care of yourself. For someone, self-care might look like taking time to exercise and plan nutritious meals. For another, it might mean tapping into resources for living on a tight budget or learning to be more efficient with their time. For another, it might involve asking more experienced teachers how they organize themselves and manage to leave work at work.
At the end of the day, self-care is about knowing your limits and figuring out what you need to be at your best.
Three Critical Questions
Andrea Rosario, who directs a free health coaching program offered through the Austin-based nonprofit It’s Time Texas, suggests a curiosity-based approach to self-care. A certified health education specialist with years of experience helping individuals change their lifestyles and take control of their health, she encourages educators to ask themselves three critical questions:
- What do boundaries look like with your students, peers, and administrators?
- What brings you joy?
- Who is in your community supporting your self-care?
For teachers who are used to making so many decisions on their own, this last question might be the most critical. While asking for help can feel vulnerable, seeking support when it’s needed can put us in a much better position to help others in the long run.
In the absence of a formal mentoring or support system within your school, “help” could mean soliciting advice from more seasoned educators or talking to friends who can offer perspective outside the field. It could look like posting a notice in the breakroom asking for guidance on topics or processes you’re uncertain about. Or, it might take the form of talking to a professional about ways to weave healthy balance back into your life—especially when it feels most impossible to do so.
The It’s Time Texas coaching hotline is free to any Texan looking to make a healthy change. Apart from offering guidance on how to support physical health and well-being, coaches work with callers to identify self-care practices they can build into their daily routines—no matter how busy life gets. Often, callers already know what to do. What they need is the encouragement and accountability to do it. Health coaching provides the one-on-one support that so often makes the difference between floundering or sticking to our goals.
Ask anyone, and we bet they can name at least one teacher who has had a profound impact on their life—a mentor who sparked their love of learning or helped them unleash the potential they didn’t think they had. Given the essential role educators play in life’s most important journey, it’s critical they be able to care for themselves with the same level of dedication they bring to the job.
It’s Time Texas is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering Texans to lead healthier lives, build healthier communities, and contribute to a healthier state. We’re proud to partner with ATPE to support Texas educators’ health and well-being. Connect with us at itstimetexas.org. To learn more about our free health coaching program, visit livinghealthier.itstimetexas.org.