mental health

For tired teachers: Self-care tips to survive school stress

Steph Arnaldo
For tired teachers: Self-care tips to survive school stress
Even our modern-day heroes need to rest. A counselor gives mental health advice for teachers adjusting to the return of F2F classes.

MANILA, Philippines – Even our modern-day heroes need to rest.

Being a teacher in the Philippines is hard. Most public and private teachers can say that they’re overworked, underpaid, tired to the bone, and stressed, especially with the many adjustments they had to make in the pandemic. Now that face-to-face is back, another set of stressors are here – daily commutes, poor public transportation, bumper-to-bumper traffic, the threat of COVID-19, and a bigger lack of time for the self.

It’s a tough but noble job, and many teachers feel like they don’t get enough credit for the amount of effort, energy, and selflessness they pour into their classes and students. During the pandemic, this feeling – coupled with mental, physical, and emotional struggles brought about by the profession – is a recipe for burnout disaster.

This is why it is so important to take care of yourself, teachers! If you won’t, who will?

Pandemic problems, face-to-face fears

Since March 2020, teachers were constantly adjusting, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. When the lockdown first hit, teachers had to completely change their work setup, from having their own desk at school to having to cram everything into their homes. Classrooms became Zoom rooms, and learning modules and teaching styles had to be reworked. Teachers had to find a way to interact and engage with their students virtually.

Because of this, this took an emotional toll on teachers. There was no longer a distinct separation between work and personal life – work-life balance was moot, and compartmentalizing one’s office life and home life was no longer possible. Both aspects merged, and the lines between rest and grind were blurred.

Mentally, many teachers suffered, licensed counselor from Empath Mary Grace Orden, who is also a teacher, told Rappler. “Like many of us, they too reached survival mode. It was usually, ‘Let’s do whatever works.’ For instance, if they try out a teaching style that they may not be comfortable with, but if they find it effective, they will still use it,” Orden said. Despite all these challenges, teachers still found ways to power through. But at the expense of what?

It’s a mixed bag of reactions, now that face-to-face classes are back. Many teachers are excited to return to school, but many are also anxious about adjusting to another new set-up. It’s just like coming back to a routine you’ve forgotten long ago – teachers are trying to remember how they used to do it. It is another transition, with a brand-new set of factors to consider.

“One of the changes is having to be more mindful about the health protocols that they need to practice while having classes, such as wearing face masks properly, frequent handwashing, and maintaining physical distance from students and fellow teachers. Some teachers even have to bring their own microphones to make their voices more audible while wearing their face masks,” Orden said.

Plus, the threat of the virus is still very real. Luckily, most teachers are required by the schools to complete their vaccine shots. However, many students are no longer required to get their vaccine before going to school because of many reasons, like family, beliefs, culture, health, and more. Teachers are still scared to get the virus or pass it down to their students.

The fear of leaving one’s comfort zone is also valid. Since teachers had to work remotely for two years, many have already grown comfortable at home, no longer having to commute, brave traffic, or wake up at the crack of dawn to dress up and squeeze in breakfast before leaving.

“Now, they all have to experience the perils of riding mass transportation and heavy traffic, which can induce a lot of stress even before holding their own classes. The rainy season also makes it more difficult for teachers and students to go home as a lot of areas get flooded,” Orden said.

“When students can’t go home, some teachers have to stay longer in school to watch over them. The longer working hours and inconveniences of commuting are non-teaching concerns that add up to the stress of being a teacher,” she added.

What about the fresh grads who just joined the teaching field in the pandemic? These new teachers had no prior experience of working onsite, so teaching in school for the first time can be very anxiety-inducing. “Teachers can also experience social anxiety, especially when they have been cooped up at home for years and have very limited social interaction,” Orden said.

Apart from needing to handle social situations well, teachers also need to take care of their students’ emotional needs when they are at school. “They are seen as ‘second parents’ and ‘leaders’ by students and because of this, they can feel pressured to perform well and adjust as quickly as possible,” Orden aded.

On the bright side, finally having in-person interactions with students has made teaching itself a lot easier and more fulfilling for many teachers again. Teachers can now see if their students are fully absorbing the lessons and can adjust lessons intuitively, unlike in a remote set-up. Also, goodbye WiFi problems and technical difficulties!

But Orden cites another con – teachers now have to deal with the misbehaviors and concerns of students on the spot, and this takes some time to juggle alongside teaching.

“Now, they can’t simply have a short timeout by turning off their video and muting their microphone; their full presence and attention are needed from the moment they step into the school until they end their classes,” Orden said. Sorry, no off-cam option anymore.

Burnout is real

Let’s not forget that many teachers are also mothers, sisters, daughters, and managers of their households. During the pandemic, many chose to take care of their families alone without any kasambahays. “Now that we are transitioning, many teachers who are also parents are still trying to balance caring for their children and family with adjusting to an in-person work environment,” Orden said. Even those who have set up their own side businesses in the pandemic will now have to learn how to manage their time between both jobs, and maybe have to lessen their efforts in the business.

There is a lot on a teacher’s plate, and getting overwhelmed is inevitable, especially when teachers try to take on everything on their own. This is why, according to Orden, teachers should be more aware of when to ask for help.

“The pandemic taught us, most especially for teachers, to be resourceful and use whatever is available that we forget about asking for help. Teachers should be more aware if they already need help in a given task or if they need someone to assist in terms of their feelings and thoughts,” she said.

Teachers must remind themselves that their job is not an easy one, and they shouldn’t undermine its taxing effects on their physical and mental well-being. It’s impossible to run on empty, so understand that it is normal (and even encouraged) to take a break, sleep, or feel like you want to take a pause especially when you are exhausted. 

What are the signs that burnout is imminent? Orden listed down a few symptoms that you need to watch out for:

  • If you still feel tired after sleeping
  • Prone to headaches
  • Internal reluctance or dread to do your tasks or even look at your teaching materials
  • Drastic changes in sleeping patterns (either you can’t fall asleep or sleep too much)
  • Change in eating patterns
  • Mood changes (more irritable, lethargic, etc.)

If you’re a teacher and have been experiencing at least two of these symptoms, it’s time to check in with your mental health. You may also notice a quiet build-up of tension in your body – someone who is always rushing to meet deadlines and attend to students’ needs and administrative concerns may unconsciously be doing shallow breathing and suffering from tensed muscles all the time.

“When we are not that mindful of the tension build-up in our bodies, we are unable to address them properly and this can result in feeling perpetually stressed out,” Orden said. Taking the time to stop, assess, breathe, and be aware of your current state of being is key in preventing more tension. Then you can proceed to caring for yourself at that moment.

Self-care is the best care: Tips, tricks, and affirmations

First of all, self-care isn’t selfish. Self-care simply means setting aside some time to check in and take care of yourself, even if you feel like you are “too busy” and have “no time” to do so. If you think about it, practicing self-care is an investment – caring for yourself now will reap many benefits later. Like in medicine, prevention is better than a cure.

“Research shows that self-care promotes a positive health outcome and can help us develop further our resilience, have a longer life, and better management of stressful situations,” Orden said. Self-care is a simple reminder for you to pause, listen to yourself, and make some time to take care of your needs. Who else deserves this the most than our hardworking, selfless teachers?

“Self-care also affects the way we deal with and handle people. Physically, people can identify a person who is taking care of him/herself. Kids, for example, can see/feel if their teacher is tired or sleepless or unprepared. They can also observe if someone is having a bad day,” Orden said. A good teacher always want to put their best self forward for ther kids. Happy teacher, happy students!

Even if self-care is already on your agenda, moments of fatigue and burnout will still come. When these down-in-the-dumps moments happen, always try to remember your WHY. Regularly go back to your reason for teaching. Embrace your purpose.

“Ask yourself, what made you teach in the first place? What made you enter this profession? Because these answers are our guides on how to push through the most,” Orden said. She also recommended a choosing self-affirmation phrase every week that you can recite to yourself, e.g. “Things will be great, I am limitless, I am a work in progress, I choose to smile, I choose to be thankful.” Put it on a Post-it or as your phone background!

During weeks where you’ve been extra on-the-go and frazzled, Orden suggests to incorporate simple mindfulness or breathing exercises. These can take up to five minutes only – you can find an audio or video guide from the internet on how to do simple deep breathing exercises. Headspace is also an easy meditation app to start with. With these practices, it’s not the length or intensity of each session that’s important – just focus on doing it and doing it consistently. You can also consult a therapist if you feel like you need to talk through your emotions and find specific ways to insert more calm in your life.

Remember that not everything will work for you, and that’s okay. “You need to check what works for you when including self-care in your daily routine. Try to think of a doable self-care daily routine for you, whether you only have a 5-, 10-, or 30-minute break,” Orden said. Maybe all you can fit in is a 5-minute deep breathing exercise, a 10-minute phone call with a loved one, or a 30-minute walk around your campus today – either one is already a great way to get grounded and care for yourself!

Also, don’t forget to find things that make you feel good and do them during an uninterrupted timeslot you set for yourself every day. If you are into skin care, put away your phone and mindfully massage in each product onto your skin slowly, distraction-free. Invest time to take a long shower. Treat yourself to your favorite cheat meals on the weekend. Take your dog out on a walk and leave behind your phone. Spend the night playing video games. Basically, do what makes you happy! (And don’t feel guilty for doing so).

“The key is to devote time for relaxation and recreation within the day, every day, no matter how busy you are,” Orden said. Show up for yourself the same way you show up for your students daily. As they say, it is difficult to pour from an empty cup. Your students need you just as much as you need yourself, so take the time to care yourself – it’s the best investment you’ll ever make, and the best lesson you can teach your students. – Rappler.com

To book a consultation with a psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist, you can do so on social enterprise Empath’s website.

Gracie Orden is a licensed counselor and teacher. She has been in the school counseling profession for twelve years. She finished her Masters degree in Counseling, specializing in School Counseling, at De La Salle University. She also completed her academic units for her Doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology, specializing in Clinical Psychology, from the same university. She deals with child to adult clients both in school and in private practice. During her free time, she likes to travel and go hiking. 

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.