I’m currently a 4th grade teacher at an elementary school in North Carolina, a Post Master’s student at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, and a Science partner with Next Generation Academy. I have been in the profession for nearly two decades. So much has changed over the years: from overhead projectors to online collaborative tools–not to mention the internet as a teaching resource, district leadership, teaching standards… the list goes on.
But one lesson that’s grown more important as the years pass is the importance of wellness. The pandemic has shown, clearly, the impact wellness has on students: the U.S. Attorney General recently reported a 40 percent increase in student sadness or hopelessness while Mental Health America shared that 2.5 million kids live with severe depression.
While we correctly center students in the education conversation, we also need to discuss educator wellness. The 2021-22 school year is notable in that it’s marked by a shocking staff shortage that continues to grow. One reason most likely is the extreme measures that teachers take to ensure students get a great education (think stuff like giving up lunch time, planning periods, and days off, professional development on their own time). This means 48 percent of teachers think of quitting, and that number could be growing.
Creating a successful and lasting educational impact on students needs to involve a teacher’s wellbeing. Here are three tactics I’ve found to be successful in centering educator wellness:
- Infuse SEL into the classroom.
Beginning to incorporate social emotional learning strategies into your instruction and school day can seem overwhelming, I know it was for me at first. A resource that’s been helpful for me and my colleagues (and one in which I had the honor of partaking) is the Master Class Series from the Social Emotional Learning Coalition.
This three-part collection of videos features educators like me discussing why social emotional learning is critically important to educating the whole child. When paired with the accompanying activities, it’s a great professional learning opportunity either to do alone or with a cohort of teachers (things are always more fun with friends!).
The best part? They are free and quick: only about 5 minutes in length. You can start centering SEL in the classroom with bite-sized professional learning that really helps.
- Bring your true self to the classroom.
I’m not going to lie, as a gay man, I have encountered bigotry from various groups. But since 2008 I decided to stop hiding and since then have strived to be my truest and best self. For me, that manifests in the little things, like wearing a Pride pin on my lanyard or always standing up for human rights–even when it’s difficult.
For example, I grew up in rural North Carolina – a beautiful but sometimes isolating place – and was lucky enough to have a teacher who led with compassion and honesty. She worked to see the whole of me, beyond my test scores, to what lay beneath: a hurt and scared kid from a challenged home. Her focus on kindness helped bring me to a more emotionally savvy level.
A resource I’ve relied on to do this is a collection of thoughtful articles from the Human Rights Campaign. The article “Supporting Safety of LGBTQ Children & Youth: Risk Factors of Child Abuse & Neglect During COVID-19” talks about the overlap of wellness and LGBTQIA+ identity in the pandemic era. This article, and other pieces from the Human Rights Campaign, are so helpful in using the right language, providing thoughtful perspectives, and being easy to understand.
Living into my true self has helped me find joy in the work, even on the hard days, because I know I’m bringing my whole self to the classroom. Plus, you never know how your truth can inspire others. It doesn’t have to be your sexual identity – it’s about seeing and being your true self so you can see and help students become their true selves.
- Find your space and connect with others.
This may sound cliché, but taking time for yourself is essential. It’s the time you spend working on yourself that allows you to give time and energy to others. I firmly believe in the power of a good book and a bubble bath, but yoga and a walk in the park works just as well! When was the last time you stopped to just listen to the birds?
Don’t be afraid to find some down time, even if it means blocking off your calendar at lunch or on the weekend. Your wellness needs to come first, like putting your own oxygen mask on first on an airplane before you can really care for others.
I also recommend reaching out to others – one of my favorite resources are the virtual educator groups like Nourished Teachers that benefit you personally as well as professionally. We are more than just the career we chose. Those sides of us need nourishing as well. Set as a private Facebook group, each member is vetted for the safety of the individuals and groups, but any teacher can apply.
While these tactics may sound simple, I believe that they can transform the way you teach and experience teaching. I believe that they can touch every facet of your life to make it a brighter and more attractive place to be. To best support students, we must model the traits that create success, including authenticity and vulnerability.
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