By the last day of term, the vast physical, emotional and mental efforts involved in teaching tend to have taken their toll one way or another. And while the long summer holidays can be wonderful, they aren’t a magic potion. It’s far better, then, to look after yourself as you go along. But when you’re drowning under the pressure, where do you start?
It might seem obvious, but you can’t expect your body, mind and sanity to keep going through playground duty, staff meetings and nine-hour days without the proper fuel. And when I say proper fuel, I don’t mean half a Mars Bar and a packet of crisps stuffed hastily into your mouth in between lesson preparation and tidying the classroom.
Nutritional therapist Alyson Carter suggests ditching the chocolate and crisps for equally convenient but more nutritious foods. “Hard-boiled eggs, yoghurts, fruit and nuts for snacks are all easy to eat when you’re short on time. For a real pick-me-up, a banana and a couple of pieces of dark chocolate will give you a longer-lasting boost,” she says.
However busy you are though, eating while hunched over your desk with a pen in one hand and your sandwich in the other, probably isn’t ideal. Carter explains: “Taking time out and eating slowly is crucial for digestion, which ensures the body works effectively and produces a constant flow of energy.” And goodness knows, you’ll need that constant flow of energy to get through the rest of the day.
Teaching can be an exhausting job, so you might feel that the last thing you need in your life is more activity. But actually, exercise can ultimately provide you with energy rather than costing it. Diet and fitness expert Laura Williams points out: “Being in shape physically will help you cope better with the mental and physical demands of teaching. It may initially seem a bit worthy in comparison with sinking a bottle of red with a colleague, but in the long term (and short term, in fact, if you consider the morning after), it’ll serve you so much better.”
So how do you avoid the lure of your pyjamas and slippers by 7pm? “You have to be disciplined,” says Williams. “One or two days a week, pack your gym kit and ensure you head straight to the gym, your exercise class or hit the tarmac as soon as you finish work. It’s the only way of ensuring you stick to the plan, with a job as demanding as teaching.”
The good news is that if you can make exercise happen then there is a plethora of potential benefits. “Regular exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight (not always easy when the staffroom is permanently full of edible gifts from well-meaning parents). It’s also been shown to improve the quality of sleep, and the endorphin release that follows exercise often helps you to feel more positive and energised, too,” says Williams. The exercise will, in part, mitigate stress. And you will have a lot of stress.
But there are many ways to mitigate stress, for example, spending time with family and loved ones is essential to your long-term happiness. You need to ensure that you’re not so busy during term time that your friends and family end up asking “Who are you, again?” when you finally re-emerge during the holidays.
Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam knows what she’s talking about when she emphasises the importance of making time for your nearest and dearest – she spent seven years as a teacher herself. “Relationships are incredibly important and research suggests that the more connections we have, the better our mental health will be,” she says. “If you’re struggling to fit everything – and everyone – in, then ring-fencing time for socialising can be enormously helpful. But bear in mind that longer chunks are better than bits and pieces. You need to switch off and disengage your brain.”
Of course, relationships are not a binary state where all of the people you like and care about exist outside the school gates. As well as (hopefully) caring about your students, if you’re lucky, you’ll form bonds with your colleagues that will help you get through even the toughest day.
Amanda Reedman, assistant head at Elmbridge Junior School and part of the Gloucestershire Healthy Living and Learning Team, certainly believes that “talking to other teachers about how you are feeling can make a massive difference. And every relationship you have impacts another. If you have supportive colleagues you can model that behaviour to your students, too. ”
Ultimately, the trap many teachers fall into is thinking that their personal well-being and professional success are two separate things when, in fact, they are inextricably bound together. Happy, fulfilled teachers are good teachers – stressed, overworked teachers tend not to be. You owe it to yourself – and your pupils – to look after your own well-being, too.
Kate Townshend is a teacher and journalist