4 ways to give your brain a break from teaching

It's important to escape from the shackles of teaching every once in a while – here are some ways to do just that

Jo Steer

Escaping to the great outdoors – how to give your 'teacher brain' a break

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reasons why so many teachers are struggling with their mental health; why 37% of us are apparently depressed. Clinically.

I mean, there’s the obvious: the workload, the monitoring, the behaviour, the data (oh God, the data). All the stuff that completely sucks the life and soul out of teaching – and teachers.

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Alas, these are just the surface wounds; the things that we see day-to-day.

Because if we were to perform a deep dive on what’s really wrong with the teaching profession, I think we’d find that a loss of control and freedom is at the heart of it.

As schools push for better results and consistency in the face of ever-changing demands, it increasingly seems to come at the cost of teacher autonomy, trust and creative freedom. When we teach, plan, engage and assess, we’re entangled by policy, paperwork and supposed standards of what these things should look like.

It’s well-documented that animals experience much greater levels of depression in captivity than in their natural habitats. And it’s only natural that being forced to teach from within a box would result in unhappiness.

So, while we clearly shouldn’t need to "escape" from our chosen career, having the ability to take ourselves away from our environment – whether’s mentally or physically – can do wonders for mental health. Here's how.

1. Try mindfulness

For many, the worst side effect of excessive workload is that you can’t stop thinking about it even when you’ve stopped doing it. You’re essentially trapped by your own thoughts, always planning for the future and never present in the moment happening right now.

If this sounds familiar, then mindfulness could help. Try a few minutes each morning, focusing only on your breath, bringing your attention back whenever you realise it has drifted. If you need guidance, download an app like Headspace – its free meditations will be enough to get you going.

Over time, you’ll develop a habit of noticing when you’re stuck in negative thoughts and escaping to the present, even if only briefly. 

2. Go to your ‘happy place’

The brain doesn’t know the difference between a real experience or one vividly imagined (which is why you wake up sweating after that recurring nightmare). As such, guided meditation/visualisation can offer the brain a genuine sense of escape.

Just imagine if your pre- or post-marking ritual was a trip to your own private meadow, via canoe, amid glorious sunshine. Bliss! Don’t take my word for it, though – check out these meditation exercises and try it for yourself.

3. Build escape into your daily routine

How much sitting, talking, moving, listening and concentrating makes up your daily reality? What kind of activities would be atypical when compared with the rest of your day? What would constitute an escape?

If you’re indoors, sitting down all day, then a regular walk outdoors could make all the difference. If you spend all day speaking, taking some time to listen – to a book, some music, a podcast – might be your way to break free.

Boundaries are key here, too. Protect your need to escape and recharge, no matter what pressing matters are on your to-do list. 

4. Consider actually escaping

Every school is different. In some, you might be virtually left to your own devices. In others, you might be micromanaged to death. If your attempts to make it work just aren’t working, it’s probably time to look elsewhere.

Jo Steer is an experienced teacher and Tes columnist. She tweets @Skills_w_Frills

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