There was always something ironic about the way I dealt with the stress of teaching. I’d finish the teaching day around 3, stay to coach or tutor or run a department meeting til around 5:30, then race through Los Angeles traffic (or, more accurately, sit in LA traffic) to get to a 6 pm yoga class. Those were always among the most stressful 30 minutes of my day, but I needed to get to that 6 pm class to de-stress. And, while focusing on the stress of traffic, I wasn’t focusing on the stress of teaching, so I guess that was a plus. But I knew that I needed that 90 minutes of yoga and meditation to stay healthy; not just physically healthy—we all know that as a teacher you’re on your feet most of the day—but mentally healthy. And it’s that mental health that we as educators need to spend more time discussing.
One of the most helpful tools I ever saw as a teacher was a graph that mapped the stages of first year teaching (see below): anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, reflection, anticipation again. It was helpful to be able to anticipate what I would be feeling—and most importantly to know that I wasn’t alone in those feelings. But when looking at that, I was also struck by how much of the year would be “survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation” and how irrelevant my education in pedagogy and even English (my subject area) seemed to be when it came to facing those feelings. What I needed to not just cope, but thrive—a necessary prerequisite for my students’ success—were tools for self-care.
Without The Teaching Well, I had to pick up these tools on my own (and, of course, with the help of colleagues). Mindfulness was helpful, specifically yoga and meditation; acceptance became necessary and my students and I put up a poster in our classroom that said “I like it when it rains, because if I didn’t like it, it would still rain” which oriented us towards acceptance and optimism; I really celebrated the little victories, which occurred daily, and that we too often ignore; the camaraderie I built among my colleagues was crucial to my well-being; and, finally, maintaining a healthy life outside of my classroom, one that included exercise and friends and travel and reading, helped me maintain a healthy attitude at work. I also shared these strategies with my students, many of whom were experiencing levels of anxiety and stress far more significant than mine.
These were the tools of self-care that worked for me. They will be different for other teachers, but the important thing is to focus on this toolbox the same way we do on the pedagogical one.
And the reasons for this are many. For one, the stress of teaching forces many teachers, especially ones at the beginning of their careers, to exit the profession, which not only is disruptive for them, but also for their students and their schools. Teacher turnover is also not without cost; teacher attrition costs the U.S. roughly $2.2 billion each year (in recruitment, teacher development, placement, etc.). In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), attrition at some schools is well over 50% a year.
For those teachers that stay, stress can lead to unhappiness and, as in most professions, unhappy teachers are less effective teachers. One study found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity among employees; it’s likely quite higher when your profession is built on human interaction and the ability to motivate and inspire young people. Teachers are of course some of the most selfless individuals in society and, along with that, I find there’s often an unwillingness to focus on themselves because of the need to focus on others, notably their students. But as I always tell young teachers, you can’t be good to your kids if you’re not good to yourself.
Then there are of course the non-educational reasons we want teachers to take care of themselves: as people, we simply want them to be happy and healthy.
After my time teaching, I decided to run for the LAUSD School Board because of a belief that our educational ecosystem is in need of repair: that everyone in the system, from student to parent to teacher, is not being supported in the ways that would make us all more successful. The true promise of teacher wellness and The Teaching Well is that by focusing on the health, well-being and happiness of teachers, we also improve outcomes for students and schools; the return on this investment, in the form of higher rates of retention and more motivated educators, is one of the highest we could imagine.
Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Teachers work around the clock, for little money, with extremely high stakes; it is undoubtedly going to be a high stress environment. Ensuring teachers’ well-being is the least we can do. Amidst all the talk of policy panaceas and educational silver bullets, I hope we can focus on the simple, yet profound act of ensuring our teachers are healthy.
Nick Melvoin, a former LAUSD middle school teacher, is a candidate for the LAUSD Board of Education in District 4. To learn more, check out www.nickmelvoin.com.