A demanding job that got tougher
Teachers have had a very hard time during the pandemic. Even at the best of times, the job is very tough, demanding resilience, high levels of energy and self-belief. But it’s been harder than ever.
We have heard a great deal about the toll that the epidemic has taken on children the world over. We have heard about the rise in eating disorders, phobias, anxiety, fears and depression. Children indeed need more and better care and attention if they are to come out the other side without a very significant mental health legacy from Covid.
But teachers also need great care, and it is one of the jobs of school leaders to ensure they receive it.
I will make just five suggestions here – all very practical, all strongly evidence-based, and surprisingly easy to follow and effective. It is important to note that the school leaders, who have themselves suffered extra strains and stresses during Covid, will also benefit from following these five simple practices.
1. Prioritise sleep
First is sleep and relaxation. They go together of course. The more relaxed we are, the better we sleep. The better we sleep, the more relaxed we become. In my 20 years as a school head, I failed to prioritise sleep sufficiently and I now realise what an error this was. Sleep helps us perform better, to take the day in our stride, and not to become so agitated about matters that we should really not be upset about. But what do we do when the pressure piles up, the marking increases and we have difficult lessons to prepare? We stay up later at night, and we get up earlier in the morning. Wrong thing to do. We should all stop work and stop looking at screens a good 60 minutes before we turn our lights out. We should find our own natural length of sleep, which might be six, seven, eight or even nine hours, and we should reward ourselves with that healing sleep. It will completely transform your life.
2. Make time for exercise
Second, and again, very simple and natural: get the exercise outside that you need. I have hardly ever met a teacher who didn’t tell me that they wished they could do more exercise but “I haven’t got the time“. The answer is . . . make the time. The better exercised the body is, the better it will digest your food, the deeper it will sleep and the higher quality of work. Why not try taking some of your phone calls while walking outside rather than in stuffy indoors rooms? Try building just a 15 minute walk into your day before breakfast, or cycling into work, and notice the transformation.
3. Get lost in a challenge
Third, find the time to do things that challenge you and you really enjoy. I know it’s hard during term time to take evenings off, and time out at weekends. But if you love dancing, playing sport, acting or volunteering, make certain you find time to do them. Teachers need time when they completely forget the children and the school, and become totally absorbed and lost in something totally different.
4. Savour relationships
Fourth, find time to savour your core relationships. If you have a partner, try and go out with him or her once a week, for a meal, to the cinema or anything else you love when you are alone together. If you have children, spend quality time with them. Being with those we love is the best possible mental health massage.
5. Be easier on yourself
And finally, be easier on yourself. It’s not difficult to hear the critical voices in one’s head, or remember the hurtful comments, and punish ourselves by hearing them over and over again. You need to tell yourself, and to be around people who tell you, that you are doing okay, and that you are a unique and uniquely special person in the world making an enormous difference to the lives of others.
Take these five ideas seriously, or other similar strategies that appeal to you, and you will not only serve your children and schools better: you will also become happier and wiser.
This article was written by historian and educator Sir Anthony Seldon, who was formerly the Master of Wellington College and Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University. His diverse personal and professional interests include a commitment to the pursuit of community happiness and personal wellbeing.
This article was also shared in the International Teacher Magazine.