This week’s blog was contributed by Kathryn Stubleski, LMFT. Kathryn is a licensed marriage and family therapist and senior research assistant on the data collection team at PAR.
On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, school professionals’ burnout is at an all-time high, shedding light on a problem that has existed for some time. Even without the extenuating circumstance of a global pandemic, nearly half of K-12 teachers (46%) reported high daily stress during the school year, tying nurses as having the highest stress levels among all occupational groups surveyed. Three out of four former teachers said that work was “often” or “always” stressful in the most recent year in which they taught in a public school. Teachers are not alone. There was a critical shortage of school psychologists prior to the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Education released data that the average school psychologist maintains a caseload of double the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended amount, with many states reporting an even higher average. People in caregiving settings such as schools are at a higher risk for burnout than noncaregiving professions, and there is a necessity to focus on self-care to preserve personal and professional effectiveness.
What do we mean by self-care?
According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, there are six elements to self-care. These six elements influence our overall wellbeing, and it is helpful to be aware of which areas in your life might need more attention. Brainstorm ways to stay healthy in these categories: Physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, social, and professional.
PAR reached out to school professionals for feedback on summer self-care to manage stress. Here are some helpful things we learned:
“I don't think people realize how much emotional baggage comes with the position. I have had many a sleepless night worrying about my students, anticipating a new lesson or evaluation, or reliving a difficult interaction with the parent.”–Karisa Casey, reading and English teacher, 13 years of experience
“The emotions involved in teaching run deep and forever. There is always a child who you cannot get off your mind.” –Sandra Korn, resource teacher in the exceptional learners department, 12 years of experience
“I have a difficult time handling stress and getting enough sleep. I worry about certain kiddos’ home situations, learning difficulties, and behavior issues.” –Kelle Rowan, 27 years of experience
One way to manage emotional and psychological self-care is to increase the use of healthy self-talk. Our thoughts dictate our mood and behavior, and what we say to ourselves can fuel or tame negative emotions. In the examples above, teachers reflect on common worries that impact their sleep. To engage in healthier self-talk, recognize what you are telling yourself, acknowledge the emotions associated with it, and attempt to replace this thought with a more neutral or positive thought.
“I’m feeling conflicting emotions of anger and guilt related to work today. I provided progress reports to my student and their parents throughout the semester. Despite this, the student chose not to complete missing assignments and asked me for extra credit at the end of the semester. It would be unfair for me to provide an extra credit opportunity to just one student. My emotions are valid, but I did everything I could for this student while maintaining my personal ethics. Going forward, I will emphasize my personal policy with students and parents at the beginning of the year.”
Some people find it helpful to journal this process.
One of the most effective ways to buffer against stress and burnout is by having a solid support system including mentors, colleagues, and professional contacts. Nonwork support may take the form of family relationships, friendships, spiritual communities, pets, and mental health services.
When feeling run-down professionally, it can also be helpful to build up aspects of identity that are not related to work. Engaging in interests and hobbies, learning new skills, volunteering, and maintaining relationships within your community often can reduce symptoms of early burnout.
Increased emphasis on physical health
Summer break allows for increased ability to prioritize physical health. Now is the time to focus on basic needs: physical rest, maintaining a sleep schedule, getting exercise, and improved nutrition. There is a greater ability to control what and when you eat during time off from work. No more 20-minute lunch breaks!
“Physically, I think rest is really important. I try to keep the same sleep schedule for the most part and I'm still consistent with my workouts, but a lot of the times at the end of the school year, I'll get sick because my body is just run down.” –Karisa Casey
“I look forward to going to the bathroom when I want!” –Kelle Rowan
“During the school year, I struggle to take a lunch break. I always work through my lunch break— answering phone calls, returning emails, paperwork, etc. At the beginning of the year, I try to remind myself how good it feels to take 30 minutes of uninterrupted lunch. It is a hard balance between taking a lunch or working later after school. I have two children who I am eager to rush home and see.” –Sandra Korn
Incorporating a transition between professional life and personal life
The school professionals we spoke to acknowledge a ritual of closing out the school year and beginning their break:
“At the end of every school year I have cleaned my office, secured the test materials and files, and on my last day, or prior to, that is closure. Nothing goes into the summer that is work-related. Every school year begins with a clean slate. Having things in order and tied off is very helpful to me. Any lasting stress responses I might feel is given over to meditation. It works for me.” –Glenda Smith, school psychologist, 27 years of experience
“The most difficult aspect of self-care is creating that separation when the workday is over. It is sometimes difficult not to check-in electronically with the job. There has been an unwritten rule that we had to be even more accessible outside of our contract hours during the pandemic. It made it very difficult to rest. I separate myself from the technology associated with my job during my summer routine. I actually deleted my work email from my phone as well as many of the apps that I would normally use to communicate with students or colleagues.” – Karisa Casey
“I do my best not to think about any aspects of school for about 2 weeks after school is out.” –Kelle Rowan
Reflect and look forward
It may be helpful to reflect on the past year. Think about what went well and what could be improved. It may be beneficial to set one personal and one professional goal for the upcoming year.
“There usually comes a point in the summer where I start to get excited about forming new relationships with students as well as continuing established relationships with past students. Teachers do look forward to a new school year. Professionally, I try to reflect on the past school year and evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what I would like to improve on.” –Karisa Casey
“I look at things that I would like to change from the previous school year. Maybe lessons that didn’t go well, behavior incentives that I would like to change, and the arrangement of the room. I also look at myself as a professional and find at least one way I can better myself.” –Kelle Rowan
Finally, we asked what advice you would give a novice:
“They need to remember that they will not get everything done! There is always going to be “stuff” to do. That is okay! Let it go! Also, if at all possible, leave schoolwork at school and don’t go in on the weekends.” –Kelle Rowan
“At the beginning of each school year, make a goal to incorporate something into each day or week that makes you feel good about yourself, whether it’s as small as taking your lunch break, meeting a friend for dinner, listening to a podcast on the commute, or working out a few times a week.” –Sandra Korn
“Ultimately, it's the life that you live outside of the profession that sustains you.” –Karisa Casey