Teaching Artist & Director of the Teaching Artist Project (TAP), Community-Word Project
Katie (M.K.) Rainey has been a teaching artist for over 10 years, and has taught poetry, fiction, theatre, photography, English as a second language and filmmaking in various parts of the world. She is the winner of the 2017 Bechtel Prize at Teachers & Writers Magazine, the 2017 Lazuli Literary Group Writing Contest and the 2018 Montana Award for Fiction from Whitefish Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, The Collagist, 3AM Magazine, and more. Find out more about her here: www.mkraineywriter.com.
You know it when you find yourself grinding your teeth because yet another student has asked you to repeat the instructions. You know it when you want to scream upon receiving an email from the administration. You know it when you want to cry facing a wall of profiles because not a single student has their camera on. You know that you are done.
You’re fried. Burnt out. Exhausted. Depleted. So many of us teachers hit these moments well before holiday breaks or vacation time. So what do we end up doing? We push through. Every teacher knows that there is always another layer of exhaustion to be reached, another boundary to push up against.
Why do we do this? There are so many factors that contribute to teachers everywhere ignoring their own health for the sake of their classroom: pressure from administration, concern over test scores, papers to grade, curriculums to build, young lives to mold. Whatever the reason, I think it is safe to say that teachers are some of the worst at self-care. I know this because I am too.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Competencies Are Helpful for Teachers, Too
Recently, I wrote a blog called “Teaching Social Emotional Learning Through Art in Times of Crisis,” about using art to support students’ social-emotional skills during the pandemic and beyond. The second competency of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is Self-Management or, as I refer to it, Self-Care and Self-Balance. In this blog, I wrote that for this competency we want students to ask themselves, “What different responses can I have to what’s happening around me? How can I respond to the world as constructively as possible?”
I want you to ask yourself these questions right now:
How are you responding to the world around you?
How are you responding as constructively and positively as possible?
For me, answering these questions made me realize that I was not taking care of myself. I analyzed my recent responses to co-workers and noted a shortness, an impatience, and a frustration in my interactions with them.
This is because my tank was empty. I had nothing to give because I hadn’t given myself time to refuel. I hadn’t given my emotions a place to work themselves out and so it came out on those around me. We want our kids to build healthy skills that will help them navigate the world, yet we neglect to build these skills for ourselves.
How the Savior Mindset Hurts Teacher Self-Care
As teachers, I think we often get into a bit of a savior mindset. Not that we feel we need to “save” our kids, but rather that we must serve them first above all. This thinking is what leads to more than 44% of new teachers leaving the profession within their first five years—amongst many other factors.
While we must advocate for increased salaries, support, and to abolish standardized testing as a collective, as an individual these things are largely beyond our control. However, this is where self-care turns from a healthy Sunday break into a revolutionary act.
When we stop and say, “I don’t care if these tests are graded by tomorrow, I need to focus on my mental health today” that is a revolutionary act. By setting the example for our kids on how we take care of ourselves, on how being human is a process not a product, we can shape an entirely new generation of humans with a healthier, less capitalistic mindset towards life. That right there makes self-care a revolutionary act.
We can’t control the relentless pressure from administration, the bad behavior of parents, or the willingness of a student to participate in your class. What we can control is our reaction to these things and we do that by focusing on ourselves first.
Art as Therapy
I teach creative writing to 9th graders and I train artists who want to become teachers through a program called the Teaching Artist Project. As a director of this program, my job often feels akin to that of a therapist. I think that’s because many of the folks I work with are artists who don’t have access to mental health services and have had little opportunity for mentorship throughout their budding careers. So I frequently fill that role for them and one-on-one conversations often turn from curriculum support into life coaching.
These young adults weren’t taught as students to take care of themselves and now they are having to unlearn everything they learned in school. They come to TAP and find a space in which we value a person’s wellbeing over their curriculum and 9 times out of 10 they cling hard and fast to this because it was a value they didn’t realize they needed. Sometimes they have a hard time accepting that they deserve self-care (I know I struggle with this) without working themselves into the ground serving their students first. Somehow it’s become a mode of thinking that you have to earn self-care.
I see this in so many teachers I work with. My students are an entirely different story. They have not yet reached the point where they think they have to earn self-care. They are game to jump into healthy practices because it’s still an innate part of being human to them. This is what I aim to build off of in my class before the world does its work on them—the point where they are still in touch with themselves and they come before any product in their minds.
Self-Care is Not Selfish! Reframing Self-Care as a Connection to the Self
In her TED Talk on self-care for teachers, Kelly Hopkinson talks about self-care being a connection to the self. This kind of thinking is really helpful for me and maybe it is for you too. It makes self-care less of a “selfish” thing—which I believe so many of us have, whether consciously or subconsciously, been taught to believe—and more an extension of our humanness, a way to connect all the parts of us once again. In a world where this is not prioritized, self-care becomes a radical act, a revolution against a system that would rather work you to death in order to profit.
So, it would seem that it is imperative we teachers prioritize ourselves. How can we do that though? Maybe you don’t need help here. Maybe you already know what self-care works for you. However, if you're like me and sometimes need some inspiration to get started, I compiled here some things I do for self-care, some suggestions from teacher friends of mine, and a few resources to check out.
Teachers Self-Care Activities
1. Reclaim Your Sunday
I’ve stopped working on anything on Sundays. Well, anything that doesn’t pertain to my wants and dreams. So I still write on Sundays. But, I want you to do it. Say right now that you will reserve your Sunday for you and you alone. Or Saturday if that feels better, but either way one of those days is completely for you and you will not look at your email/curriculum/assignments at all.
I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. But I can’t tell you how helpful it is for me to write out all the things that burden my mind. It’s a real release and it frees me up the rest of the day to think about other things. A helpful exercise I do with my students when first starting to journal is free writing. Put 5 minutes on the clock and don’t stop writing. Put down whatever comes to mind, no matter how weird or incomprehensible. If you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write” over and over again until you do.
3. Take a Walk
A lot. It helps that I have a dog who needs to go out regularly, but I would go on my long walks even if I didn’t have her. I’ve taken lately to listening to audiobooks from the library on my walks and it has been amazing. I’ve listened to so many books already. I just finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Highly recommend.
4. Make Soup
This might be just a me thing, but I find making soup to be incredibly healing. I make everything from scratch, including the broth, and I often do this on Sundays. I usually work without a recipe—soup is pretty intuitive like that. But in case you’re looking for some, I really like this lentil recipe, this minestrone recipe, or any good french onion soup recipe.
5. Learn Something New
I’ve been learning to play the ukulele and found that practicing it helps keep me present. I’ve been using the app Yousician (the free version) and found it really helpful.
6. Doodle, Write, Play Around
In other words, I create. Recently, a friend of mine published a creativity workbook. I’m currently working through that book and it feels more like a practice in mindfulness than work. I highly recommend it to anyone who needs support in building a practice of creativity and self-care: “Creativity and Gratitude: Exercises and Inspiration for a Year of Art, Hope, and Healing” by Amy Oestreicher. Amy’s book got me to doodle in a way I haven’t in years and it’s been incredibly freeing.
These are some things that work for me. However, if all of these sound a bit too crunchy for you, I polled some teacher friends to ask for their (more humorous) recommendations:
More Teacher Self-Care Ideas
1. Chelsea recommends you watch “Love Island,” “Temptation Island,” or basically anything with an island in the title and hot people saying dumb things. “It works for me,” she said.
2. “I watch episodes of ‘Would I Lie to You’ and find a full body massage bed to lie down on,” says Meher.
3. Ariel, one of the teachers in my TAP program said, “I dance in my teaching space to mark my territory,” which I find hilarious.
4. When asked “What’s your best teacher self-care activity?” my friend Melissa helpfully offered “Not teaching.” —thanks Melissa. But she added “baths and wine,” which we can all get on board with. I know another friend who has gotten into making soaps and bath bombs, which might add an extra layer of care for you.
5. And if all else fails, Erika has a great White Claw cocktail for you to try. I’ve had it. Highly recommend.
Here are some other teacher self-care resources to check out:
1. The New York Public Library offers free ebooks and audiobooks for library card holders (as mentioned above). The process of accessing those is pretty easy.
2. If you are a teacher of color and dabble in any kind of art, my friend Ariel (mentioned above) runs a BIPOC Artist Salon on the last Sunday of every month called “The Salon”. Even if you don’t want to share, it’s a great space to meet folks and spend an evening in community with others.
4. Mentioned above and I can’t recommend this book more: “Creativity and Gratitude: Exercises and Inspiration for a Year of Art, Hope, and Healing” by Amy Oestreicher
5. If you need a quick laugh, go check out Tony Baker’s animal videos on Instagram. Although I wouldn’t otherwise recommend social media as a self-care practice, sometimes I just need to laugh.
I hope some of this helps, but do whatever works for you. Gardening, doing your nails, making an at-home spa, throwing darts… it doesn’t matter. The point of self-care is to do what makes you feel joyful and whole. Reconnect with yourself. Think of the revolution we could start if every teacher just practiced a little self-care.
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