I hate February. I’m so glad it’s over. It’s cold, barren, and depressing.
March isn’t any better. In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion that the period from President’s Day until Spring Break is the most difficult time of the school year.
For starters, it’s the dead of winter. In most climates that means indoor recess. Long days of cranky teachers and hyper kids, Spring Fever in the air. Then comes standardized testing, rehearsals for spring concerts, a holiday full of candy in the middle of February and another in March involving pinching. It’s difficult to stay healthy as we face flus, colds, and the occasional bronchitis. On top of all that, most teachers have the added stress of To-Be-Renewed or Not-To-Be-Renewed. February and March are the time of the year we learn who is going, who is staying, who got a new job, and who has been kindly asked not to return for the next school year. It can cause a culture of division during an already stressful period.
It’s so surprise, then, that teachers are in need of a little TLC right now. Burn out is a real thing, a phenomenon I have both witnessed and experienced. But it’s preventable!
Teachers are amazing people who are fabulous at taking care of others but utter flunks at taking care of themselves.
Before I had my own kids, a husband, home, pets, laundry, dishes, dinner, and all the other stressors added to my already full teaching days, I was excellent at self-care. I went to yoga three times a week and got manicures and pedicures once a month. I read my favorite books whenever I wanted and went hiking or skiing on weekends.
That is no longer my reality.
When pressures threaten our sanity at every side, it’s hard to stop and think about what we need. Kids bouncing off the walls, administrators breathing down our necks; our own needs for rest and relaxation are shelved until Spring Break or even May.
“I’ll rest when school’s out,” we say, with a wave toward our Summer reading pile.
Let me offer a better way. Instead of burning the candle at both ends until your flame burns out, these five free and easy tricks will help you sneak self-care into your daily life in your own time and on your own terms.
The quickest, cheapest, and oldest self-care trick in the book is: Breathe.
The benefits of a deep breath cannot be underestimated.
- Slow heart rate
- Increase blood flow
- Release tension
- Deactivate the brain’s emotion-driven stress response
- Activate the brain’s reasoning functions to counter the emotion-driven stress response
I frequently stop my class for everyone to take a deep cleansing breath with me. The voice level in my room is getting too high. Deep breath everyone. Students are tattling and arguing. Deep breath. We’re transitioning from something active to something calm. Deep breath. It benefits my students just as much as it benefits me.
So, stop what you’re doing, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, and keep going.
2. 30- Second Yoga
The benefits of moving are equally effective as breathing. When you don’t have the time, inclination, or opportunity to practice yoga three hours a week, I recommend 30-second yoga. This can be done during your planning, your lunch, or even while you’re teaching in front of your students.
- Shift your weight to one foot.
- Lift your other foot with an inhale.
- Lower that foot to the ground with an exhale
- Repeat on other side.
- Extension 1: Keep your lifted foot up for three breaths before lowering. Sink your weight through your standing foot into the ground.
- Extension 2: Slowly extend your lifted leg front and back before lowering.
30-Second (Abridged) Sun Salutation
- Drop your pencil your pen on the floor.
- With feet together and knees loose, exhale and bend at the waist to pick up the dropped object.
- Straighten up slowly with an inhale.
- Drop your pen again (or pretend to).
- Bend one knee and extend the other leg straight behind you with your toes on the floor on an exhale.
- Stretch your torso to the ceiling on an inhale
- Reach down to the floor to pick up the real or imaginary object you dropped on an exhale.
- Lift up to standing on an inhale.
- Repeat steps 4-8 with the alternate leg.
- Exhale and settle back into teaching.
30-Second Warrior One
- When you are working with a student on the floor or at their desk, place one knee on the floor and one foot on the floor with a bent knee.
- Balance your weight on your knee and foot.
- Lift up your back knee and stretch your leg back.
- Balance your weight on two feet while still with the student.
- Switch legs and repeat.
3. Slow TV
If you haven’t discovered Norwegian Slow TV yet, stop reading and watch this TED talk right now.
If you’re as busy as me and watching a TED talk doesn’t fit into your schedule, let me tell you about it. Slow TV is a Norwegian invention in which a camera shows the same thing for hours upon hours. For example, in one program, a camera is placed on the front of a train. For seven hours, the camera shows nothing except the view of a train moving through the country. In another program, the camera is on the bow of a ship. Yet another shows women knitting. For fifteen hours. I started watching clips of this innovative program during my lunch for just five to ten minutes at a time. It amazed me to discover that a few moments of watching a ship float down a canal in Norway could provide just as much peace as a full meditation session.
I tuned into this program, the one showing the view from the bottom of a propeller plane flying through the Alps, in my classroom as a sort of moving Promethean board wallpaper while my students worked on other things. One student commented on how relaxing it was to glance over and watch a little bit before returning to his work.
I showed it to my kindergarteners like it was a movie. They loved it! We were in the middle of a train unit in my music curriculum and I showed them this program. They paid close attention to every landmark, tunnel, climate change, and station the train passed. They sat still watching this train for almost fifteen minutes!
4. Your Favorite Thing
The fourth trick is to fill your life with your favorite thing. For example, my favorite thing is coffee. I have a single serve Keurig in my classroom. When days are hard or I need a moment to myself, I make a cup of coffee. The simple action of making and sipping my coffee helps me to pause, process, and get on with my day. And my room smells good too!
What is your favorite thing in the world? It could be dark chocolate, or Minions, or a certain type of music. It could be purple, chex mix, your own kids, or the sea. Whatever it is, put it around you. Is your favorite thing the color teal? Decorate your classroom with it. Do you love the beach? Place things around your room to remind you of the beach. Love 70’s classic rock? Play it while your students do independent work. Hang up pictures of your kids or pets. Use teaching materials from your favorite characters, like Pete the Cat bulletin boards, or Star Wars stickers.
Surround yourself with something that excites you.
5. Lights, Sounds, Scents
Appealing to the senses is a technique used for centuries, perhaps millennia, to calm the body and mind. Your classroom is no different. Anything you put in your classroom that appeals to the senses has the added benefit of also providing calm for your students.
Does your classroom have harsh florescent lighting? Turn off those lights and instead place soft lamps and stringed lights around your room. Different colored lampshades on the lamps direct the mood and create ambiance in the room. A string of lights does not have to be Christmas lights. There are many different kinds of light strings for all sorts of occasions. Find one that fits your personality and the environment you want to create.
Since our heartbeats often sync to the tempo around us, music has the power to calm or energize. Meditation-style instrumental music can subtly slow our pulse until we feel relaxed, while upbeat dance music can increase our heart rate and invigorate us on those days we struggle for energy. With streaming music, it’s easy to find a playlist that will continuously play what you need. Spotify is my personal favorite. Below is my “Quiet Time” playlist I created for myself and my students.
Turn music on repeat in the background all day. Or perhaps play it as your students enter your room in the morning. Listen to your favorite music during lunch or your plan time. Confession: my lunchtime guilty pleasure music is Taylor Swift. Also on rotation in my music library is 1980’s hair bands, Disney, and indie rock. So, what’s your mood today? Do you need jazz, Guns ‘N’ Roses, or Justin Timberlake? I won’t tell if you turn on a little Madonna while you grade papers. No judgement. Find your groove.
Smell is another powerful yet subtle way to influence mood. While your administrator might frown upon burning scented candles near children, there are safe ways to fill your room with wonderful aromas.
Wax warmers do the work of a scented candle, without the fire hazard. You can find wax warmers that are also a lamp, adding extra warmth to the room through both light and scent. Plug-in air fresheners are an easy option. Or, if you have a little cash, use an essential oil diffuser. Find scents that trigger comforting and food-related thoughts, like vanilla, citrus, or cinnamon. Since I turned on a vanilla wax warmer in my room, each person who enters comments on how nice it smells, and subsequently how good it feels!
Thrive, Not Survive
Recently I taught double classes of kindergarten and first grade. (Another lovely aspect of this time of the school year – sick teachers, no subs.) I knew I would need some serious self-care to survive over 40 six- and seven-year olds in my room for the last few days before Spring Break. I decided to practice what I preach. I turned on soft music and low lights, and placed new vanilla wax into my scent warmer.
I led the students in a few deep breaths, then some simple yoga stretches. With my Quiet Time playlist as accompaniment, and my blue lamp shades turning my room into an ocean, we acted out different under the sea creatures. At the end of the day, teaching double classes was a walk in the park.
I didn’t just survive, I thrived.
May you thrive through this season, instead of simply surviving. For more ideas on self-care at this difficult time, here is a Mindful March calendar in honor of Social Worker Month. If you see a teacher with the deer-in-the-headlights-how-many-days-until-break look in their eyes, share this wisdom with them and keep the self-care love going!