May is Mental Health Month! Fourth grade teacher Justin Birckbichler gives you four important tips to help you maintain a strong sense of mental wellness as you enter the homestretch of the school year.
I spent over ten hours a day at school during my first year of teaching. On top of that, I was also spending a couple of hours at home working on tasks related to school. What did I experience by the end of the year? Burn out – and I was only in my first year.
It’s not just the amount of time spent in the classroom. Lack of resources and support, “testing season” and extra accountability measures, additional mandates and responsibilities all add to the stress and pressure of teaching.
Teachers put forth a lot of their own time, resources, and energy into their classrooms and sometimes need a few reminders to take care of themselves, too. Use these four tips to help you maintain a strong sense of mental wellness as we enter the homestretch of the school year.
1. Leave school at school
Ever since learning that hard lesson after my first year of teaching by working over thirteen hours a day, I’ve been being intentional on the amount of time I spend both at school, and working on classroom tasks outside of school.
I have no firm or formal rules, but I’ve found these loose guidelines help me stay on track.
I go into work about 45-60 minutes early and depart immediately after the students. I find I’m more productive in the morning when there’s no one at school, so I can get through tasks more quickly. I also have started to use my planning periods and lunch more effectively. In a crunch, I shut my door to deter impromptu conversation with friends. I also bring nothing home with me. Does that test need to be graded tonight? Probably not.
On weekends, I do very little work for school. The only exception is if I get inspired by something and can’t stop thinking about it. At that point, it’s not something I HAVE to do for school; it’s something I WANT to do.
2. Make exercise and diet a non-negotiable
Because I leave school right at the last bell, I have time to go to the gym. I make this a non-negotiable. Follow this workout up with a clean, home cooked meal and you have a recipe for success – pun very much intended.
This post is about mental wellness, but physical fitness is crucial to promoting healthy brain activity. While you may find yourself being too tired to crank out a five mile run after a long day of teaching, choosing to push through any amount you can will often show you that there’s more in you than you know. This sense of accomplishment, along with the well documented increase in endorphins, will help re-energize you for the next day.
3. Find and foster a hobby
This tip comes with a caveat – it can’t be something related to school, so educational blogging is out. As much as we love teaching, finding fulfillment in non-work related hobbies fulfills our needs for fun and expression that can be great stress-relievers.
I’m well aware of the irony, as I write this on an educational blog, but this isn’t my only hobby. In my free time, you’ll also find me reading thriller novels, working on speed solving Rubik’s cubes, building things in my workshop, and sharing my story as a testicular cancer survivor, as well as cooking and exercising to support the previous tip. What are your hobbies? Write them down and make a point to include them in your week.
All of these help me to become a well-rounded person whose life does not entirely revolve around the field of education. I do these things to experience a sense of accomplishment that isn’t directly tied to my teaching performance. Do I feel slightly nerdy when I break my record on the cube? Yes. But do I also feel awesome? Absolutely. (I’m currently at 1 minute 5 seconds. Feel free to challenge me.)
4. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help
If you’ve tried all of the above and still feel an overwhelming sense of depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. Call in a sub, and find time to time to consult with a professional.
Personally, earlier this year, I found myself caught in a perfect storm. Having recently battled cancer, changing schools, and other life events, I realized that I was feeling off. I met with my oncologist in December and began antidepressants soon after. I had a follow up visit to tweak my dosage, and three months later I’m feeling much happier than I was in September. If medication isn’t for you, mental health experts have a variety of holistic and behavioral therapies that can make a huge difference in your life.
Mental health is stigmatized in society, but it doesn’t need to be. I hope by sharing that I’m on antidepressants, others will find that it’s ok, and not shameful, to seek medical help for depression. I compare it to needing a cast for a broken arm. You wouldn’t say no to that, but why are people hesitant to try medication for mental health? It’s an important discussion to have, and one I am happy to continue to support.
The Bottom Line: Your kids deserve you at your best
At the end of the day, we’re in it for the kids and they deserve the best version of you that you can be. Without taking care of YOU to make sure that you’re at your peak, you won’t be able to give the most energetic, engaging lessons and life-changing experiences that you’re capable of delivering. Don’t think of it as being selfish – think of it as diverting your time and energy to something that will help you become your best.