For the first 17 years of my working career, I was a professional basketball player. My full-time job was to ensure I was in peak physical and mental condition so as to perform at my optimal level on the court. This involved physical training, yoga and stretching, massage and physiotherapy, mental relaxation and visualisation, goal setting and dietary supplementation. As an athlete, you are taught the skills needed to maintain your body, to recognise when you are over doing it and how to back off, to tune your mind to achieve goals and to also be in a relaxed state of mind and to feed your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to run at its peak. The reason being if you don’t do these things then chances are your not going to win. So now I am a teacher I am asking myself are these habits and rituals still necessary for my peak performance? When I look at the statistic that between 25-40% of teachers leave the profession after only 5 years I think the answer to that question is an overwhelming yes.
The problem I see is that as an athlete you are very selfish. Your only responsibility is to ensure you are performing at your best day in day out. You don’t have to worry about whether your teammate is understanding the plays, or whether he is feeling upset because of something another teammate said because when it comes down to it if they don’t perform then maybe that’s the opportunity you need to shine so you can get a better contract next season. Teachers, however, are another kettle of fish. Teachers by nature are the most unselfish people I know. What other professionals are hanging out for their next paycheck so they can go and spend it on buying resources for the latest cool project idea they found on Pinterest? Who else stays up all night trying to work out how to help that one child in their class who just isn’t getting it? The problem with teachers is that we are not selfish and we don’t actually take the time to ensure our bodies and minds are performing at their optimum. We still go to school when we are sick and tired, we skip meals because we have to print off extra resources at lunchtime or a parent wants a quick catch up, bottom line is that very few of us look after ourselves and by not doing that we are actually doing our students a huge disservice. I don’t think we know ourselves as teachers until we have been in the job for 5 years, so if so many of us burn ourselves out and have nothing left to give at that point, just think of what are we robbing the students of?
When I did a Twitter survey asking if teachers had a daily mental and physical health ritual to stop burnout, 75% of respondents said no. So although I can no longer justify getting a weekly massage (it would be nice though), I thought I would share the habits and rituals that I have taken from my sporting career to my daily life as a teacher in the hope that maybe some of these things can help you also.
The first thing is you can’t separate physical and mental health into two separate categories or activities because they are completely interrelated. To reduce stress not only do you need to work on your mental health but also your physical health.
The most obvious starting point is to undertake physical activity. Studies show that physical activity is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate (especially around report card writing time).
When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So it stands to reason that if your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. My personal routine is to do 30 minutes of excerise before I go to school in the morning. I find that even though I am getting up earlier than I would otherwise have to, I feel better rested and more energised for the day after my workout.
The next important step is to ensure that your body is receiving the optimal level of nutrition so it can perform all the necessary duties we require of it. The evidence is rapidly growing to show the vital relationships between both diet quality and potential nutritional deficiencies and mental health. I am sure we all recognise that a good healthy diet is necessary to be healthy, but how many of us actually eat how we know we should. I eat a very healthy diet but don’t get me wrong when the workload builds the first thing to go out the window is the strict healthy eating diet. The one thing that ensures that my body gets the nutrients it needs to maintain my energy levels and the immune system is through the use of high-quality nutritional supplementation. By taking high-quality multivitamins, liquid minerals and immune-boosting supplements I have been able to maintain high energy levels and do avoid any illness throughout my teaching career.When you look at it teachers face the same issues as athletes when it comes to energy and illness. The battle for an athlete is to not let your immune system get run down due to fatigue and nutritional deficiencies. Although the cause of fatigue may be different for teachers, the result is the same, if we let ourselves get run down then we get sick, meaning you are not performing at your optimum level for the students.
Another practice from my sporting days I have taken into my teaching career is goal setting. Every athlete knows how important it is to set and achieve goals, but this is just as important for teachers. Without defined goals, as a teacher you feel like you are never finished and that you aren’t succeeding. Yes as a teacher you are never finished, but it is important to recognise we are succeeding and we can do this by setting ourselves goals so we then acknowledge when we have got there. This year I have also set goals around my personal time. I have set myself the goal to leave school by 4pm each day when we do not have a school meeting on and I let my principal know that this is my goal. This alone has been liberating, knowing that at 4pm that is enough and it is time to go home and be with my family, because lets be honest, at the end of the day whatever time we leave we have done enough, maybe it is not as much as we had hoped, but it is enough!
I recently watched a fantastic video about goal setting by Tony Robbins called New Year New Life where he talks about progress = happiness. Change is something that is always guaranteed but it is when we recognise we are making progress that we become happy. We all make progress in our classrooms, we just need to acknowledge it! Watching this video was the best 35-minute investment I have made this year!
Another major issue with being a teacher is that we are invariably time poor, so having the time and energy to exercise, goal set and to ensure we have the right nutrition can seem difficult and if it is not a priority then it is easy to skip it so we can get that bit of marking completed. That is why they need to become habits or rituals. To do that studies show you need to force yourself to do the activity for 3-4 weeks after which time it will be a habit or your own personal ritual and then it will something you will not be willing to set aside as it becomes a non-negotiable part of your daily routine.
So be selfish and treat your body and mind like you are an athlete so you are always on your A game for your class.
I would love to hear your thoughts and any habits or rituals that you do to maintain your mental and physical health as a teacher.