Self-care is not self-indulgence

American educator and author, Dr Todd Whitaker tells us, ‘The best part about teaching is that it matters. The hardest part about teaching is that it matters everyday.’

This is so true. During my twenty-one years in teaching and school leadership, the greatest motivation for me was knowing (or hoping) that I was moving the dial, making a difference, improving the life chances of my pupils. This is both a privilege and a burden of responsibility everyday. You can’t have a day in teaching when you go easy on yourself – take a few extra coffee breaks, catch up with some quiet paper work. Finish early.

Whatever you do, whatever you say, and especially how you say it, matters; and it matters because you are acting as model learner for the young people in front of you, demonstrating positive attitudes and behaviours for effective learning, for life itself. As educators we project unshakeable belief in our pupils and we never miss an opportunity to help them feel better about themselves. It is, as so often said, all about the children.

But it is precisely this mantra that often leads us to neglect our own health and wellbeing. In term time, self-care seems a self-indulgence, doesn’t it. We wait until the holidays to ‘come up for air’ and re-discovery some equilibrium, before the school submarine dives once again for another term.

But it’s not a self-indulgence to look after ourselves. If we are drawn to putting the children first, then we owe it to them to ensure they have the best version of us in front of them; just as we owe it to our families and partners too.  

When I was teaching, I still managed to go on occasional family holidays with my wife and our four children. I know I was there, because I can see my face in the family photos, on the campsite, along the promenade, sitting on a dockside with a crabbing net. But can I remember each actual holiday itself? My recollections are patchy. I was there in body, but I was forever thinking about school: the children, the curriculum, the staff meetings, the never-ending assessments. Our Hippocratic oath is to act in loco parentis. We love our pupils and that is a difficult thing to switch off when term ends.

If I were starting again as a newly-qualified teacher, or starting a new leadership post, I like to think I would not be beset with the same guilt if I neglected the books for one evening, or didn’t try to respond to every email before the end of the day.

I would value my own health and wellbeing a little bit more. And I don’t think I would be alone in this. More people are talking about how we traverse the emotional landscape as adults, how we manage our wellbeing, how we stay positive.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this from reading the new Early Career Framework or ITT Core Content for trainees. You would be forgiven for still believing it’s all about knowledge and skills in teaching. If you’re struggling it’s because you need to boost your professional capital or professional currency. I don’t like these terms; they have their origins in the world of finance – they are measurable, accountable. But the craft of teaching runs so much deeper than this. It is not just what you know that counts, it is also what you can do with what you know, and that is inextricably linked to how you feel. Educationalist Eric Jensen says, ‘How we feel is what’s real, it’s the link to what we think.’

I celebrate the new initiatives and services that are being devised to support teachers in their early careers. But the apparent lack of recognition of the ‘whole person’ behind the professional skills is lamentable. For any training to be truly sustainable – and it needs to be if teachers are going to stay in this important profession for more than a couple of years – it needs to reach beyond this relentless focus on evidence-based exemplary practice, and start equipping and permitting teachers to manage their own health, wellbeing and motivation. Being a better teacher – with advanced skills and excellent classroom management – almost certainly helps you to stay more positive and achieve greater self-efficacy, that’s true. But to be a skilled practitioner is only half the story; to be a happy, motivated and optimistic teacher, one needs to feel like a whole person too.

As we look towards the end of term – still some weeks to go for many, of course – I hope that teachers are able to shake off the common misconception that they are not as good at this job as they ought to be and that they are defined more by their professional skills than their character, their optimism or their joie de vivre. Immeasurable and invisible perhaps, but no less important.

Teaching is a craft, an art form, with skills that can be honed and perfected. The ECF, the ITT Core Content and the new NPQs will certainly help you to become that skilled practitioner you think everyone else already is. But staying in teaching and, dare I say, flourishing in the job, requires self-care, self-regulation and the resolve to say ‘I matter as much as my pupils do.’  

Photo by Emma Bauso from Pexels

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