When you’ve got pupil’s best interests at heart, don’t forget to take care of yourself.
We all know that whilst immensely rewarding, there are times when teaching can be tough. There may even be moments when you question whether life wouldn’t be that little bit easier if you had chosen a less demanding career. It’s inevitable; we’ve all had days like this.
But of course, you also have those days when you can’t imagine yourself ever doing anything else: those moments when you feel like you were born to teach; the times when you connect with a pupil and almost see that lightbulb flash above their head; and the moments when you know you’ve made a real difference to the life of a child.
Some of my most rewarding experiences in school were the moments when I got through to a child who, for whatever reason, was harder to reach than most. It’s knowing that you have made a difference that keeps you going.
Ready for action
When you work with children you know that the stakes are very high. After all, young people only get one shot at their education. You know that children and their families rely on you. However, such high stakes can be emotionally draining and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to spend all your time taking care of the needs of others and to forget to look out for yourself as well.
Caring for your own wellbeing is not being selfish or some kind of indulgence – far from it. Think of the airplane safety demonstration when the crew explains what to do in the event that the oxygen masks fall from above. The first thing you are told to do is to put your own mask on before tending to those around you. It’s the same in school. The children and your colleagues need you to be at your best and so you need to look after yourself if you are going to be the teacher they need you to be. Not only is being burnt-out and exhausted bad for you, it’s bad for them too.
Who can you turn to?
The most obvious form of support comes in the shape of colleagues. Whatever your role in school, you are not alone. There are people in your school or in other local schools doing the same job and facing the same challenges as you. Whether in a formal or informal way, it’s so important to reach out to your colleagues. Small steps like ensuring you eat lunch in the staffroom at least once a week can be a step in the right direction. This chance to let off steam and share your experiences of the week so far can be incredibly cathartic.
You may prefer a more formal approach to working with colleagues. If so, looking for a mentor or a coach either within or beyond your own school might be worth considering. A mentor should be an experienced colleague who understands your role and can offer advice. A coach is slightly different. Rather than providing advice, they are there to help you find your own solutions. Both can be equally powerful relationships, think about what might work best for you. Plenty of schools are now working to establish coaching cultures and there is no shortage of reading material available if this is something you are interested in doing.
Social media can be another great form of support and it’s an opportunity to interact with teachers from across the entire nation, and even internationally. Depending on your role in school, there are plenty of different forums and online chat options. Whether you work in the early years, primary, secondary, special school or post-16 sectors, there are lots of great social media groups out there, where you can share and discuss ideas and learn from your peers.
Advice and representation
There are times, however, when your need for support will go beyond this, and it’s crucial that in these situations you know where to turn. Hopefully, there are people within your own school on your senior leadership team who can help. However, not everyone feels comfortable taking this route. Teaching unions remain an excellent source of help and advice. The support unions offer comes in two forms. There is the support that you can draw from the community of members. However, if things get really difficult, your union should also have specialist advisors to provide tailored advice and support based on the situation you find yourself in. With luck, you will go through much of your career not needing this support, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there should you ever need it.
Wherever you go for support, or whoever you choose to lean on, just make sure that you do it regularly and often. Looking for support ought not to be an afterthought, but an essential.
Your impact as a teacher is one thing, but looking after yourself is always the most important thing you can do. If you’re in a good place, you’ll do more good for the children and young people around you.
A former headteacher and SENCO: James Bowen is Director of NAHT Edge, a trade union for teaching leaders:
Information on looking after your wellbeing as a teacher is available on the website of The Education Support Partnership, which also runs a 24/7 telephone hotline for teachers: