How well do teachers model the behaviors that we wish for all our students? How do we educators rate as exemplars of commitment to the life of the mind, family, friends, civic engagement, and physical and emotional health? Before we presume to teach others, doesn’t it make sense to ask if we are taking care of ourselves?
The idea that societal role models should prioritize self-care goes as far back as Socrates. According to Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates regularly inquired whether his students were taking care of themselves. During the climactic moment of his trial, Socrates, who was accused of impiety, turned the tables on his judges by saying, “You preoccupy yourselves without shame in acquiring wealth and reputation and honors,” but do not take care of yourselves. How dare the judges aspire to run a city-state when they lacked basic insight into their own lives?
To the ancients, to take care of oneself meant to pursue truth, beauty, wisdom, and self-mastery. A person could not be helpful to others if he or she was deluded, ignorant, unrefined, or a slave to his or her own passions—or vocation. Far from selfish, self-care was foundational for serving others.
I do not see much self-care among educators today. Like American society at large, many of us are overworked, stretched thin financially, and torn between roles as spouses, parents, and employees. Teachers occupy the middle to lower tiers of a middle class that, according to economists, has faced massive pressure and attrition since the late 1970s. Many educators find themselves desperately treading water to avoid being swept into an underclass of working poor. I know quite a few who endure a Dickensian existence of full-time teaching, part-time supplemental work, evening graduate classes, and child care.
Not unlike other professionals devoted to nurture, such as doctors, teachers are measured—and measure themselves—against an idealized image of excellence that involves incessant work. Popular books such as Erin Gruwell’s The Freedom Writers Diary (also a film) and Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire land their authors on best-seller lists and NPR. Engrained in pop culture is an image of the crusading teacher whose entire life is consumed by his or her work.
Yet that image is not a sustainable reality, neither for Gruwell—who taught for only four years—nor Esquith, who was fired last fall (and not without controversy) for alleged misconduct.
Society also judges educators against a negative and equally unrepresentative stereotype: the lazy teacher whose unionized perquisites enable a cushy, tenured job. To combat this image, education leaders pepper school and district mission statements with phrases about their commitment to the “relentless pursuit” of excellence. Such single-mindedness rings false, but it, too, pits teachers against an expectation that they will spend all their time working.
We should show our students, through the examples of our own lives, that they can lead healthy, multifaceted existences.
Economic necessity as well as internal and external pressures to work more do teachers great harm. I began my career more than 30 years ago and can no longer count the number of talented colleagues I have seen burn out and leave the profession. More insidious and even sadder are those friends and colleagues who lost marriages because of their careers, turned to alcohol or other substance abuse for solace, ruined their health through poor diets and lack of exercise, and needed medication for stress-related ailments. On a more mundane level, sleep deprivation is the norm and often a perverse point of pride among us.
But what does a workaholic teacher give to his or her students? In the last few weeks, three of mine confided their life ambitions to me. All three, ranging in age from 14 to 22, said that their career aspirations would likely preclude marriage and children. “I just couldn’t do it all, and my career will matter more,” the oldest, a senior in college, announced.
More routinely, I hear students say they don’t have time to read for pleasure. Very few of my high school seniors report averaging eight hours of sleep a night. Family dinners, they tell me, are rare occurrences. Those behaviors, which researchers say are norms for young people, are obviously not the fault of overworked teachers. But how can we counteract such trends, or even criticize them, if we fall into them ourselves?
How might educators take care of themselves?
First, we can historicize ideas about work and its place in our lives. Toiling long hours, according to historians and anthropologists, is a relatively recent development. Hunter-gatherer societies and subsistence-farming cultures worked far less than do modern Americans; many averaged three to five hours of labor per day. While industrialization begot our modern work pace, social activists and labor unions made the eight-hour workday a political goal as early as the mid-1800s, and they often achieved that end.
It has become fashionable to bash unions, and the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, seems likely to erode union clout further by making it easier for teachers to opt out; yet, the fact is that unions have been key promoters of self-care for educators.
Second, school leaders can do much more to prioritize teachers’ well-being. At the most basic levels, they can ensure that teachers have time built into their workday to think, use the bathroom, and eat lunch. Administrators can shield teachers from unnecessary meetings by canceling them whenever the agenda is inconsequential.
Principals also can investigate links between teachers’ student loads and grading practices. How many assessments should we be asked to score in a marking period while teaching 80 to 130 students? Online grading portals put pressure on teachers to assign more work, but district leaders should ask how meaningful it is to do so and whether the costs to teachers (and students) are worth the benefits of quantity.
Teachers should get time and money for sabbaticals to further their education. We should have, at the very least, some mandated time to stay home with a sick child, take parental leave, and tend to our health and personal matters.
Finally, we teachers have to assume responsibility for taking care of ourselves. We need to put down our laptops, stop grading papers, and go for a walk. We have to read books that challenge and deepen our intellects. We should make dinner for our families and find time to enjoy it with them. We should get together with friends and share a laugh. We must ask ourselves questions about how much money we really need.
We should show our students, through the examples of our own lives, that they can lead healthy, multifaceted existences and not be slaves to their careers. Taking care of ourselves this way might turn out to be even more inspiring to kids than setting our hair on fire.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Self-Care Is the Educator’s Core Standard