My career began with mental healthcare and shifted into an eight-year run as a special education teacher. In mental healthcare settings, I taught self-care strategies to clients receiving individual therapy or participating in community-based stress management classes. As a special educator, regardless of subjects or setting, I taught self-care strategies to students. It’s safe to say I’m well-versed in self-care. Despite my professional training and expertise, I personally experienced burnout at least once each school year.
In the mainstream, self-care’s popularity has spiked in recent years. Consumption of self-care related products and services has made it a thriving commercial industry. This trend reflects surging levels of stress and burnout across all American workers.
For educators, these aren’t new concepts, but the packaging is. Mindfulness, yoga, and other school-based initiatives targeting educators have gained prominence. There are now even conferences dedicated to this cause. As an education professor whose research and professional development focuses on educator empowerment and well-being, I’m excited to see increased ridership on the self-care train. However, this topic has been misconstrued and needs clarification. In particular, three self-care misconceptions perpetuate unfair expectations of educators.
1. Limiting the definition of self-care: The term seems self-explanatory, but what exactly does it mean? There is no universal definition. Exercise is often a recommended form of self-care, as are mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques. Some report soaking in warm baths, reading for pleasure, and snuggling puppies. Regardless, my point is that self-care is often defined as specific health-promoting activities or products.
To be clear, self-care doesn’t always need to be overtly healthy. Some educators have told me their self-care includes self-soothing behaviors like binging on brownies or sipping on spirits. Others push back with suggestions that self-care must be healthy—otherwise, it is self-damage.
Recently, I attended a conference and heard an engaging speaker declare that self-care is not bringing M&Ms or other chocolates into the workplace to share with co-workers. So, the next day, I brought Almond Joys to share. As these contain two superfoods—almonds and coconut—that meant I was promoting self-care, right? All joking aside, my humble opinion is that self-care may not always constitute a health-promoting behavior. If small indulgences generate positive mental and emotional gains, why frown upon them? The catch, though, is knowing the line between beneficial indulgence and detrimental debauchery. This varies individually and is not universally defined.
Self-care is also not limited to specific activities. In our focus on evidence-based practices, we have greatly underestimated the intangible aspects of our well-being. For example, another form of self-care is setting boundaries on our time and availability. By ending our workday at a certain hour and including downtime on our agenda, we promote a work-life balance necessary for our health.
We also can care for ourselves by being choosy with our commitments. Saying “yes” to everything invites more expectation and less appreciation.
In addition to boundaries, the benefits of positive reciprocal human connections need no explanation. Do the people in your life enhance it or drain it? How about vice versa, and how you treat others? Self-care works in conjunction with—not in isolation from—community care. Overall, we need social networks that support the best versions of ourselves and therefore, the best we offer others.
2. Blaming burnout on educators: The self-care literature often concludes by proclaiming the benefits of self-care and ways to do it. Some use this to argue that educators who burn out did not care for themselves adequately. Don’t get me wrong—educators have an ethical duty to maintain their capacity to perform. Though overlooked and underprioritized, self-care and effective coping are necessary skillsets of an educator and requisite to effective instruction and behavior management. Nevertheless, the ethical responsibility of educator self-care does not diminish the importance of effective school leadership, parental involvement, reasonable salaries and benefits, and most notably student accountability.
We all have a shared responsibility in education. Administrators, parents/families, and policymakers cannot continue holding teachers responsible for students’ entire existence while compensating them so poorly that they either must marry into a decent standard of living or struggle to pay basic bills. We can’t expect educators to save the world under such conditions through the miracle of self-care alone. It is merely a piece of a complex puzzle that involves other integral conditions, including excellent leadership, positive collegial relationships, access to adequate resources, parent and family involvement, and especially student participation.
3. Expecting a super-human educator: You often hear stories about someone’s second-cousin’s best friend’s third-cousin’s ex-spouse who was a teacher. That person taught classes of 40 or more students, all of whom had disabilities and experienced childhood trauma. Thanks to this amazing teacher, the students excelled on their standardized assessments, exhibited exemplary behavior, and all went on to become physicians, engineers, and CEOs. In addition to amazing teacher abilities, super-teacher was a hardworking single parent (clearly without the third-cousin’s involvement—how convenient), with no financial support or family members. Said teacher was always happy, never complained, and never needed self-care, instead finding joy in self-sacrifice and devotion to others.
Critics will constantly compare us to these beyond-human educators they allegedly know, and we will inevitably fall short. Please also understand these stories are either immense exaggerations or outright lies. Educators are human beings, and we all have our strengths and challenges. Yes, self-care makes a difference and is a necessary practice for a healthy and happy life—let alone an effective educator. However, it is not another weapon to use against us, to blame us for education’s (and society’s) problems, or to justify super-human expectations.