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The education frontline: wellbeing ideas for teachers

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

9 min read

As Britain enters the third week of lockdown, with settings and schools open on a needs basis only, the majority of practitioners are now in the unusual position of working from home. How is this affecting us and what can we do to promote our well-being?

Woman meditating with her eyes closed

The term well-being broadly describes the health and (to some extent) happiness of a person. True well-being is achieved by doing things that promote wellness not just in one sphere of life, but on all the levels of health: physical, emotional and mental.

As the normal stressors of the education world rapidly merge with home life, people are finding different ways to deal with their anxiety and adjust.

Lisa, a teacher and mother of two from Greater Manchester, is getting used to the new normal. "I am coping well, but I had to adjust at the beginning. The biggest issues I have struggled with is teaching children virtually with my own children in the house and being poor with new technology."

Another practitioner, Pippa, is struggling to switch off. "I am not sleeping well, which is very unlike me. The other morning, I fell asleep at 4am!"

At this time of change and uncertainty, focusing on our well-being becomes even more important. There are different ways to boost and protect your physical, emotional and mental health. While there isn't a wellness recipe to follow, there are key principles and tools to apply which really do work.

  • Be kind to yourself
woman stood still holding her hands over her heart

Practising self-kindness and self-compassion does not come naturally to many of us. We are used to giving out to others and it can feel alien to re-direct accepting and loving attention inwards. However, learning a new way of being doesn't have to be complex.

Compassion researcher Kristin Neff offers accessible and simple "self-compassion breaks" through guided audio or written exercises. She advocates showing yourself understanding and acceptance, particularly in the moments when you don't live up to your own expectations and standards.

According to Kristin, "having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others".

Offer yourself some kind or compassionate words or a soothing gesture, like placing a hand on your heart. As humans, we are wired to respond positively to caring touch or words, even if it is coming from ourselves.

  • Make exercise a habit
Teacher wearing headphone and exercising in the living room

There is a reason we are all advised to exercise regularly, and even more so during lockdown. Exercise makes an enormous difference to our mental health and gives us a sense of control and freedom over our lives.

Whilst you can make promises to yourself that you will exercise every day, the chances are you will find excuses to miss it out. Just as you schedule your normal teaching calendar to organise your workload, you should do the same with exercise.

Don’t feel you have to dedicate a whole hour to every session. Following high intensity cardio workouts for just 20 minutes is more than enough. Online classes are hugely popular – try out The Body Coach for a quick and sweat-breaking session!

And if you hate exercise? Try dancing!

Research has shown that Zumba programmes can improve blood pressure and triglyceride levels, while other studies have linked aerobic dance with better weight management.

  • Build in routine and repetition
Teacher organising her calendar schedule

Try to plan the activities that you enjoy ahead of time to stop the day from getting away from you. These might be things you enjoyed before such as reading, yoga or connecting with friends and family, or you may want to take this time as an opportunity to identify new activities such as cooking, running or meditation.

Year One teacher, Natalie, places value on routine and repetition. "I have made myself a routine so I tend to get up, do some yoga and then do a few hours of work, break for lunch, do a bit more work and then make sure I go out for a walk or a run for a change of scene.

I find regular communication with friends and colleagues throughout the day is good, as everyone is in the same boat. Then almost every night we have some kind of activity like board games or calls to friends and family and then bed at a normal time so we can get up the next day."

  • Be mindful of media consumption

A woman sat on her bed in a dark room looking at her Apple laptop

Media and social media can be a great way to connect with others and find out information. However, the things that we watch, see and hear can impact upon how we feel, think and behave. 

"It's really easy to get overwhelmed with the news and feel like you need to be constantly updated", says Oliva, educator and mother of two.

"We have decided to avoid the news during the day; we've switched off alerts that pop up on our mobiles and listen to music instead of the radio during the day. We still watch the news but only once in the evening - it helps us feel a bit more positive and means we are more present with our children."

  • Set daily boundaries and breaks
A casually dressed lady sat by a window drinking from a mug

For many practitioners, this might be ironic advice, particularly if you have your own children. Who has time for daily breaks?!

A break, however, is more of a symbolic pause moment. This may be a cup of herbal tea, but it also might just be locking yourself in the bathroom for five minutes and sitting on the floor scrolling through your WhatsApp messages. Focus more on intentionality, and the practice of making pockets of regular time for yourself, and less on what that break should look like.

Several educators are battling to create a start and end time for the day.

"I'm trying to give myself a set time to finish the day - otherwise it just seems to go on and on," reflects Lisa.  "What I find difficult is answering children's work out of work hours. I'm trying to sort my own kids out and I have to accept some days you just don't finish things."

Working in a new world with new rules means routine is temporarily thrown out the window. It is tempting to throw all of your energy into creating regularity and timing for the children and families you support. However, it is vital there is a start and end time to your own day, even if this is a mental boundary between giving out and giving in.

  • Practice breathing throughout the day
A bubble in the sky

Deep breathing is the fastest route to calming your nervous system and transitioning your limbic system from fight-flight to balance and calm.

Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm's range of motion - the lowest part of the lungs doesn't get a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.

Taking a minute (or less!) to stop and breathe can help you manage feelings of stress or tension as well as reflect on what needs to happen next. There are many useful apps which you can download for guided breathing exercises, such as Headspace.

One of our favourite supports is browser-based bubble breathing hosted by Calm, which you can keep in an open tab whenever you need it. Be warned: it is addictive!

  • Start a creative project - big or small - just for you
Green plant in a white pot on a brown wooden table

One of the downfalls of the word 'creative' is that so many people associate it with visual mediums, like painting, pottery or poetry. In reality, creativity is simply using a different part of your brain for free expression in a way that is meaningful to you.

To start, you need to let go of trying to make yourself come up with something creative. Simply turn towards what you already love and expand it.

Natalie is using some of her time to do what she enjoys. "I've created my own cookery website which has taken a lot of time, and a lot of cooking! I have also taken up gardening, so I am spending more time outside."

Don't have a garden and love gardening?

Simply take cuttings from different houseplants and grow your own. Anything that takes you out of yourself (in a good way) is in and of itself important - nature is by far the easiest route to that.

  • Take care of your mental health
Hand drawn rainbow

Whatever your current role in education or early years support, there are many tools and platforms to help you. However, sometimes we need to talk to someone objective or anonymous when things get too much.

Education Support is one of the free and confidential helplines set up to offer counselling for educators and practitioners. The organisation is open 24/7 with trained counsellors to listen and help on a variety of topics.

Another organisation, Hub4leaders, has published a helpful staff mental health calendar which can be printed or simply used on your phone to check in on your daily mental health and wellbeing practice.

Each calendar day has another tip for educators to try to reduce their workplace stress and improve their overall well-being. 

Still stuck? Why not use the stickers or post-it notes you have to hand to set your goals visually and position them on a wall near your workstation? Reward yourself each time you do something good for your mental well-being.

Goals set out visually on stickers and post-it notes


Practitioner wellness is even more important at this time of change and uncertainty.

All of us are faced with so many unknowns and the challenges of a whirlpool of emotions which come and go. We have lost the support of the physical staffroom and daily routines with colleagues. Childcare is restricted as grandparents are shielded and transitioning to virtual teaching and communicating does not happen overnight.

We may feel overwhelmed, unprepared, and emotionally fraught on some days. On other days we may experience boredom and frustration. Sometimes, it is simply the difficulty of juggling such new responsibilities in our work and home lives that get to us.

Well-being is different for each person, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Be patient with yourself. Like any other change that we may make, embedding more positive self-care strategies into your daily routine can take time. Be as consistent as you can whilst you make these changes and remember that some self-care is better than none at all.