Teaching is tough, both mentally and physically. So what can you do to ensure that you can sustain the pressure, while still enjoying life to the full? Omar Akbar has some strategies for you to try out…
As an ECT you are working more hours than you will ever work as a teacher. This means that your time for hobbies, kids, gym and so on is limited. You can, however, increase the time left for yourself if you make some small adjustments. For example, household chores can be done more cleverly; you could get yourself a dishwasher, pay for a cheap ironing service, or cook in bulk on the weekends. You could even switch to online grocery shopping to avoid spending valuable free time waiting in a queue.
If you want to keep fit – and I recommend that you do – but going to the gym takes up a lot of travelling time, remember that some of the most effective workouts e.g. HIIT, require nothing but your PE kit, an exercise mat and 30 minutes (and doing these at school before you leave for the day is usually not a problem). If you’re partial to an outdoor workout, then running is also practical as simply running from home and back cuts out the faff.
At the core of this, the key message is that as an ECT, try not to fall into the trap of allowing non-work time to happen to you. There is no worse feeling than realising you actually could have continued with a particular hobby, for example, but the time was accidentally wasted on inane chores/tasks. Plan your free time the way you plan your lessons.
Get some sleep
Lack of sleep takes a huge toll on the body and mind. Physically, in the long run, it can increase chances of impaired immunity, early ageing, weight gain, hypertension, and diabetes. You may read these and not feel any immediate threat, but you cannot ignore the more immediate effects of sleep deprivation which include irritability, forgetfulness and less efficient organisation.
Clearly, these are counterproductive to good teaching and you wouldn’t want your classroom practice to be adversely affected by something over which you have a good degree of control. Remember, there is nothing brave about ‘just getting on with it’ or ‘powering through.’ Hit the sack.
For a good night’s sleep, it is a good idea to avoid looking into a smartphone, or similar device, for about an hour before bed time. Melatonin, the hormone involved in sleep, is produced by the body during darkness, thereby enabling sleep at night. The blue-light emitted from a smartphone is known to decrease melatonin production, so in effect, you are telling your body not to release melatonin and instead remain alert. Not the best thing before bed time. Relax by reading a book using normal lighting lest you unwittingly snap at your subject mentor the next day!
When you begin teaching, you soon learn that going out on a Friday night is normally out of the question and during the last week of the winter term, you are literally forcing yourself to school. You cannot physically take any more. Or can you?
Teaching is a job that is high in what psychologists refer to as ‘emotional labour.’ This can be described as the managing of feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job.
In plain English, this refers to the way you feel when you’ve just had a challenging group who danced circles around you, and you practically had to staple your lips together (with the stapler you ‘borrowed’ from another classroom) to stop yourself losing your job by saying something you’d regret. There are countless examples of ‘emotional labour’ which you experience on a daily basis and in addition to being on your feet all day, much of why you are so tired is because of this.
There are two main reasons why an ECT should embrace exercise: Firstly, it reduces stress – thereby increasing your overall happiness, and secondly, because it gives you more energy. During exercise, endorphins are released which promote positive thinking, confidence, and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Not only do these effects continue on the days you are not working out, but exercise (ironically) gives you more energy overall: the more active you are, the more active you have the ability to be. A regular workout routine will keep you positive and energetic in the classroom as well as when working on your buns of steel. The NHS advises 150 minutes of exercise a week over 3-4 sessions.
As an ECT it is a good idea for you to have your gym gear to hand so you can squeeze in a session if you finish early one day, for example. Be flexible- the important thing is to get the work outs in, not the day or time of the sessions. Go easy on yourself and accept that a very rigid routine will be difficult to stick to.
Your mind and body take a beating from teaching so it is important that you don’t beat yourself up further by having a poor diet: last night’s pizza is no longer an acceptable breakfast. Instead, begin the day with a high carb meal that will provide you with the slow release energy needed to get you through to break/lunch time. Keep the coffee and sugar to a minimum as not only does sluggishness often follow the initial energy burst, but they are also known to increase anxiety. To increase your energy levels, instead pack your lunch box with green leafy vegetables to provide you with iron – an essential mineral in preventing fatigue.
To reduce the impact of stress, switch to foods high in antioxidants (antioxidants fight cell-damaging free radicals produced by factors such as sunlight, pollution and stress). Get hooked on berries, prunes, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, whole grain bread, kale, brazil nuts, fish, sweet potato, avocado and even dark chocolate – the list is endless. Diet and exercise are key factors in overall wellbeing and as these are almost entirely under your control, it is a good idea to maximise on these in order to oppose some of the negative effects that teaching will inevitably have on your mind and body.
Allow me to be direct: you will likely experience bouts of anxiety. The inner voice which constantly replays, questions, and doubts every part of you and your actions will at times become extremely bothersome. Firstly, remember that like physical pain, anxiety is more often than not temporary. You will most likely pass your ECT year(s) and your July-self will very probably look back at your December-self and wonder what all the fuss was over.
Notwithstanding this, it is important that you take charge of your mental health early on; the old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ couldn’t be more applicable. You may choose to practice mindfulness meditation or you may recite the prayer for serenity. You may rant on the phone to friends, or you may do all or none of the above. The important thing is that you make time to lose yourself in something you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be for long or even every day, but making time to actively switch off does wonders for your wellbeing.