Teacher wellbeing: Five lessons from the experts
The National Health service (NHS) in the UK recognizes five steps to mental health and wellbeing. When I first came across them, I was struck by how simple the advice is and also how appropriate it is for our profession. The steps are based on evidence and the NHS claim that trying these things ‘could help you feel more positive and able to get the most out of life’. In this blog post I’ve summarized each point and added a personal note about my own experience in each area.
1. Connect with other people
Good relationships are important at all times but now, more than ever we need to find and offer emotional support and share our experiences. With some people living under restrictions of movement, face to face meetings aren’t always possible but we can still speak on the phone, chat online or have video meetings – and we should make an effort to do this.
Me: I’m not a huge fan of parties and social events so being on lockdown had its upside for me. Earlier in the year I turned down invitations to Zoom quiz nights and gatherings. I appreciated how others might enjoy them, but I didn’t think they were for me. Then I joined an online book club, and everything changed. We read a book each month and meet online to discuss it. What a joy it turned out to be. At the time of writing this post I’ve attended two meetings and I’m looking forward to the third. It’s important to find the right group but if it doesn’t exist, there’s nothing to stop you from setting it up.
2. Be physically active
Besides the obvious health benefits of physical exercise, evidence shows that chemical changes occur in your brain when you get moving and that they can have a positive effect on your mood.
Me: I’ve never enjoyed team sports, but I do enjoy walking and swimming. Earlier in the year when movement was restricted, I spent much of my free time on the sofa reading or watching box sets. I felt sluggish and uninspired. When we were allowed to go out again, I went for a long walk and it felt so good that I knew I had to prioritise walking in my daily life. It’s very easy to make excuses not to do exercise but I countered each of my own excuses. I bought waterproof clothes, so the weather conditions didn’t stop me. I started getting up earlier, so I had time before work. You get the picture. Now I’ve been walking daily for about five months and feel wonderful for it. Everyone needs to find the activity that suits them. When you find it, it’s liberating.
3. Learn new skills
The NHS recognizes that this is important as it raises self-esteem and gives you a sense of purpose. I couldn’t agree more. As educators we already knew this, of course. New skills could be anything from cooking to using computer software. In fact, many teachers have been forced into learning new skills as they move online to teach. It’s probably a good idea to stop and reflect on this and to feel proud of what you have achieved.
Me: I had to give this a bit of thought. Isn’t it funny how we seldom stop to think about what we are learning and how we are progressing? Here are three new skills I’ve learnt recently:
- I’ve learnt how to take cuttings from soft wood plants – no mean feat.
- I’ve learnt how to make my own water biscuits and crackers. It’s easy!
- I’ve started to learn how to use some free design software for diagrams and simple posters. It isn’t easy for me but I feel pleased with my progress.
Again, everyone has to think about their own interests and what might be a useful skill in their lives. It’s a great feeling to master something new though.
4. Give to others
According to the NHS this helps give you a feeling of worth and helps you connect with people. They suggest doing small acts of kindness like helping a neighbour or supporting a friend in some way. As educators many of us already do this, especially those of us who collaborate on projects or work in teams.
Me: I’ve been doing voluntary work for many years, so this step was easy for me. Besides the good feeling that you get when you know you are helping others, volunteering can be a rewarding learning experience. I’ve also made some really good friends in this way. As educators there are lots of ways we can give to others. ‘Time’ is perhaps the most precious gift of all. Check out Teacher Associations in your area or join online groups to see how you can contribute to our profession. Your experience and expertise are invaluable.
5. Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness)
According to the NHS, mindfulness ‘can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges’. It is all about being aware of what is happening right now, about your thoughts, your feelings and about the world around you.
Me: I’ve always been interested in meditation and finding a way to stay calm amidst chaos. To me, mindfulness is something that is absolutely vital if we want to be at peace and live the best lives we can. There are lots of ways to be mindful. Here are some things I do that work for me.
- I have some ‘no screen time’ to rest my eyes and brain.
- I sit outdoors and focus on nature.
- I do something creative like painting or craft work.
- I work in my garden.
- I pick wild mushrooms in the forest.
The trick here is to find something that works for you.
Katherine Bilsborough is a ELT materials writer, public speaker and member of the collective ELT Footprint, which won a British Council ELTons award in 2020. She lives in Northern Spain