Five Steps to Rejuvenate Now & Build Habits for the School Year

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There is no doubt that the pandemic has has challenged all of us. It’s a circumstance most of us have never had to face, and the uncertainties that came with it proved stressful to many. You may have had to quickly learn a new digital platform or better understand features of an existing platform. You may have had to wear two hats as both teacher and parent overseeing your own children’s virtual learning. And, of course, you’re not only dealing with your own challenges but helping others—students, family, colleagues—manage their stress as well. Therefore, it’s important for all of us to plan ahead for a reentry and to spend time over the summer break building habits for self-care that will provide a sense of rejuvenation and carry us forward refreshed and ready for the new school year.

It’s been shown that chronic stress takes its toll on our mind, body, and spirit in the form of “allostatic load,” which refers to the cost of chronic or extreme wear and tear on our body, mind, and emotions (McEwen & Seeman, 2009; Schwartz & Pines, 2020). Allostatic overload occurs when demands on our internal resources exceed our capacity for coping, a situation many are facing during this COVID-19 crisis, which has fueled fear and uncertainty and placed extreme pressure on finite resources. Two of the consequences of this overload are poor decision-making and burnout (Markman, 2020).

There’s no Magic 8-Ball to see what lies ahead, but using small steps for self-care can help refill and refuel. By prioritizing self-care this summer, you can develop habits that will rejuvenate and prepare you for the upcoming school year. Here are five ways to begin to rejuvenate now as we transition into our schools and classrooms this fall.

Acknowledge Your Emotions

Recognizing and identifying how we feel allows us to decide what we want to do with our emotions. The simple act of acknowledging what we’re feeling can enable us to move on—for example, saying “I am frustrated by technology!” opens the door to a weekend digital detox. Find the physical or mental space to serve as a container for whatever you are feeling in the moment— a walk or vigorous run, writing in your journal, a visit to a park where you can sit quietly and reflect. If you’re someone who processes verbally, find a trusted friend and ask them to simply listen without judgment. In short, whatever you’re feeling, let yourself feel it.

Acknowledging your emotions is vital to your own well-being. Learning to do so regularly will improve your physical and mental health, and improve relationships with others as well. Matching the emotions to specific activities will also help identify what truly fuels or depletes you. Emotions are energy, and when we don’t attend to them, they gather more energy and could eventually lead to allostatic overload.

Self-Assess and Reflect

You have the skills to assess your students. Use those same skills for a self-assessment. Make a T-chart listing what energizes you and what drains you. Over the first week, focus on adding more items in the energizing column while looking at the list of draining items to determine if any of those can be delegated, dismissed, or done and checked off your list. At the end of the week, reflect on how things went. For each week that follows, consider different combinations of items.

For a more data-driven approach, take the VIA Character Strengths Survey to help identify your top strengths (VIA Character Survey, n.d.). Think about ways in which to leverage your top strengths, but also make note of your bottom five strengths, referred to as “shadow strengths.” These may be areas that would benefit from network and team support, or maybe these tasks under shadow strengths are ones you can let go of as you work to recalibrate.

Make Sure You Are Attending to Your Basic Needs

Juggling professional and personal life and optimizing how we meet our basic needs can be a challenge, but small steps can ensure these needs are met. Set aside time to sleep a little longer. Remember “quiet time” that you used in class? Set aside 10 to 20 minutes each afternoon and give yourself your own quiet time. Read a book or magazine, recline in the shade, or take a nap (see Center for Responsive Schools, 2017). A daily rest period helps reduce anxiety and stress and promotes immune health. It can also increase creativity and problem-solving.

How you approach your diet can also help you rejuvenate. Focus on food that makes you feel good and perhaps even supports local farmers or businesses. Capitalize on summer’s fresh produce to add healthy foods to your meals. Or push aside this summer’s diet du jour and enjoy a guilty pleasure. And always keep a water bottle handy and refilled. When we eat well, sleep well, and stay hydrated, our bodies fight inflammation and disease, and in general run better. And that leads to our minds and bodies being better positioned to face challenges and stress—and manage that allostatic load.

Put Self-Care Practices in Play Now So They Become Habits

Return to the self-assessments and then leverage those strengths and items that bring energy into daily and weekly habits. Make time for building habits that serve your well-being. Ask yourself questions such as what type of movement feels good, what calms your mind, and what spiritual practices help you stay grounded (see Fillion, 2020).

Making a practice become a habit can take 18 to 21 days, so starting during the summer allows time to practice before the school year begins (Clear, 2018). Some new habits to consider for a daily dose of rejuvenation include personal quiet time, a relaxing bedtime routine, boundaries on digital connection, or a date night by yourself or with someone you care about (see Tavenner, 2020).

If you don’t have a mindfulness practice, consider starting with a mindful walk or five-minute practice (Alexander, 2020; Stillman, 2017). Only a few minutes a day over a few weeks begins to change how the brain and body respond to stress. Listening and visually observing what is around you while noting without judgment will focus your mind and allow internal chatter to quiet down. Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, observe without judgment, and focus on your breathing. For external support, there are many mindfulness apps available. The Headspace and Calm apps are complimentary for teachers. The Insight Timer app has a free
version with several guided meditations.

Self-care during the school day is also important (Tygielski, 2019). In addition to a walk or meditating, consider connecting with a colleague, breathing exercises, finding a space for some alone time, or practicing a personal hobby during a break (Lynch, 2020).

Keep a Growth Mindset

Self-care is not a one-and-done task. It evolves over time and requires personal reflection to determine what’s working, what’s not, and what you need in order to feel energized, satisfied, and rejuvenated. Continue practices and habits started over the summer but remain compassionate with yourself, especially as circumstances change. Build on what works and continue to reflect on what you need to manage your stress as well as the secondary stress that educators often absorb.

Not all of these self-care practices can be accomplished each day, but you can take small steps in self-care each day (see Feliciano, 2020). By being mindful of what you are feeling, what energizes you, and what structures are supportive, you will be able to make intentional choices for rejuvenation. And be sure to practice gratitude along the way—it’s important to serve others while honoring your own needs.