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How Teachers Can Practice Self-Care in the Classroom

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By Mathew Portell

Every aspect of being a principal is important, but many principals miss the key to creating true success in their schools: taking care of their teachers. Teachers are the key, and it must be on the principal to value and support them! As I mentioned in my first post here, my school has made many shifts in the way we focus on students' needs through being trauma-informed, but we have also begun to understand the effects of vicarious trauma on teachers and other adults in school. We must focus on ourselves, too, through self-care. 

Hannah Cotten is a remarkably gifted teacher of eight years, and she has served at Fall-Hamilton Elementary for the past two years. She works with some of our highest-needs students with patience and grace. She is a wife and caring mother of twin daughters. She gives so much to her students daily, but understands the necessity of self-care. I spoke with Hannah about her approach to self-care in the classroom. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity:

What role does the school community play in self-care?

I feel like self-care is not something that we can do by ourselves. Educators have to support one another. We have to be able to be there for each other when someone needs a "Tap Out." You have to be willing to drop your planning or whatever you are doing to support your colleague who needs it.

What systems within the school do you feel best support teachers?

I feel that Fall-Hamilton's "Tap Out" system is very powerful. I don't use it often, but it is nice to know that someone has your back. It is less a system and more the culture of our school. On breaks, it is not expected that you take all of your work with you and work yourself to the bone. It is expected that you take care of yourself so you can be the best when you are here at school. There isn't any competition here; it is understood that the best thing we can do for our kids is to take care of ourselves.


What tools and resources do you recommend to fellow educators that can help with their self-care? 

I definitely recommend the Happy Teacher Revolution and teacher support circles. Last year, I was having a hard time balancing the stress of teaching with my personal life, so I spoke to a therapist. I spent a few sessions with her and what she suggested that I needed is what we do with the Happy Teacher Revolution―participate in a support group of my fellow teachers who know what I'm going through. She explained that therapists commonly sit together and discuss the stresses of the job. Suddenly, along came a program that replicated that for teachers! We must talk about our stresses with other educators in a productive way.

What are some key ideas you would like to share with fellow educators when thinking about self-care?

I have four:

  1. Don't go it alone. You need support from other teachers. It is hard for spouses and friends to understand the stress you are going through.
  2. It is not selfish to think about self-care. If you do not take care of yourself, you cannot be there for your kids and give them what they deserve.
  3. Self-care is not always fun and pretty! It is not always a bubble bath or a run; it could be making a budget or cleaning the house. It is very individualized and you must understand what drives you.
  4. Create a To Be List, not a To Do List. Do not focus on a list of things you must do, focus on a list of things that help you be who you want to be.

Photo: Hannah Cotten works with a student on a sewing project in the classroom. (Courtesy of Mathew Portell/Fall-Hamilton Elementary)

Mathew Portell is the principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, and the founder of Ride for Reading, a nonprofit that distributes books via bicycle to low-income communities.

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