It happened every year, generally in March for me. I'd find myself losing some of my energy in class, not quite as patient as I should be, and eager to get home and shut down at the end of the day. Teacher burnout is a problem that hurts both teachers and students. It also seemed inevitable to me and many others at some point each year. I love my job (as do most teachers), but it also means I always am adding to my 'to-do' list because there is ALWAYS more I could be doing for my students. However, when we don't take care of ourselves as teachers we are not doing our students any favors.
One of the things I find fascinating about the human brain is the presence of 'mirror neurons'. These are neurons that activate when we see someone doing an activity that make us feel as if we are experiencing the activity ourselves. Have you ever been so into a sports game that you feel like you are in the game? Or felt yourself wince in sympathy when you see an injury? Or wrinkle your nose in disgust when a character on a TV show smells something gross? This is because neurons in our head light up that make us feel as if we are experiencing what we are viewing. Scientists are still debating whether the purpose of these neurons is to help us understand the actions of others, or even the intent of others (or maybe both); but the implication I see for the classroom is that if we are passionate and energized, our students mirror neurons will respond in turn. However if we are burned out and exhausted, our students feel that too.
Interested in reading more about mirror neurons? Click here for an interesting overview.
How do we avoid burn out?
A question I've heard at several conferences or workshops is, "how do you have the energy to do TPRS all day every day?" Although the answer to this question is complex (and an important part of the answer is finding a TPRS style that works for your personality); there are other things that teachers can do to increase energy, and maintain a sense of calm in the marathon that is the school year. I finished this post a while back, and hesitated to share as this is a bit 'off topic' and health journeys can be personal. However, I saw enough personal benefits both for myself and my family that I wanted to share in the hopes that someone else will be helped. This blog is about a few of the things that I have done that have made major differences for myself both in and out of the classroom (diet changes, sleep, and small moments of calm).
SLEEP DOES A BODY GOOD
We will start with the 'easy' change which is more sleep. Your brain and body needs it! When we sleep our brains make connections, categorize and consolidate memories, and even get rid of chemical build up from the day time. You can read more about that here. Without enough rest our brain is not at its best, and you can't be either. When we sleep our bodies regulate hormones, repair tissue, restore energy, as well as other important functions we are only beginning to understand. I know that as teachers it can be hard to turn off the day, and I know that our 'to-do' list is constantly growing. However we owe it to our students and ourselves to make sure we sleep enough.
Which leads me to my next topic, breathing. As a teacher, it is easy to race from one topic to the next trying to get as much done as possible for students. However as we race around, our heart beats begin to race, and our breathing quickens. These pro-longed periods of stress put our bodies in a state where it is hard to slow down, which makes it hard to listen to our students in the ways that we should. It is hard to be in the moment when we are teaching if our body is still racing to finish a worksheet and run copies. It is also hard to have enough patience to deal with our most challenging students when our body is in a rushed state (and the most challenging kids are the children that need to see understanding, not frustration when they look into our eyes the most). This year our district sponsored Mindfulness training after school in the Fall. Though it was hard to give up my evenings to do the training (I had a 'to-do' list to accomplish), I am grateful that I did. Now I know the importance of paying attention when I feel my heart racing and breath speeding up. This can be solved with the simple presence of mind to do some deep breathing before moving on (and it can be quick too). Next time you are racing from one job to the next, or just before starting a class try the following:
1) Breathe in to a slow count of 4 through your nose.
2) Hold your breath for the count of 6.
3) Breathe out to the slow count of 8 through your lips.
Take a few minutes to do this simple activity next time you are feeling rushed (racing heart, fast breathing), and see what a few deep breaths can do for you! I even use this in the car sometimes when the volume of my children in the back seat is a bit much!
If you want to take 'breathing' to the next level try adding these 7 Simple Yoga poses to your day. Each combo takes less than 5 minutes. Starting by holding each pose for 3 breaths, when that is easy, add another breath while you hold the pose. I've added a few variations and done them for the last 2 years. I'm up to 16 breaths a pose, and definitely feeling stronger, and less achy.
Relatively speaking, the first two changes should help you feel a lot calmer and more refreshed. However, for us, those lifestyle changes were much easier compared to the food changes we ultimately made. Breathing and sleeping more helped us feel better, but changing our diets helped us in ways we never imagined. First a bit of history, to explain where these changes come from. It is a bit personal, but I share in the hope that my story may help you as well.
During college I started having severe migraines. For those that have never had a migraine, these can be extremely painful (as in worse than giving birth, or being poked in the eye by a bungee cord, yes I've had personal experience with both). For 10+ years I tried everything I could to get rid of the migraines. I saw different doctors and neurologists. Tried many preventative medicines and practices, including (but not limited to): yoga, acupuncture, cranial sacral therapy, meditation, and (my least favorite) injecting numbing medicine into the nerves in the back of my head to stop them from sending pain signals. This may seem extreme but I had extremely painful migraines almost daily, and without medicine (which made me very tired) I'd end up in the hospital. Migraines would last for a week, and I couldn't eat or drink.
At roughly the same time in my life my son developed a dairy allergy, and I read the book, "Brain Grain" by Dr. Perlmutter. The combination of these two factors caused my family to cut dairy, grains, and sugar from our diet. We gave up processed foods too (though yes we do cheat, more on that later). This felt like a small death in the family at first (especially as my husband is a chef, and delicious Kerry Gold butter) was a staple. The result of cleaning out our diet? We lost tons of weight without ever feeling hungry (I'm back to the size I was in high school). Our energy levels also shot up (again back to the level of energy I had in high school, which is helpful with 3 little kids to chase around, and 200 students a day). The shaky feeling I used to get with a headache if I didn't eat frequently disappeared completely. Best of all, the migraine medicine I was filling 3 times a month? I went 9 months without filling it. I still get occasional migraines, but it's usually when I've been cheating too much on our diet. The migraines I get now are still worse than a headache, but are not nearly as severe as they used to be. My son, who had severe eczema, now has clear skin. The positive changes go on and on. Changing our diet is the thing my family has done that has made the biggest difference in our overall health and energy levels. I highly recommend reading "Grain Brain" and "Brain Maker" both by Dr. Perlmutter, as great jumping off points for information on how to change your diet. In case anyone is wondering, no I do not know Dr. Perlmutter (though I did bug him with a question once or twice) and am not trying to push his products, I just found these books to be very informative.
So, what do you eat?
The hardest thing for us when we first started this diet, was figuring out how to fit the increase in cooking time into our schedules. . Generally our meals consist of one portion of healthy meat (more on this later), 2 or 3 portions of vegetables, and fruit. My husband jokes that the cashiers at the store always give him weird looks because of the high amounts of avocado and banana in his cart. There are a few shortcuts I recommend that make it easier to fit this diet into a busy schedule that I'll talk about shortly.
One way I've found to make eggs easier during the school week, is to make 'egg muffins' on Sunday, and store them in the fridge. It's easy to make enough to last the week. You can throw a variety of meats, vegetables, and herbs, into muffin trays, pour scrambled eggs on top of it, and cook in the muffin trays. These can be put in the fridge and reheated each day of the week for about 5 days. We limit cheese in our house (really limit it right now as my youngest is still allergic) but here are 12 recipes to get you started. It's also easy to get perfectly done hardboiled eggs by baking them in the oven when you don't have the time for egg muffins. Read about that here. Finally, for weeks when you just don't have the time to cook for the next week, cooking scrambled eggs on low in the morning usually only takes about 5 minutes. Keeping the temp. very low makes it possible to leave the pan (for making all important coffee) without burning the eggs. Dinner leftovers always work too and are a frequent flyer at my house.
My children and I use Planet Boxes which are stainless steel with compartments. These make it easy to pack a meat, a few vegetables, and a few fruits in lunches. Lunch is often dinner leftovers in our house, or a combination of dinner leftovers with some new fruit or vegetables to change things a little. During the right time of year, my favorite adult lunch is making a salad in a jar. Starting with dressing on the bottom of a mason jar layer in vegetables (tomatoes, celery, carrots, etc.) to get a nice level of vegetables above the dressing level. Add lettuce at the top, and store meat in a separate container. When it's time for lunch, shake the jar to coat your salad and lettuce, pore onto a plate, add your meat, and enjoy a fresh salad. If I make these salad jars on Sunday night, I can make 5 to last the school week.
Dinner usually consists of meat, 3 different kinds of vegetables and some fruit. There are a lot of possible variations here, especially as you look at what is available locally. I highly recommend the website NomNom Paleo for easy to follow, kid friendly recipes. The cookbook is great too!
What about those nights when you just can't cook?? We all have them, but if pizza isn't an option anymore, we usually opt for a pre-cooked chicken at our favorite grocery store. Combine this with some guacamole, veggies and fruit, and you can have a quick meal in minutes.
What about cheating? I've found that I can eat one 'non-paleo' meal plus one dessert a week and still not have any problems with my migraines. More than that and they usually come back, which helps me stick to my diet. When/if you start this diet, I recommend trying to stick to the diet as cleanly as possible for a month to evaluate how it makes you feel. If it seems like things are going well, slowly add a few cheats back in each week. Notice how they make you feel, and decide what works best for you based on how your own body reacts. A few of my favorite treats for when I'm trying to be good include:
Candied Pecans- Paleo other than the sugar, add these to raspberries and blueberries for a fruity treat that almost tastes like pie.
Banana ice-cream- Better than it sounds, and a great way to use up old bananas.
Liar Balls- Almost like candy but not quite.
Diet, sleep, and calming down with deep breathing, were the keys on my journey towards better health (although I did do a few other extreme things like learn to make my own make up and toothpaste, that is a story for a different blog post). This was a bit personal for one of my blog posts, but I my health problems made me miserable and held me back before I began researching a route back to better health. If this blog helps even one person find their way, it was well worth it!
On a side note, although I do have a Science certification, and did extensively research the above health choices, it's always a good idea to talk to a doctor before making big changes, especially if you have a history of health problems!
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.