5 min read

How to prioritize mental health as a virtual teacher
Educators, what are you doing for yourself? It’s been a rough few years living in a pandemic and all the resulting challenges. Don’t forget to give yourself some love.

When the topic of mental health comes up, educators often think about their students and their own families and want to make sure everyone is feeling okay. Anyone in a profession where people care for others — in this case, making sure learners feel connected, engaged, and learning in class — often thinks of their own wellbeing last.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we talked to two educators — Melissa Snyder and Lori Serratto — who both teach classes on Outschool about how to reduce anxiety and stress and increase resilience. Both also are licensed counselors. They shared some recommendations about self-care that are good reminders for all of us.

Notice and respond to how you feel

Pausing and noticing how you feel can help you be intentional about your decisions, Lori says. She likes to use a feelings thermometer with learners on Outschool, where green is happy and comfortable. As each color progresses up the thermometer from yellow to orange to red, so does the intensity of uncomfortable emotions.

Lori asks learners what activities are on their “green zone” list. This means: What can you do to make yourself feel more calm or happy? Or, “is there one little thing I can do to take care of myself and maybe reduce that stress?”

Doing something you enjoy and can easily concentrate on brings your heart rate down and back to a more peaceful place, Melissa says. What you enjoy might include playing music, doing puzzles, walking in nature, baking, or playing sports. If you start to tune in and respond to your emotions regularly, you’ll have more success with keeping yourself in a calm space instead of becoming overwhelmed or stressed.

“Things that bring you joy should be part of your every day,” Melissa says. In fact, she puts self-care activities in her planner. Otherwise, they may not seem important or get done.

When you’re anxious or stressed, you might consider skipping or reducing caffeine, Melissa says. She knows that this message is a tough one to hear since many people love their coffee.

“A lot of teachers exist on coffee to get through their day,” she says. “It doesn’t cause anxiety, but if you’re stressed or anxious already, the research is clear that it makes it worse.”

She also advocates for reducing sugar intake, again particularly if you are stressed or anxious, since eating refined sugar or carbohydrates can make anxiety worse.

Set limits

We only have so much time, and remembering that can help us be more intentional in making decisions, Lori says.

Be choosy about what you do, she says. “It’s okay to set limits and say ‘no’ to things you don’t want to do… If it’s not a [heck] yes, it’s a [heck] no.”

Yet, it’s a balance, she adds, and sometimes it’s important to do something that is meaningful for another person.

Pick small goals each day

One of Lori’s top tips is to choose one to three goals to help you be intentional each day. Ask yourself,

“What’s one tiny little thing I can accomplish that would make today great?”

Often we have a lot of parts of our day that go well and one part that doesn’t go as well. Then, we tend to define our day as a “bad day” and that can lead to burnout, Lori says. “Define your day as a ‘great day’ even if you had a little bit of the bad thing too.”

Get moving

Melissa recommends people take regular breaks to move in some fashion, whether dancing to a song at home or going for a short walk. Note: She intentionally doesn’t use the word “exercise.”

When we move, we experience beneficial changes in our brains, including an increase in the protein BDNF, or brain derived neurotrophic factor, which is important for cognitive functioning and can help alleviate depression and anxiety.

“When you move, you will be able to think better,” Melissa says. There’s so many things we can’t control, she says, but this is one we can change today.

Be brave

Lori tells the learners she teaches to “push yourself to be brave and try hard things.” This can make you feel nervous or excited, she says. Lori also wants educators to think about what makes them feel excited:

“Ask yourself: What would it take for you to wake up each day and feel like a 6-year-old on Christmas morning? … What would you be doing that would have you waking up with that kind of excitement?”

She knows every day won’t actually be like that, but asking yourself that question can reveal some aspirations you may not have realized you had.

Trying new things can build confidence, Lori says. “We don’t build confidence by sitting back. We have to ‘do the thing.’”

Model caring for yourself

If you adopt these self-care practices — plus seek support from others and look for things to be grateful for — and find daily joy, you are also modeling preventive care for learners and others you care about too. “Your children will take care of themselves as well as you take care of yourself,” Melissa says.

“I get classes that are off the charts with anxiety. If all the kids are anxious that day, my heart rate starts to increase. I can feel it through the camera. I have to remain calm because it calms them.”

Find more ideas to improve your health and well-being and support other educators in their wellness journey by joining Outschool’s Wellness Group for educators on Facebook and watching for live educator events throughout the year.

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