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Undoubtedly, as educators, we have all had some sleepless nights. There is a never-ending to-do list that haunts our desks during the day. The attention our students require is mentally and physically draining. We teachers have every reason to be tired, but when our heads hit the pillow, we are often unable to get quality rest.
A study from the United States found that “43% of educators are sleep deprived, obtaining less than 6 hours of sleep a night.” I found these numbers surprisingly high, but knowing I was not alone in my sleep struggles was also comforting. Our profession perfectly exemplifies “so much to do with so little time.” So what can we, as educators, do during the workday to help ourselves rest better in the evenings? The average adult should get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Teachers, however, get an estimated four and a half hours of sleep nightly. This statistic is shocking to me; teachers rank third in industries that get the least amount of sleep, right behind healthcare workers and law enforcement. Considering that healthcare and law enforcement are round-the-clock professions, teachers are really selling themselves short when it comes to getting enough sleep.
I have been teaching for eighteen years, and honestly, it is difficult to remember the last time I got a decent night’s sleep. I am a self-proclaimed worrier, and I often bring work struggles home that should be left in the classroom. I check my work email throughout the evening to avoid the possibility of waking up to a nasty parent email or an email from the admin with a drastic change in the next day’s schedule. A classic one in my school is, “The internet is down; please plan accordingly for tomorrow.” In most cases, this means having to re-plan my entire day.
In my mind, if I know about the email before waking up in the morning, I will give myself some time to mentally prepare for the day ahead and come up with a solid response or plan. However, I do realize that living like this is not the best life plan and that I should be leaving the problems from work at work. But, unfortunately, my mind just will not allow me to do that. Instead, I battle thoughts and “what-ifs” while trying to fall asleep at night. If I wake up in the middle of the night, those intrusive work thoughts crawl back into my brain, and I am suddenly on an all-night thinking spree about work scaries. I often wonder if people in other professions live this way; after all, it is not an ideal way to live, and my rest is hindered more often than not. My mind never seems to slow down.
My lack of sleep hits me hard as a parent of two teenage boys. They are both very active in sports, and I am usually running them back and forth to practices or driving them to another city to participate in a game. I am doing all this while exhausted, compromising my relationship with my own children. I become frustrated with them quickly because I spend all day dealing with other people’s children. My boys’ questions become annoying instead of meaningful, making me feel like I am doing an awful job at parenting (even though they assure me repeatedly that I am a fantastic mom). The bottom line is I tend to let my job control my personal life, and I know this needs to stop.
What Can Educators Do at School for Better Sleep?
Here are some ways I make my workday more adaptable and achieve better rest in the evenings.
- Form meaningful relationships with parents. I could say this a thousand times over, and it will always be at the top of my list. When parents know their children are loved and well-cared for at school, controversies and nasty parent emails rarely happen. It took me years as an educator to learn this, but it is probably the best piece of advice in my arsenal.
- Leave work at work. Laughable as an educator, right? Trust me. I understand we are overwhelmed, and there are not nearly enough hours in our day. I also realize this skill comes with experience; hang in there if you are a young educator. You will not be bringing work home forever! Let it stay on your desk if it can be done tomorrow and is not pressing to your mental well-being.
- Plan ahead. As educators, we almost have to practice planning ahead to keep our sanity. Walking into a classroom full of children with no plan for the day is something no educator wants to experience. Even if your plan is loose, always have a blueprint in your mind of what you will teach and how you will teach it. I am to the point in my career where I have everything planned out a week ahead of time, which has considerably reduced my after-work stress and leaves more time for my own children.
What Can Educators Do at Home for Better Sleep?
I have a couple of tried and true rituals and routines that help me relax while I am at home and keep those intrusive work thoughts out of my head at night. Unfortunately, I am not a person who can easily relax, so this is a list that took me years to perfect!
- Put down the phone and stay off social media before bed. It’s no secret that social media hinders sleep. In fact, 80% of the population admits to losing sleep due to social media participation before bed. I was embarrassingly guilty of breaking this rule for a very long time. It seemed “relaxing” to me to lie down in bed and scroll through Facebook and Instagram when in reality, it was triggering. I would see a post bashing teachers or painting schools in a bad light and become furious - all right before bed. Needless to say, it poorly affected my sleep. Now I read before bed or just take a few minutes to shuffle through my thoughts for the day. That mindfulness has been beneficial to my sleep schedule.
- Prepare for the morning ahead of time. Educators have a pretty early start in the morning, and a mishap that sets you behind can ruin your day. One of the best things I have done for my sleep is prep for my morning the night before. I always make sure my clothes are picked out and ironed, my lunch is made and easy to grab, and I have any “extras” I need for work packed up and ready to go (because we are always dragging our stuff from home to use at school). Knowing I am prepared for the next day keeps my mind from racing when I get in bed to go to sleep and allows me to sleep more soundly.
- Include movement in your day. We teachers are tired. No, wait, we are exhausted. But moving or exercising can help alleviate sleep problems in a big way. I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of exercising, but I am a huge fan of moving. For me, this looks like walking around the neighborhood in the evening with my kids and dogs, taking a stroll down our local beach, or walking around the field while my kids are at sports practice. These are small movements but have had such a positive impact on my sleep cycle. Counting your daily steps can also be fulfilling; I make sure I get to 10,000 steps each day.
Are school districts helping? Some are. My district offers teachers a free medical clinic to help deal with things like stress and lack of sleep. Our weekly staff newsletter states, “Missing work or cannot focus because of stress, anxiety, or fatigue? Our employees can be seen for basic behavioral health needs at our employee clinic - with no co-pay or visit fee.” In my opinion, this should be a service available to all teachers. Districts need to understand the importance of educator self-care, and offering medical services for teacher burnout is certainly a step in the right direction. Since teacher shortage has become an issue, many districts are offering workshops or professional development to help ease the stress from classroom demands.
Districts and administration must also work towards streamlining meetings, dropping some of the testing requirements forced on teachers, and giving us back more time in our classrooms to plan meaningful lessons. Perhaps then we would not be bringing so much work home and could rest more completely once we got there. State leaders and legislators must understand the importance of fully funding education. Without appropriate funding, it will be nearly impossible to enhance teacher well-being at the local level. The burnout and fatigue teachers experience cause me to worry about the future of education. Will we even have enough teachers left in the profession to teach future generations?
While there is much that needs to be done systematically on behalf of teachers, there is still plenty we can do for ourselves. If your sleep struggles from teaching are getting to you, take active measures at home and school to slow down a little. Make yourself a priority. Realize that others are in your boat, and teachers all over the United States are struggling with the same issues. Teachers give so much of themselves to others that sometimes we end up empty. Self-care must be made a focus to continue ensuring that your cup is full; otherwise, it is difficult to fill the cups of our family and students.
About the author:
Ashley Chennault is currently a freelance writer and 4th-grade teacher in the small coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Ashley is in her 18th year of teaching and holds a master of arts degree in elementary education. In addition, she became Nationally Board Certified in 2020. In her free time, she enjoys her second job as an educational contract writer, boating, beaching, cooking, watching her teenage sons play sports, and spending time with her three adopted wiener dogs, Georgie, Henry, and Tripp.
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