February 27, 2024
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The Imperative of Self-Care for Educators

Teachers play a critical role in shaping the lives of our children. Teachers not only facilitate learning, but also influence a child’s social and emotional development. Today, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S. High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.

Forty-six per cent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. That’s tied with nurses for the highest rate among all occupational groups. When we have a shortage of nurses, pay goes up, conditions get better, and enrollment in nursing programs skyrockets. When we have a teacher shortage, pay should go up. It doesn’t. Conditions should get better. They don’t. And enrollment in teacher education should go up. It’s declining.

Teacher stress impacts teacher health and well-being, work attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction), and turnover. Teacher stress is linked to teaching performance and student academic outcomes. High stress levels are causing teachers to leave their profession, which causes instability among staff, students, and the community. In response, schools are hiring newer teachers with less experience, resulting in lower student achievement and significant training costs for schools.

There are four main sources of teacher stress: school organization, (leadership, climate and culture, job demands, work resources), support and autonomy in decision-making and teachers’ personal resources, and social-emotional competence. Much research and data has been published on this subject.

After a routine wellness check at his doctor’s office, Rabbi Shmuly [a pseudonym] gave a masmidim shiur that evening. While he was giving the shiur, his doctor called his wife and said, “Listen, make sure that the rabbi gets to the hospital as soon as possible. I tried to call him, but there was no answer.” Rabbi Shmuly described what happened next. “My wife left home and came to the yeshiva. I was in the middle of the shiur and the students were engaged, although I wasn’t feeling well. At some point, my wife said, ‘Excuse me, he has to get to the hospital.’ I argued with her, saying no, but she was very insistent and she shut down the shiur. I was admitted for five days. I was very sick.”

Educators often feel they most always “be on”. They may be experiencing difficulties, perhaps not to the point of needing hospitalization, but they may be in significant emotional distress, yet they feel they must carry on. They “do their duty” instead of taking care of their most basic needs. Even when counseled by a spouse or a close friend to take a break, they continue to work, even overwork.

What does the Torah say about that? Moses’ father-in-law Yisro said to him, ‘What you’re doing is no good. You will surely wear yourself out, as well as these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone, by yourself’ ” (Exod. 18:17,18,). This is an admonition about self-care. Being worn out is not good. Having no leisure time away from the classroom is not good. Burning out is not good. In contrast, loving yourself and caring for yourself is not only good but it is also vitally connected to obeying HaShem’s call.

Numerous studies have shown that engaging in self-care is crucial to the well-being of teachers. We also learned that educators experienced many barriers to engaging in self-care. These barriers can be internal, such as expectations of themselves, or external, coming from Board members or administrators.

“Our job is never done,” is a common complaint. As a result, this creates a situation where educators sometimes have trouble convincing themselves that they’ve done a great job, or done enough. Board members’ expectations also create barriers for educators to take care of their own needs. Schools may expect a teacher’s family’s needs to be secondary to theirs. Also, there may not be enough hours in the week to handle all your responsibilities and still find enough time to spend with your family. This lack of work-life balance brings more stress and then becomes a vicious cycle of guilt for not meeting either school or family needs.

One study participant wrote: “There is an expectation that the Board has of the teacher, that he/she is supposed to run programs as well as teach. ‘That is what we pay you for.’ ” Some of the older generation of teachers who earned minimal salaries had children who are bitter towards the field of chinuch and ended up having spouses who don’t want to be married to teachers. “ That person was hardly ever home and when they were, they were too tired or too busy to interact because the teacher became everything to everybody else.”

Another type of barrier to self-care is pressure from administrators about job expectations. One study participant shared: “As a young teacher you quickly learn you’re rewarded for doing, not being. And so, the minute you wake up, the pressure to accomplish, to do some measurable tasks so that the school would acknowledge that you were actually doing your job, is tremendous. It takes a lot of self-discipline to say ‘Forget that’ because the pressure is intense. ”

Burning the candle at both ends comes with a high price. The consequences may include burnout, depression, lack of motivation, irritability, and marital problems. One study revealed that, in the United States, burnout results in approximately 120,000 deaths each year. Conversely, research notes that engaging in self-care is associated with reducing heart disease, stroke, and cancer. It is not an overstatement to declare that practicing self-care may be a lifesaver.

What, exactly, is self-care? In its simplest form, the term self-care means, of course, caring for yourself. Hence, self-care includes any activity—physical, mental, social, or religious—that optimizes your health. In addition to days off and an annual vacation, the following list of daily activities culled from a variety of sources may enhance a teacher’s quality of life and improve work performance:

Learn to say no. You do not need to explain, apologize, or feel guilty. You have every right to make decisions about what you will not do.

Soften your no. Try using a “but” in your answer. For example, “I would love to help plan the class trip, but I made a commitment not to take on any new responsibilities this month.” Try, “That does not work for me right now.” It is still a no but in a softer form.

Get enough sleep. An adequate amount of sleep is a biological necessity for our physical and mental well-being. Most adults need seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night. Furthermore, to function at optimal levels, you need to rest, repair, and recover from daily stress on the mind and body, and a good night’s sleep will do just that.

Get regular physical exercise. Getting the body moving will increase your circulation, boost your energy, mood and cognition, reduce stress and improve overall performance. Suffice it to say, regular exercise and sustained productivity are closely linked.

Eat healthfully. Your food is your fuel; hence, eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for maintaining vibrant health and can help you feel more energized. Just as a car runs best with the type of gas the manufacturer recommends, your body needs the right kind of food to perform at its best. The junk food in the Teachers’ Room and vending machines should be avoided.

Laugh often. When it comes to relieving stress, more giggles are just what the doctor ordered. As a matter of fact, “a merry heart does good like a medicine” (Prov. 17:22). Furthermore, when you start to laugh, it lightens your load mentally. It also induces physical changes in your body, soothes tension, relieves pain, and improves your mood.

Self-care is not rocket science. It reflects one’s values and philosophy. Often it is caught rather than taught. But it can be a matter of life and death.


Rabbi Dr. Greene believes that self-care is a factor affecting the field of Jewish education and the ability to attract and keep teachers. Higher salaries would also help.

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