Teacher self-care has become a popular conversation. But for educators—whose instincts lean toward selfless dedication to children—having a self-care routine can feel like just one more to-do list on the rubric of life.
That’s how LaQueshia Jeffries, a special educator and workshop leader for Prince William County Schools in Virginia, felt. As a military spouse, frequent relocations coupled with isolation in the classroom left her with a desire to connect with colleagues. She wanted to form a community around her profession and her passions.
Like many teachers, Jeffries observed for years the ways our education system fails to meet the needs of students, especially students of color and students living in poverty. And these students aren’t the only ones who suffer. Dedicated teachers often burn out or experience compassion fatigue when working with students who struggle to succeed.
Going Back to School
Jeffries wanted to find others who also felt passionate about interrupting these inequities and promoting better outcomes. The first step, she decided, was to earn her Master of Science in Education (MSEd) degree. She chose an online program through Walden University that was flexible and affordable enough to meet the needs of her demanding schedule and teacher’s budget.
Going back to school fueled Jeffries’ desire to merge the professional tool kit she gained from her graduate program with the real concerns and challenges facing educators. Simply put, she wanted to find other educators who shared her willingness to speak out about important issues facing students and educators today.
Gaining Confidence to Speak Up
Jeffries’s experience in her master’s program was the first step in learning to speak up about social change. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. As an experienced teacher, joining a program with flexible schedule options and a cohort of professional educators gave Jeffries confidence. Her new community offered her accountability, resources, and support. It was the first time in Jeffries’ career that she began to see herself as a valuable resource to others.
It didn’t take long before Jeffries felt empowered to make an even bigger impact. The job security she gained from having invested in her education was also crucial in making her feel as though she had permission to speak up on social media. She understands why many young teachers are concerned about rocking the boat. But after receiving her MSEd from Walden, Jeffries knew her worth and felt the risk would pay off.
“People are often afraid of speaking especially women,” says Jeffries. “We are afraid of retribution for talking too much and being perceived as not doing our jobs.”
And yet, she says, there shouldn’t be anything controversial about saying that students deserve better than the norms she saw. So, when she put her first video out on Facebook and started connecting with other educators on Twitter, many peers agreed.
“I’ve never had a network of female academics, let alone black female academics,” says Jeffries. When I began opening up about my observations and concerns on Twitter, I met others who talked about socio-emotional learning, social justice, and education as it relates to students of color and students in poverty.”
Eventually, Jeffries started a Facebook page for sharing videos where she reflects on how she’s working to make a difference. One of the biggest topics she discusses is how she meets the demands of her new role by focusing on unrelenting teacher self-care.
Taking off the Superhero Cape
Like many teachers, Jeffries has high standards for herself and her students, which began to cause anxiety. Rather than address her growing anxiety, Jeffries says she tied her superhero cape even tighter. She didn’t open up, and she never asked for help. She tried to be everything to everyone—an aspiration that teachers are both notorious for attempting and praised for fulfilling.
And so, one day, Jeffries experienced her first panic attack in the car on the way to work. Unable to drive, she pulled over and realized that she had to make a change.
Since speaking out on social media about her anxiety, she’s inspired other educators to take off their superhero capes. Jeffries began to document her self-care journey. Moving mental health and wellness to the top of her priority list has completely transformed her teaching.
“What if there are other teachers working in emotionally intensive areas of education, like special ed and poverty-stricken schools, who are also on the risk of burnout?” asks Jeffries, explaining her motivation for her transparency. “Let’s be real about it. We’re not doing the S on the chest thing anymore.”
Jeffries is now a sought-after keynote speaker. She talks about the role of teacher self-care in building culturally responsive and trauma-informed classrooms.
Practicing Teacher Self-Care
So what’s the way to avoid burnout and sustain your emotional well-being as a teacher? The answer, says Jeffries, is about body listening.
“There is a difference between being tired from a hard day’s work and experiencing despair, chronic pain, trouble sleeping, etc.”
Jeffries also recommends finding support—a coach, friend, doctor, therapist, yoga teacher, etc. She incorporates yoga and meditation practices into her own routines, both in the classroom and at home. She also developed a mindfulness resource, 21 Mantras for a Teacher’s Heart.
Finding Your Voice
Through graduate-level study, many teachers, like LaQueshia Jeffries, gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to speak up about important issues affecting their school communities. The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University offers a variety of affordable and flexible MSEd options. Walden is committed to connecting its students with nationally recognized education experts, policymakers, and scholar-practitioners who are driving change and influencing the future of education.