Why Teachers Need to Put On Their Own Oxygen Masks First

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Why Teachers Need to Put On Their Own Oxygen Masks First
oxygen mask in airplane

One morning, I woke up and couldn’t move my arm.

It was a Sunday during early November of my second year of teaching. I had been told that the first year is the hardest, but this maxim was not proving true for me. I loved my kids. I loved teaching and watching myself and my students improve. But when it came to everything else, I was seriously struggling. Though I had barely any teaching experience, I took on several leadership roles, supervising and advising other teachers when I could barely keep my own head above water. Add to this situation a particular administrator (one I think I can legally describe using the word “tyrant” without it being libel) and, in a system where powers went wildly unchecked, I often felt powerless.

So that’s how I found myself in my bed that Sunday morning, staring at my arm, willing it to move, and finding I just couldn’t do it. I’m not a lazy person and am definitely not a late sleeper. I knew I had laundry to do. I had lesson plans to submit for my team before 4:00 pm. I had an intervention schedule to create. And though this was a relatively light day when it came to the work I did outside of school hours, these tasks felt paralyzing. Literally.

I know now that this bizarre and frightening incident was due to me taking on too much.

I know now that my body was telling me I was clinically depressed. I know now what self-care looks like and that self-care isn’t selfish or indulgent. I know now that our effectiveness as teachers relies heavily on how well we’re managing ourselves as people.

I didn’t know that then.



And I’m worried that not enough teachers know it either.

We live in a world that worships the idea of exhaustion, but doesn’t support the exhausted. We have commercials and advertisements glorifying families, but yet childcare costs are more than college tuition in 28 U.S. states. We love to say things like “motherhood is the hardest job there is,” and yet we are the only high-income country without a guaranteed maternity leave policy. Elected officials love to praise teachers and the hard work we put in, but the national teacher shortage suggests that supporting the needs of education and educators is far from being a priority.

In a world that doesn’t take care of teachers, we absolutely must take care of ourselves.

Around year three, teaching became much more manageable for me, largely because I switched to a much better district. But I was still struggling with the idea of self-care as a teacher. From Hollywood films to speeches made by my own principal, the narrative I kept hearing was that the best teachers are the ones who are up at school so late that the cleaning staff has to tell them to go home, who give up their Saturdays to hold tutorials every weekend and over spring break, whose marriages fall apart because of their commitment to their students, who have no boundaries between their professional and personal lives. After spending my first two years exhausted to the point of mental collapse, I began to doubt that this was the way it has to be for teachers.

And then I read this article, “They’re Teachers, Not Missionaries” by Amanda Kocon. The first line is this:

“No one goes into teaching to get rich. But they don’t go into it hoping to clip coupons and share an apartment, either.”

Though this article is largely about compensation, it shifted the way I think about myself as a teacher. The narratives that glorify the martyrs in teaching are damaging to our profession. Yes, I’m passionate about what I do. Yes, I see it as more than just my job. But nobody wins—not my students, not my own family, not me—when I’m literally suffering for the cause.

Which is why, when it comes to the crazy, turbulence-filled flight that is teaching, we’ve got to put our own oxygen mask on first.

Putting yourself first sounds gross. As teachers we’re programmed to put the needs of our students above our own, to go above and beyond the call of duty, and to remember that it’s all about the kids. And it still is. But putting your needs first doesn’t mean your students must suffer. It’s not sitting at your desk painting your toenails while your class erupts into chaos. It’s not looking into the tear-filled eyes of a kindergartner who needs you and saying, “I’m sorry, Josue, but I just really need some me time right now. Hope you understand.”

On the contrary, putting your needs first means respecting your students enough to give them the best version of yourself: a teacher with the energy and stamina to keep up with the demands of one of the hardest professions there is.

So, how do we do that?

Set boundaries.

Maybe this means saying no to being on a fifth committee. Maybe this means taking a year off from being department chair to catch your breath. Maybe this means deciding not to take work home and instead getting to school an hour earlier. Maybe this means not checking your work email after 7:00 pm. Whatever this looks like for you, know that setting boundaries is a responsible way of saving your energy for where it needs to be: the classroom.

Schedule self-care.

There’s a million different articles out there on self-care and how it looks different for different people. Whether self-care for you is a weightlifting class twice a week or meeting with a therapist once a month or having popcorn and wine for dinner every Friday (speaking from experience here), make it a habit to do things that make you feel powerful, rested, and special.

Practice relationship maintenance. Your support network also needs support. Do not let teaching destroy your relationships, or you will have nothing to fall back on.

Check in with yourself.

On some kind of regular basis, evaluate yourself honestly. How are my relationships? How is my mental health? How am I doing physically and emotionally? If you find you’re struggling short term, head back to the self-care and boundary-setting departments. If it’s long term, you may want to talk to a mental-health professional about your choices and your future.

We know with our students, it’s Maslow before Bloom’s. We need to do the same with ourselves.

We’d love to hear—how do you prioritize your own self-care? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, why we need to do more for teachers who are exhausted, stressed, and burned out.

Love, Teach teaches secondary English in Houston and blogs about the teaching life at loveteachblog.com. She can be found on Facebook or Twitter, and she has a book coming out in spring of 2020 about her rookie years of teaching . Watch for it!

Why Teachers Need to Put on Their Own Oxygen Masks First