Prioritizing Self-Care for Teachers During COVID-19: Educators Weigh In

Photo: Teacher Rachel Swartz (featured below) walks through a park with her dog as a form of self-care. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Swartz)

We are coming up on one year since COVID-19 changed our way of life and the way we teach—and self-care is more important than ever.

As virus rates fluctuate, so do the ways that educators interact with students and families. Some schools are holding classes in person, some are holding them online, and in certain districts, you'll find a mix of both. In this ongoing pandemic, all approaches to teaching present unique challenges, and in stressful times, self-care for teachers is key.

Self-Care for Teachers

We spoke with educators who shared advice about why and how to keep self-care top of mind. Here's what they said.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Swartz Sixth-Grade Teacher, Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy (MS/HS 141), Bronx, New York

Swartz has gone back and forth between teaching in person and teaching remotely as COVID-19 rates fluctuated.

"Each experience created its own set of stressors, so I had to reflect and listen to myself. I've always been a big believer in unplugging from work the minute you leave the building (or now, Zoom). Those of us who love our jobs can sometimes get all-consumed in work and lose our sense of self, and I think it's important to make time to get out of teacher mode and focus on ourselves. Since many of my typical self-care strategies are no longer safe or possible, I decided to get creative. Instead of going out to eat, I learned to bake and cook some of my favorite dishes. In place of traveling or going to the gym, I explored local parks with my dog. Instead of going to the spa, I took bubble baths or painted my nails. In place of meeting up with my friends or co-workers, we got together in group chats or on Zoom. During any extra down time, I kept my mind busy by watching TV shows and movies. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it's that I needed to listen to myself and not feel guilty about slowing down. Ultimately, I practiced self-care by listening to myself, acknowledging my needs, and finding new, creative ways to meet them."

Hear how Rachel Swartz learned to recognize signs of bullying in her students on the Teachers in America podcast today.

Perry Hollins Fourth-Grade Teacher, Evanston/Skokie School District, Illinois

Perry Hollins has been working in a fully remote virtual setting since March 2020, but will be moving to a hybrid model mid-February.

"Although it remains elusive to the general public, we as teachers (are familiar with) the stress we endure and the time wasted absorbing misaligned, fractured, and too-often-broken policies and curriculum mandates. This emotional and mental toll has compounded under COVID-19, and so, if we are to show up and be what our students need, then we better make sure self-care is at the forefront of all we do. We owe it to ourselves.  

Since the initial spread of the coronavirus, I’ve been ending all communication—whether over emails, Zoom, or any other media platform—with the mantra 'Stay safe and be well.' I’ve created an acronym I call S.A.F.E. It reminds me of who I need to be, so I can continue to show up as that familiar, patient, and authentic person my students need during these anxious times.   

Simple pleasures  
Adaptable mindset
Family focused
Efficient workflow"

Katie Risolo Radovich First-Grade Teacher, Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York

Katie Risolo Radovich has been working in a hybrid learning model, with 14 in-person students and seven at-home students. There have been times when the whole class became virtual due to exposure.

"As educators, sometimes I feel as though we tend to be more inclined to put ourselves on the back burner to get work done. Oftentimes, many will bring their work home with them, and that takes time away from our families. I was guilty of being that teacher, especially when I was new at my school. But that has changed this year. I do not stay after my contracted hours, and as hard as it is to do, I try my best to get as much work done in school as possible, even if that means I have a working lunch. Outside of work, I have been making a point to get monthly facials. I signed up for a membership at a local spa, and I look forward to it every month. It’s a time where I physically cannot do work, and I try hard to keep my mind off of work things. In addition, my husband and I are taking daily long walks (even in the freezing cold)!"

LaNesha Tabb Kindergarten Teacher, Indianapolis, Indiana

LaNesha Tabb starts her day by teaching from her classroom to a virtual class of 40 students. After the first hour, the class breaks into smaller groups.

"I know, mentally, I have to stop at some point. Because we all know if you let a teacher work, she'll work until there's nothing else left. We never stop. We never, ever, ever stop.

For self-care purposes, I had to stop. And when it's time to go, I grab my bag and I go. I'm a wife, I'm a mom, I'm a friend, I'm a sister, I'm a daughter. They all want pieces of me as well. And I really hope that teachers can feel the freedom to do the same thing.

I get a lot of people who have said, 'I hear you say that, but it's so hard because it's not going to get done.' But what would happen if we all decided to take care of ourselves? What would happen if we all decided, 'You know what? No, I can't work until 8:00 tonight only to get up and be right back here at 7:00 in the morning.' What would happen if we all started to shift?

I encourage other people to start setting some more realistic boundaries and get that freedom. Go and do something after work. Take that time for yourself.

And remember, you're a person. We're teachers, but we are people, and we want to stay healthy, mentally and physically."

Listen to the rest of our discussion with LaNesha Tabb on the Teachers in America podcast.

Sharon Biava Fourth-Grade Math Teacher, Silver Lakes Elementary, Miramar, Florida

Sharon Biava started teaching during COVID with virtual learning before switching to a hybrid learning model in October 2020.

"One of the things I have been doing to promote self-care is to begin each day with a grateful heart. I have been going on daily walks or bike rides to clear my mind and enjoy fresh air and nature. I listen to upbeat music during my bike rides and walks. I have also been trying to eat healthier. I enjoy baking and bake cookies and cupcakes for the neighbors’ kids.

My advice for other teachers would be to remember that right now nothing is normal. I cannot do what I would do during a regular school year as far as delivering instruction. All I can do is try my very best to reach my students in every possible way that I can, have a positive attitude, and hope that positive attitude will reach my students whether they are virtual or face-to-face."

Learn how Sharon Biava adapted to virtual learning on the Teachers in America podcast.

CJ Reynolds High School Literature Teacher, Philadelphia School District, Philadelphia

CJ Reynolds teaches a virtual class from his laundry room at home.

"There doesn't seem to be any clear-cut end to the school day. I used to leave the building, and that was the end of my school day. Now you're always in the building. Kids will text you in the middle of the night. They'll email you at 1:00 in the morning about an assignment. So, it's really about having those boundaries and letting students know very, very clearly what time I am willing to engage and what time I'm not willing to engage.

And then when I'm doing anything, I'm only where my feet are. I'm only doing the thing that I'm doing. So, when I'm doing schoolwork, I'm not having a conversation with my wife. I'm not talking to my kids. I'm not doing Real Rap with Reynolds stuff. I'm only doing school. And then when I'm with my kids, I'm not checking my phone. I'm not texting someone else or looking up something else. I'm just with my kids playing video games or watching a movie.

That's been really important, too. When we started COVID, when that first quarantine hit, I just went off the rails. I was like, 'This might be the end of the world. Let's just eat cookie dough and drink beer all the time.'

And that had to shift, because I had to make sure that I was making good decisions, that I was still getting up early, still praying and meditating in the morning, still exercising, still finding things to learn and to do in the middle of our house. And that has been huge as well."

Listen to the rest of our discussion with CJ Reynolds on the Teachers in America podcast.

Bianca Cole Middle School Special Education/Language Arts Teacher, Woodbrook Middle School, Seattle, Washington

Bianca Cole has been teaching virtually since March 2020 and her district has a tentative plan to return to in-person instruction soon.

"I have a quote, or just something I tell myself so I don’t go crazy: 'Save it for tomorrow.'

I always try to get lesson planning, grading, and returning emails done all by the end of my work day, but it’s not possible! If I just “save it for tomorrow,” it keeps me from working into the evening. Most importantly, this helps me to keep my working and teaching boundaries separate from my home-life space, especially while working from home."

Learn how Bianca Cole and her son adapted to the new normal on the Teachers in America podcast.

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