Dear Dr. Kem,
I love the classroom and I love teaching — I always thought I’d work until 70. But in September 2020, there were so many changes coming down the pike from the Department of Education, and teachers were not being included in the decision-making process. We were scared, anxious, didn’t know if we’d be remote or in-person; and mandate after mandate kept coming. Decisions were made for us, without us, and we had to suffer the effects of those decisions without having a voice. It was the first time I started to think about retiring early.
I have spent the past two school years in a state of worry. I often wake in the middle of the night in a restless, uneasy panic. There is so much extra work now, but I cannot retire yet because my husband is retired and we need a full-time income. I need support.
With my health plan from the school, I tried to seek mental health services, people I could talk to. I went through all the steps — intake forms, therapist matching, initial interviews. After being turned away from a provider, who was matched to me, due to “scheduling issues,” I am still waiting to be connected to someone new. I decided to give up on this.
I used to practice self-care through dance classes, but the studios closed during the pandemic. I’m lucky to have friends and family I can talk to, but at the end of the day teachers are dealing with intense stress and tough decisions. We’ve faced low morale, feel exhausted all the time, and our needs have not been met. At this point, if the Department of Education offered something now, I’m not sure that I would use it. I’d ask myself, “What’s the catch?”
So, Dr. Kem, I’m reaching out to you with a few questions on my mind. After more than two years of being left out of decision-making processes in my district, how can I advocate for the mental health resources I need? Where else can I turn for these resources when it feels like I’ve exhausted all my current options? And, as the extra work keeps piling up, how can I carve out time for my own mental and physical health? — Ready to Retire
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Dear Ready to Retire,
Two things can be true at the same time.
For teachers, the last few years have been brutal with mandates and the loss of autonomy. Simultaneously, we learned how resilient and strong we are — because we had to support our students.
Collectively, we survived, you survived.
Teachers now are less certain they will work in the classroom until retirement. In March 2020, 74% of teachers said they expected to work as a teacher until retirement, but the figure fell to 69% in March 2021. In a study on British teacher’s mental health and well-being conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, one teacher described life in pandemic teaching: “My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open.”
Improve work-life balance by setting boundaries
To support your mental health, establish reasonable boundaries to create a better work-life balance. In my earlier years, a wise teacher told me you can either stay late, come in early, or take work home – but you cannot do all three. Choose one and stay committed to that choice.
I, too, struggle with setting boundaries. For example, in my school district we are mandated to check our emails twice daily. I, however, check mine throughout the day and on weekends because the expectation is teachers are always available. Are you checking work emails after hours and on weekends? We need to set boundaries around our actual work hours. Constantly putting out fires and being reactive to every message in our inboxes puts a strain on our mental health.
Overorganize and create automated systems to respond to your specific classroom needs. If you are struggling in an area where you find yourself working harder than the students, then you need a system.
As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time collecting work, sorting alphabetically, grading, subtracting points for late assignments, and then returning that work to students. Recently, I have begun to allow technology to change the way I process:
- Students submit time-stamped work electronically.
- I use the pre-loaded answer key to grade.
- Students get immediate feedback.
- The paper is returned as soon as the grade is released.
‘Find the good’ and find self-care that works for you
I understand your exhaustion. Early in my teaching career in the midst of a redundant professional development training with yet another “expert” non teacher, I started to have an “I’m sick of these meetings” temper tantrum. I was sketching on the handout and displaying aggressive body language. At the first break, my mentor looked over at me in all her wisdom and 2.5-magnification reading glasses. She took the notebook I was doodling on and wrote, “Find the good in everything.”
Her statement became my mantra. No matter how difficult teaching becomes, take time to find the good.
I also had a hard time finding a therapist and getting appointments. When I scanned the internet and ended up with a counselor who did not understand me, I decided there was even good in this experience. First, I learned that better was available. I knew what I wanted from therapy. I should not give up. Instead of accepting the first person the insurance company recommended, a family member suggested a therapist who matched my needs.
The techniques I learned in therapy were worth the hoops I jumped through to find a therapist who understood those needs. I was pleased with how my therapist helped me balance my doctoral studies, work, family obligations, and church commitments. The power to balance comes when you take time to find the good.
Ready to Retire, reconsider pursuing a therapist who is a better match for you.
In addition to therapy, make time for hobbies that can serve as affordable self-care options. I partake in the magic of journaling, which helps me manage emotional shifts because I can track my progress and growth, find inspiration, and achieve goals. I found helpful resources to manage mental health using a bullet journal on fellow teacher Nichole Carter’s blog. Like Nichole, when I read my older journals, I remember what I survived as a teacher, laugh at the mischievous antics of former students, and marvel at the lessons I have learned from them. Reflections remind me that I can continue to persevere.
There are also other self-care options such as taking a walk, playing music, gardening, and watching a great movie. During dark moments of mental exhaustion, I paint. Putting my thoughts on a canvas keeps them from racing at night when I am trying to sleep. When I realized people actually liked my paintings, I set up a website and sold them. I also use these paintings to decorate my classroom.
To retire, don’t wait. Plan ahead.
I also heard you say retirement is not available for you right now. Take comfort in knowing it will be. Today’s education landscape with the Department of Education’s constant testing mandates, strained parent and community relationships, local politics, superintendent turnover, and inconsistent administration make 40+ years in the classroom nearly impossible. My own predecessor taught for 42 years before she retired, but those days are gone.
Fortunately, other teachers have lobbied on our behalf and you will not have to spend a lifetime in the classroom, if you have a plan. Consider creating a money management map.
The steps to retirement planning start with contacting your school district’s teacher employee retirement specialist. In my state, the Public School Retirement System offers retirement webinars and can prepare a personalized retirement outlook. Also, check with your building representative about low-cost or free personal financial advisors and tax advisors.
Don’t forget to consider all of your options for healthcare coverage. Also, research possible additional revenue streams for after you leave the classroom.
Until retirement, I hope my response has provided you with some options for self-care and support through these tough times. Summer is an excellent opportunity for us to breathe and let go of whatever burdens we are carrying, regroup, and plan for the future. Find a studio. Find a YouTube video. Dance again.
Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.
If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Ready to Retire, please email firstname.lastname@example.org