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How a Veteran Teacher Fights the Late Fall Slump

Before joining the corps, Justin Tressler worked as a therapist. Here's how he applies the principles of self-care to help get through teachers’ infamous fall slump.

Teacher helper assignments in a classroom.

October 16, 2019

“Yikes, I only slept six hours last night,” I thought one Tuesday last October, as I was getting ready to teach my first class of the day. As a trained therapist, I had come to Teach For America through my love of my clientsI loved the positivity and honesty that children showed during their therapy sessions. After transitioning careers, I knew that I would go through ups and downs, but I thought that as the years went on, the long stretch between October and December would get easier. As a fifth year teacher, I thought I would begin to build a resistance to the drag that was occurring, but I was exhausted, the days were getting shorter, and I felt like my work was piling high.

My experience is more common than you think. Many teachers, even veteran ones, will experience a dip in their performance, energy, and mood during the fall months. Research shows that often teachers will go into “survival mode," a period of time when they are simply trying to get through the day. As educators, we know the importance of our own health, energy, and mood in the classroom. Our students need us, and we need to be at our best. How do we do that? 

Self-Care Tip #1: Keep a schedule and stick to it.

I like to use different colors in my schedule. Balance is important to me. I use red for work, blue for chores, and purple for social events. I do this on Sundays so I have my week planned, and I can take a look at the balance I have in my life. Am I working too much? Is this a week I have a lot of social events? The most important part of this is to actually follow through. If I write an event down, it’s my way of keeping myself accountable for that workout, meal with a friend, or self-care night.

Self-Care Tip #2: Treat your body well.

We know that sleep is important, but do we get enough? I use an app called Sleep Cycle to track not only the number of hours I sleep, but also the quality of my sleep. It's difficult at times to get the amount of sleep I need, but being able to track my sleep gives me a sense of accountability. Also, never forget that we are what we eat. When I’m stressed, I turn to takeout or fast food. Not only is this not always healthy, it also costs a lot. Now I use a meal subscription service. I pick meals I will be excited to eat, and this gives me motivation to make them.

Self-Care Tip #3: Pick a time of the weekend to prep for the week.

I use Sunday afternoons to iron my clothes, meal prep, and get myself ready for the week. I pack my day with these chores, as well as one or two fun things such as reading or watching a TV show, to provide a nice balance. This balance lets me get all of my work done and have some time to myself to relax (I also can wake up slightly later than I would if I were to pick out an outfit!). It also keeps me busy, so that I ward off the Sunday Scaries.

Self-Care Tip #4: Take time for restorative activities. 

Many times, we think self-care consists of bubble baths and spending money on vacations. As a former therapist, I would describe self-care to my clients as something that helps to heal your mental, physical, or emotional state. It may be what gives you energy. For me, it may be reading a book, taking a walk, or listening to a record. Plan this time out each week (I use my color-coded schedule) to make sure it happens. Self-care can be by yourself or with someone you care about. I tend to select non-teaching friends for self-care time, so I am sure that no work talk comes up.

As a fellow teacher, I know how hard this profession is, especially during this time of the year. I would never anticipate someone to “Queer Eye their life,” in other words, change all of these things in a week. I do know, however, that if you begin to think about the helpful hints listed above, you will be well on your way to go from surviving to thriving.