By Teresa Cooper
I began working as a special education teacher almost eight years ago. I came into this job wanting to have a positive impact on the lives of children. Previously, I worked as a caseworker at a local Social Services agency taking applications for public assistance. I hated the job for two reasons: the applications came pouring in at a faster pace every year, and very few people got out of their rut, either because of lack of skills to get/keep a job or because they knew no other way to live. I wanted to help people and I decided that the best place to start was by becoming a teacher. I needed to begin helping people at a young age to learn skills, become confident, and compete in today’s workforce. I didn’t realize I’d need my own survival tips along the way to make it through my mission of helping young people–a how-to guide for surviving as a special education teacher.
I’ve collected advice along the way from mentors, colleagues, and friends for surviving this field of work. And it truly takes some adaptive skills to keep a caring heart and survive with your good health intact. Here’s my 10-point survival guide.
- Remember, it’ll all still be there in the morning. And you know it will. So if you’re tired, feeling worn, and you just can’t do anymore, leave it and go home.
- It’s not personal. No matter how much that kid tries to get under your skin, and sometimes our kids can get really skilled at pushing buttons, just remember that it’s not personal. It’s not about you (unless you make it about you).
- Talk to colleagues. You need the people around you for advice, for support, and, sometimes, just for laughs. When you lose out on that, it gets mighty lonely.
- Ask for help. I will say from experience that asking for help doesn’t make you weak at all–it takes a great amount of strength. If you need it, ask for it. Bunches of people will probably come to your aid. Thank them.
- Go to bed. You need sleep. Believe me. I cannot tell you how many mistakes I’ve made just from raw sleep deprivation. Your brain does not function properly without adequate rest. It’s like a computer that needs time to recharge and reboot. Allow it that or suffer the consequences.
- Take a walk. If your day gets stressful, find time to walk, even if it’s just up and down the hallway. Sometimes I take my students outside for a walk during our time before lunch to blow off some steam. It helps them and it helps me.
- Take time for yourself. Enjoy your life, or you’ll hate your work life. You do not want to harbor resentment toward your job and come in feeling that. You’ll rub that feeling off on the people around you and that helps no one.
- Pack and eat a good lunch. Protein, fruit, and a healthy grain. Vegetables if you can manage it. Take the time to eat something healthy. Food feeds the brain but it also feeds the soul.
- Meditate/Pray/Relax. Whatever you need to do to get some relaxation in, do it. If you need to take some time first thing in the morning to say a little prayer before you get out of the car, then do that. Sometimes taking a few deep breaths can center you and you can do that in the middle of class without anyone needing to know. The more you practice relaxation, the easier it gets.
- What doesn’t get done doesn’t get done. Sometimes the expectations we set for ourselves (or those set for us) get unreasonable and things just aren’t possible. Don’t make yourself sick, stay up an unreasonable hour, or otherwise endanger your own health for your job. It’s not worth that. If you cannot get it done, you cannot get it done. Just make sure you can prove you’ve been productive the entire time you’ve been at work and you can show your employer why it didn’t get done. You may find that help arrives the second you don’t get something done, especially if you’re usually someone who gets things done (this is not something I believed until it happened to me).
As someone who cares very much about her job, her students, and her reputation as a teacher, I must say that it’s difficult to keep to the standards I hold for myself sometimes, but my students mean everything to me. If I’m going to do what I need to do for them, I need to do what I need to do for me.
I can plan awesome lessons, hold my own with students with high emotional needs, and reach the struggling learner if and only if I’ve taken care of myself first. Only then will I create the inspired, self-sufficient students I hope to send out into today’s competitive workforce.