Getting Sick Sucks: How to Plan for Self-Care at School
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This is SUCH an important topic because one of the ways you can prevent yourself from falling into the overwhelm trap in the first place is by taking important steps that will PREVENT you from getting sick in the first place, and help you to recover faster if you do get sick.
Also, I wanted to give YOU an opportunity to tell me what you’d love to hear featured on this podcast and in this blog.
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All right, let’s dive into today’s topic.
Now believe me, I know and understand how busy this time of the year is, and that’s why it’s SO important that we have this conversation now: so that I can show you ways that you can plan for how to integrate self-care into your every-day teaching so that you don’t get sick and then have to plan for a sub when you are already so overwhelmed and exhausted.
I am all about working smarter, not harder, and being super-well planned and prepared so that you can focus on what’s really important – those kiddos – because it’s only by planning to take care of yourself while you’re teaching that you can continue to be the best for your students.
I learned this the hard way.
I remember one morning in particular when I was going to be teaching art to 4th grade that afternoon, but I was so sick that my principal took one look at me and told me to go home.
Seriously. I was such a mess – I was sneezing and coughing all over the place, which of course is not good for anyone, especially the kiddos I was teaching – but I figured that as always, I could just power through it.
But when my principal saw me, his words were not merely a suggestion – he looked a little disgusted by me and was literally sending me home, probably because I looked like death warmed over.
But here’s the thing - I wasn’t prepared for a sub.
So, I spent the next hour and a half, sicker than I care to ever admit, trying to figure out how to adapt what I had planned for that afternoon for a sub, and I literally left only minutes before she arrived.
It’s seared into my memory because planning for a sub was the LAST thing I wanted to do when I couldn’t even think clearly with a fever.
It was in that moment, when I was hunched over my desk, trying to figure out sub plans with a 103 degree fever, that one of the more experienced teachers peeked into my classroom (but still keeping her distance, probably because she heard my sneezing and because the longer you teach, the more you develop a kind of super power Spidy-sense for being able to avoid sickness) and asked what on earth I was doing here when I was so sick.
When I explained, she shook her head and again, told me to go home – but then she said the magic words that I will never forget and am eternally grateful for:
“Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”
What? I couldn’t believe it – how could she possibly be able to plan my lessons for me when she didn’t even know what we were doing?
Well, it turns out that she had already prepared entire lessons and activities before school even started that year exactly for the moment when something like this happened to her.
That was the day that I began to understand one of the key differences between those amazing teachers who seemed to always be filled with boundless energy and positivity, and those teachers who were barely just getting by and barely surviving.
These amazing teachers were actually taking very practical and smart steps to take care of themselves, to prepare for moments just like this one, so they could go home and get the rest they needed when they needed it.
Because they were taking care of themselves by being so well prepared, they were able to rebound faster and with far less stress.
Not just this, but it turns out that it was many small and very practical things that these teachers were doing to take care of themselves at school so that they could continue to be an amazingly positive, uplifting spirit for everyone around them.
That day was the beginning of my non-formal education about how to take care of myself so that I could continue to be that amazing teacher for my students.
I want to protect you from ever getting to the point of hating teaching because you feel like you have nothing left to give, and from ever experiencing having to plan when you too are that sick.
Here are 5 very practical things I learned to do to purposely plan for self-care WHILE I was teaching to keep me full and happy for those awesome kiddos who I was responsible for:
Purchase some sub plans AND create a sub binder - when you are healthy.
Seriously – if you haven’t done this yet, please do it this weekend.
You really can’t afford to NOT do it. I know you’re busy, but you will always be busy. Also, you do not realize how fortunate you are to have TPT in your lives.
When I was teaching, we relied on each other in the building to help each other when we were sick, but today, you can literally go onto TPT and purchase quality sub plans for your grade level for between $8 - $12 , or you can invest in a larger, awesome package of 10 days of emergency sub plans for less than $40.
So, please go ahead and invest a few hours this weekend in putting together a sub binder (I’ve linked to one that I’d recommend for 1st– 5th grade here) that outlines everything a sub will need to know to be successful in your classroom, and to purchase and print some quality sub plans for your grade level.
You will be SO grateful that you have this all prepared BEFORE you get sick or have to miss a day of school because in those instances, you will already have plans ready to go that you can grab and use at a moment’s notice.
Just one more word of advice – as you do your planning each week, there are often enrichment activities that are really cool but that you don’t often have time for that are suggested in your curriculum in different subject areas.
What I started to do was to keep a file of these enrichment activities for each subject area, contained in one larger hanging file labeled “Sub Plans,” so that I could also supplement my sub plans with any of these activities if I needed to.
I would literally photocopy and prepare each activity as if I were going to teach it to my class, but then tuck it away in the sub file for when I might need it later. That way, I had lots of extra sub plan activities I could use throughout the year.
Wait to Start Your Master’s In Education:
The second self-care tip in the big picture of things is to suggest that you wait at least a year, and preferably two years, before you start your master’s in education.
I was only teaching half-time in my first year and so I decided to also start my masters, which is something I would recommend you NOT do – especially because I ended being offered a full-time position at that school later that year, and then I was completely overwhelmed.
I know, you likely want to get your masters as well – my listeners & readers are real go-getters and if you are interested in doing your masters, I know it's because you only want to be the very best teacher you can be and that you want to get to the top of your pay range as soon as possible, I get it.
However, please trust me on this one – I was so sick that first year almost every weekend because I was too busy trying to do all the things and do them perfectly – so if you’re thinking of doing your masters, please wait until at least your second year – and your third year if possible.
By the way, I also had to change grades my second year of teaching, and that thrown into the mix, which I only found out about in August, by the way, can make the year especially challenging.
There is just SO much to learn in the first year or two of teaching anyways that one of the kindest things you can do for yourself and NOT burn yourself out is to wait to start this second huge commitment.
Protect yourself when your kiddos get sick:
Okay, so let’s talk about more of the day-to-day practical tips and tricks you can do to practice self-care while you are teaching.
Another big reason that so many teachers get sick – especially in the first few years and especially when we are teaching such young children, is because kids get sick so often and so easily, and of course, we are outnumbered. 😳
Even though we try to teach kids to use tissues and hand-sanitizer, I can’t tell you how often a little boy or girl has come up to me, nose running and with languid eyes, clutching my long skirt and burying their faces into it – and suddenly I become a walking germ cesspool. Right?
You don’t want to turn kids away because they’re so cute and they need you so much that it’s really hard to say no when they are sick and really want a hug.
So, here’s what I learned to do – a brilliant little trick that worked wonders in my own classroom.
I found this adorable, GIANT teddy bear at Costco that had weighted paws, so when you hugged him, it felt like he was hugging you back.
He was named Oaf, and I told the kids that he was here to provide comfort whenever they needed it, especially when Mrs. Friesen was busy.
I explained that Oaf LOVED hugs and that he would be so happy to receive their hugs whenever they were sick, or feeling sad, or just needed to tell somebody a secret.
You wouldn’t believe my kids’ reaction to him. It was absolutely adorable.
First thing in the morning, my kids would sometimes skip straight over to him, where he lived in the reading corner (he also made a very comfy snuggle buddy when reading), and give him a giant hug, and whisper in his ear.
I would give anything to know the secrets that Oaf had gathered over the years, but it was my students’ private place where they could go for comfort any time they needed it – well, within reason, of course.
During breaks throughout the day, kids would wander over to him to give him a little hug, or just to pet his huge head.
When they had an argument or when they wanted to tell on somebody about something, I suggested that they first tell Oaf all about it and see if they could figure out a good solution.
It was so cute – kids would go over and have entire conversations with Oaf sometimes. 💛
This worked especially well in 2nd grade, but even when I taught 4th grade, I had Oaf in my classroom, and even though the kids wouldn’t talk to him in the same way they did when they were little, they still went over to give him hugs and to lean on him when they were reading.
And here's the best part - when kids were sick, Oaf got a whole lotta love. I explained to kids that when they got sick, Oaf would love their hugs because he couldn’t get sick, but that if they hugged me, there was a chance that I could get sick and not be able to come to school. They really didn't like subs very much so of course, wanted to avoid that – so Oaf worked really well to divert germy hugs away from me.
And yes, I took Oaf home nearly every weekend in a giant plastic trash bag so he could have a deep soak bath in my washing machine.
That way, whenever my kiddos were sick and craving comfort, my clothes stayed relatively clean and germ-free, and Oaf took one for the team. Not only did this save me from getting sick as often, but he really did become a fantastic source of comfort for my students. 💕
Prepare in advance for weather:
All right, this is an important one. You are likely going to be on outdoor supervision during all kinds of weather throughout the year, so it’s worth thinking ahead of time and being prepared.
Also, sometimes the temperature inside the school can fluctuate quite a bit, so it’s important to be prepared so you can stay comfortable throughout the day.
I would highly recommend that you keep a warm black or gray or neutral-colored sweater or fleece at school, as well as a change of clothes for when you get glitter, glue, paint, puke, or pee all over you. One of these at least will happen to you at some point, so you may as well be prepared.
You just never know what’s going to happen - I had a girlfriend whose pants split at school one time – no joke – and thank goodness she had an extra sweater that she could tie around her waist until she could change into the extra clothes she had stored at school!
Also, keep an extra pair of comfortable shoes and socks at school in case that glue or paint gets dumped on your shoes. Ask me how I know about that one!
Finally, keep an umbrella, rain coat, and rubber boots at school for unexpected rainy days when you are on supervision that you forgot about. Then, just keep all of these supplies in a bin behind your teaching station so you have them on hand whenever you need them.
By the way, even though we are talking about teacher self-care right now, it’s also a great idea to keep some extra clothes and shoes for students on hand as well. I used to visit garage sales and second hand stores to find extra comfy clothes for a boy and a girl my students’ age so that I had them on hand for any emergency! Parents will absolutely love you for this one!
Prepare a self-care kit just for you:
There are so many little things you can gather to keep at school that you will likely need at some point and really be grateful that you had.
Here’s a list of what I would keep on hand in your self-care kit:
First, lots of cough drops (you may be surprised by how sore your throat may get during the first few weeks of school because you aren’t used to talking so much), some ibuprofen, some Tums, a nail file, band aids (you also might want to invest in some super cute bandaids because I’ve found that when kids have a little owie, a fancy band-aid can often help you avoid a trip to the nurse), tweezers, extra hair ties, eye drops, mints, hand lotion, nail clippers, Chapstick, and a mini sewing kit.
I created an awesome little Teacher Self Care Checklist that you can download and print for the next time you head to Target or Walmart this week. I know you go there at least once each week – we all do as teachers!
My husband used to joke that he needed to work to support my teaching habit, but it’s kind of true. I know how much you’re already probably spending on your classroom, but it isn’t going to cost you that much more to add these items to your list, and once you have them, you will be prepared for any emergency – it’s so worth it!
Once you gather these items, just be sure to keep them in a box or small bin in your locked filing cabinet or somewhere out of reach of students. The last thing you want is for students to get their hands on a bottle of ibuprofen!
Also, if your school allows it – I would invest in a Keurig or electric kettle & lots of tea (again, you will likely either lose your voice or it will get really sore in the first few days because you will be talking much more than usual!), and finally, keep some semi-healthy snacks that don't need to be refrigerated in your filing cabinet for those days when you just need a quick pick-me-up.
So there you have it! Five simple and practical ways that you can plan for self-care throughout the year WHILE you are teaching.
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If you have any teacher friends who are in their first few years of teaching, please share this blog post with them so that they can support each other in staying positive and healthy throughout the school year.
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On that note, I hope you tune in next week because we are going to talk about something else that I really struggled with in my first few years of teaching, and that might be a challenge for you, too:
We’re going to talk about practical, actionable ways that you can cope with Sunday night anxiety. Yes, it’s a real thing, and if you’re experiencing this, I want to help you to overcome it.
I hope that you have a fabulous week, and remember that just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one! Bye for now!
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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