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5 Ways to Build Mental Strength as a First Year Teacher

Are you a first-year teacher drowning in work, feeling like you are being pulled in multiple directions, and struggling to find that healthy work-life balance? I totally get it. I've been there, and I'm guessing (well, I'm pretty positive) most new (and seasoned) teachers can relate to these feelings.

One of the things that I quickly realized during my first year of teaching was that the work was never done. My mind was always swimming with all that I needed to grade, prep and plan, who I needed to email back, what meetings I had to attend, etc. etc., etc.

While there are plenty of helpful tools and strategies for classroom management, and setting up classroom procedures and routines, what I feel often gets overlooked is the importance of mental strength.

Now, this is not to be confused with mental health. Mental strength is about emotional resiliency. It's about how we are able to cope with stress and challenges in a healthy way.

To a great degree, the way that we build mental strength is by facing something challenging or difficult. As we look back at the challenges and stressors throughout our lives, we can acknowledge what things we did well, and also work on ways that we cope with stress. Teaching sure provides a lot of opportunities to work on mental strength, am I right?

Here are several strategies that work well for me when facing challenging situations.

1. Ask, "How am I feeling?"

Ok, so in full transparency, this is one thing I've really had to work on with my therapist. I come from a family that does not do feelings very well. I've been one to suppress rather than acknowledge my feelings.

Being able to name our feelings is important. Are we feeling stressed? Angry? Upset? Motivated? If you're like me and can't even think of the words to use to acknowledge your feelings, this emotions wheel has come in handy. When we don't have the vocabulary to express our emotions, it can lead to heightened negative feelings and experiences because those feelings can't be described.

I remember having a tough morning at school, and because I couldn't quite name how I was feeling, I continued to ruminate on those negative thoughts. Things seemed to just slide downhill from there. Had I been able to acknowledge my feelings, it would have helped me tremendously in that situation, which leads to the next important point.

2. Practice Being Self-Compassionate

We are so hard on ourselves sometimes. From my own experience, when I ruminate on negative thoughts, I become even more critical of myself and my situation. Extend love and care to yourself so that you don't get caught in the feedback loop of negative thoughts. I know it's easier said than done.

Sometimes I will ask myself, "Who told you that?" And when I start sliding into that imposter syndrome, it helps to ask myself, "Would I talk to someone I really care about in this way?"

Five Ways to Build Mental Strength as a First Year Teacher

3. Just Do the Next Thing

Sometimes what holds us back is too many things to do. Maybe it's too many decisions to make or too many opinions from others coming at us from every direction. When we're overwhelmed, sometimes that just stops us in our tracks or we tend to procrastinate.

A teacher friend of mine reminded me one time that I just needed to "do the next thing." And then, do the next thing. Small steps all add up. They are cumulative (like grades!)

Another strategy that works for me when I'm feeling unmotivated is the "Power of Five." Author, Daniel H. Pink says, "squeeze out a little more motivation with the power of 5." I will tell myself that I will grade just 5 papers. It usually leads to the entire stack getting done. Or if I just don't think I can make it another day of teaching, I will tell myself, "What if I just did five more days and then reassessed?" Sure enough, I made it those five days and another week of the school year was check, done.

4. Keep a Journal

At the end of the school day, write down just three "wins" of the day. They don't have to be big things. Maybe it's seeing two students form a friendship. Maybe you made it through your entire mini-lesson without interruptions. Maybe you took time for yourself during your lunch period and actually just ate your lunch.

There's scientific evidence in the power of journaling--not writing to-do lists kind of journaling. I'm talking about writing down our emotions, subconscious thoughts, and fears. Journaling can boost self-confidence, has a positive impact on our immune system (those first years of teaching equal lots of sickness!), and can boost our sleep quality.

And when we are having an extra tough day, we can look back at that "smile file" and focus on the wins.

Five Ways to Build Mental Strength as a New Teacher

5. Create a Routine that Includes Boundaries

In the morning before the first bell, are you feeling scattered and can't seem to figure out where the time went? I'm totally speaking from experience here, because when I would get flustered in the morning, it would throw off my school day. I've found that when I had a set routine to follow before and after school, I was much more at ease, and the day would flow much more smoothly.

During my first year of teaching, I struggled with setting boundaries. I stayed late into the evenings and canceled with friends and family because I had to grade and work on lesson plans. It was not sustainable. I was exhausted and burned out.

My second year of teaching, I decided I was going to do things differently. Thankfully you don't have to wait until next year to do things differently. You can reinvent how you go about your day, right now.

I started by setting one boundary I could attain. I set an alarm so that I would leave at a decent hour. When I was staying until 7:30 or 8:00 at night, the thought of leaving at 4:30 was mind-blowing. So I started by telling myself I would leave at 6:30. Then I changed it to 5:30 and eventually I was able to leave right after contract hours. I was amazed at how much more I could accomplish when I had the mindset of leaving at a decent hour. I became more efficient by setting up systems like batching so that I could stay ahead.

By setting boundaries, I found that I had more time for self-care. I was able to add in exercise to my routine, and had time to make healthy meals at home, and I was able to enjoy time with family and friends.

And when I would start to slip into old habits, I had to remind myself that, "I can't pour from an empty cup."

One final thought...

You already have so much strength within you. You already have grit and tools to navigate challenges. If you don't already do these five strategies, it doesn't mean you aren't a good teacher. These are things I've learned trial by fire, and they are just a few things that work for me. Remember, you are a good teacher, and you are making a difference every day. You've got this.


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