#TeachersTakeCare: The Importance of Self-Care as an Educator

By Piikea Kalakau

To many, the idea of self-care is just another trendy term Millennials use to defend a selfish need for maintaining a work-life balance. While the term seems new, the concept of self-care is not; originating as a means of alternative medicine, self-care in the past has been recommended for professionals needing tangible methods to counteract daily stress, including first responders, social workers and more.  While almost anything can be considered self-care, ideas like mindfulness, paying special attention to one’s personal needs and wants, and prioritizing oneself are generally associated with the term. Here in Hawaiʻi, self-care can be as simple as stepping out of the office and taking a lunch break at the beach. Self-care can be as complex as learning a new skill. The main point of practicing self-care is to pay special attention to and maintain one’s physical, mental and emotional health--an idea often lost in the constant hustle of our current society. Skeptics consider self-care a fantasy both unnecessary and impossible to incorporate into one’s daily life. However, self-care is necessary in today’s world because of the rate at which we incessantly receive and digest information from all outlets.

While practicing self-care is beneficial for everyone, it is especially important for local educators because of how grueling the teaching profession is. Teaching is incredibly difficult, complex and important.  Finding efficient (and affordable) ways to uphold a consistent work-life balance has been essential to my success as a fairly new classroom teacher. When I became a teacher a few years ago, the transition from a traditional desk job that rarely required more than 40 hours of my time weekly to the literal never-ending tasks associated with being an educator was challenging, but I found that my ability to successfully prioritize and learn to completely stop working at times has helped me to sustain my career in education for at least the time being.

Summertime and the Living’s Not-So-Easy

Hawaiʻi’s teachers must balance the endless demands of this often thankless profession, unpaid overtime and addressing tasks beyond the scope of one’s personal control while remaining dedicated professionals. The reality is, educators are burnt out and grossly underpaid for their labor.  A colleague once shared with me that she calculated her hourly wage as an educator according to everything she does in a typical day and based off her current salary as a veteran teacher. She was appalled to find that she makes around $12 per hour molding the young minds of our future; a salary rate that took two degrees worth of schooling to reach. Now imagine just starting as an educator in Hawaiʻi, where the possibility of “getting ahead” in 2018 can seem slim to none.  Considering Hawaiʻi’s inflated cost of living and one’s meager salary coupled with a sizable benefits cost at the bottom of the DOE teacher pay scale, one may need to live with roommates or family for many years to stay afloat.

For teachers, the work doesn’t stop when the last school bell rings, or on holiday breaks.  Educators often take their work everywhere with them both physically and emotionally, constantly checking items on a seemingly never-ending to-do list during any free time, including holidays, weekends and most often, weeknights. We grade assignments, lesson plan, place hundreds of phone calls, send emails and text messages to our students’ homes in order to best support them. A teacher’s work day isn’t confined to our students’ 6-hour per day schedule as many believe, but realistically more like 8-10 hours (or more) per day, including summers spent planning for the school year ahead.

Teachers in Hawaiʻi are not compensated adequately or fairly for the professional services they provide to society, and this shows through our dismal retention statistics each year. Nationwide, we are seeing hundreds of thousands of teachers going on strike in demand of better pay, better overall treatment and better schools for their students. In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado, teachers have had enough and are taking matters into their own hands. No teacher wants to strike, potentially leaving their students without a hot meal for the day and compromising their learning. Striking teachers (and employees in general) simply have no other choice; the fact is, the labor force ceases to exist without the actual laborers, but we simply cannot work under these impossible conditions.  

Local teachers are struggling as a group because the profession is simply not sustainable for the average individual living in Hawaiʻi. If a candle is lit repeatedly, all day, for multiple days on end, it will quickly perish.  While teachers don’t usually tend to melt into heaps of burnt wax, the end of a school year or even week can often feel similar to a candle losing its ability to provide light to others. Each day, after our state’s teachers finish shining their light on our local students, many of them must continue on to other jobs in order to supplement their incomes and support their own families. This leaves little time for an educator to practice any kind of physical, mental or emotional self-care, which undoubtedly accelerates teacher burnout.

Mandatory Recharge

With all of these things in mind, educators should be encouraged to take the time to check in on their overall well-being through self-care techniques. In solidarity, schools could provide opportunities for their staff to decompress and check-in periodically, showing they prioritize mental health care for their employees. Legislators should advocate for the professional rate at which educators in Hawaiʻi deserve to be compensated.  Supporters of education could exercise their voting rights in support of measures that will help improve our schools, students and educators. Anyone who values a thriving society can see the value of investing in education in Hawaiʻi.

Given the myriad of issues local educators face in this profession, many successful, student-centered teachers are forced to find ways to create sustainability and balance within their individual lives in order to uphold lasting careers in education, which is not always possible, and force many to leave the profession all together. Teachers need to first care for themselves in order to care for others.  I can’t name a single educator who accepted a position in this field without knowing the job can be difficult and draining, but this doesn’t defend the fact that teaching is unsustainable as a career. If a business is recognized as unsustainable, it will eventually cease to exist, as it is economically irresponsible to continue working under those conditions. This same business principle applies to the field of education and its teachers.  

In order to prevent teacher burnout and create continued and long-term results, we must support individuals to pursue healthy balance in their daily lives and provide opportunities for educators to successfully manage the many overwhelming aspects of this important profession. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk once said, “A good teacher is like a candle—each consumes itself to light the way for others.” Local educators will continue to work relentlessly for our students and communities as long as we are able to.  For Hawaiʻi’s future, it is important that we keep the flame burning by supporting both our teachers and self-care practices.

 Piikea is a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher currently working in the Nānākuli-Wai‘anae Complex in Hawai‘i. She is a Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate from Waimānalo, Hawai‘i, Piikea received her BA in English from Hawai‘i Pacific University and her MSEd from Johns Hopkins University. Piikea has taught eighth-gradeinclusion English Language Arts and currently teaches seventh-grade AVID English Language Arts at Wai‘anae Intermediate School. During the summer, Piikea teaches P3 scholars through the PUEO program at Punahou School. She has previously served on the Makiki Neighborhood Board. Piikea’s work in education is fueled by her #WaianaeStrong students, her devoted family and her quest for educational equity in Hawai’i. Piikea is a Teach for America-Hawai‘i alumna.

Piikea is a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher currently working in the Nānākuli-Wai‘anae Complex in Hawai‘i. She is a Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate from Waimānalo, Hawai‘i, Piikea received her BA in English from Hawai‘i Pacific University and her MSEd from Johns Hopkins University. Piikea has taught eighth-gradeinclusion English Language Arts and currently teaches seventh-grade AVID English Language Arts at Wai‘anae Intermediate School. During the summer, Piikea teaches P3 scholars through the PUEO program at Punahou School. She has previously served on the Makiki Neighborhood Board. Piikea’s work in education is fueled by her #WaianaeStrong students, her devoted family and her quest for educational equity in Hawai’i. Piikea is a Teach for America-Hawai‘i alumna.