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Prioritizing Self-Care in Practice

Lecturer Jacqueline Zeller discusses the importance of educator self-care and ideas on how educators can incorporate it in their professional lives.
Stressed teacher at desk

Being an educator has never been an easy job, especially not in 2020. With many straddling in-person and remote learning, it’s vital that educators take time to practice self-care. This, according to Lecturer Jacqueline Zeller, can help prevent burnout and create school climates more conducive to learning.

“Self-care isn't just good for the educator, but also for the students. Understanding that link between self-care and professional effectiveness can really help people understand it's not selfish,” Zeller says. “It helps educators think more objectively about situations, keep more professional boundaries. It helps us set good examples for our students.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Zeller shares ideas for educators on how to incorporate self-care into their professional lives.


  • Become more self-aware and mindful about what makes you feel good. Is it physical exercise? Is it being outside with nature? Is it breathing? Is it connecting and nurturing relationships, whether it be personal or professional? Is it gratitude practice?
  • Plan activities ahead of time to help nurture yourself.
  • Practice self-compassion. “It’s been a hard year trying to balance everything that’s going on,” Zeller says. “As educators, we are trying to be kind to others and also to share some of that kindness with ourselves.”

Disclaimer: This piece is meant to be solely informational in nature.  It is not meant to provide professional care or recommendations. This piece includes general considerations, but people should contact their own providers for individualized advice and recommendations.


Jacqueline Zeller

Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast.

2020 has been an especially difficult year for educators. Harvard lecturer, Jackie Zeller, is a licensed psychologist who has long taught educators how to integrate self-care and wellness into their professional lives. Self-care can help educators prevent burnout, interact more effectively with students, and can even create school climates more conducive to learning. Educators have faced so many challenges this year as they straddled in-person and remote learning, and many who dealt with personal losses. I've heard the term self-care in many ways for a while now, but I wanted to learn more about what self-care actually means for educators.

Jackie Zeller: Self-care, I think especially for educators, includes caring for ourselves so we can best care for others. I really like Lopez's definition of self-care because she talks about the importance of self-care activities being proactive and planful to support integrated wellness. She talks about the various aspects of wellness, including mind, body, and spirit, and also, she connects it to both our professional and personal selves. I like to think about that definition as grounding when I'm thinking about self-care.

Jill Anderson: Now, is this something that is hard for educators to do?

Jackie Zeller: Many of us who go into helping professions might have a tendency to focus more on others, sometimes at the expense of ourselves, and so it can definitely be a shift for some people for a variety of different reasons, including upbringing or just what we're used to in terms of our practices, to prioritize self-care, but it is really important to do so.

Jill Anderson: What have you been hearing from educators about how they're getting through this year?

Jackie Zeller: Certainly, burnout is not a new challenge in the field of education. At the same time, I've been hearing that this year has certainly presented unique challenges. People are coping with loss of loved ones, concern for loved ones who are at increased risk, loss of jobs, loss of just so many of our daily routines that really fuel us and connected us that are no longer in place at this time. I think, at the same time, educators are really trying to support students who are often experiencing similar concerns in addition to other challenges, some that have been standing before the pandemic and some that have been exacerbated during this time and others that have presented new challenges because of the current time we're in.

I also think due to the increased awareness about advocating for equity, which is so important. To do so effectively, it really requires a lot of self-reflection and often challenging conversations. Self-care is really important to sustain educators who are advocating with students and their families for social justice. Then this is a time where many educators are navigating remote schooling as teachers, while also trying to balance their personal responsibilities, which can often include remote schooling their own children. This remote schooling has required all of us as educators to be nimble and adapt to new technologies and methods of teaching in really a relatively short period of time. While I think educators understand the need for remote schooling, at the same time, some are really missing the in-person interactions with students, some of the hands-on and play-based work they were able to do before, as well as just the sense of community that they felt when they were walking through the hallways of their school building.

At the same time, some educators feel that through online platforms they've been able to learn new tools for teaching, reimagine how they're teaching different content, and have the ability to collaborate in different, meaningful ways as teaching teams. As challenging as the times are, they've also afforded new opportunities as well.

Jill Anderson: What does self-care look like, and how does an educator go about finding what works for them?

Jackie Zeller: Self-care is a very personal thing and what works for one person might not work for the other. It's really not one-size-fits-all. One thing to keep in mind is that it doesn't need to be overwhelming or expensive. It can include preserving time to have a mindful cup of tea or coffee, or even changing into more comfortable clothes at the end of a workday, or taking a walk outside in nature, even pausing before you start a new activity and taking some slow, deep breaths to just be mindful with what you're about to engage in.

People can look at different categories of self-care activities, such as physical, emotional, and social, for example. They could see what activities they feel really recharge them or fuel them and where they feel that they could use more self-care activities to feel better as well. One thing I think that's important to note is self-care really shouldn't just be an emergency response plan, and certainly there are times where we have this increased level of stress and it might feel more that way. It should be planful and proactive and something that you could really integrate into your regular daily activities and feels doable.

Jill Anderson: I love that you mentioned it shouldn't be something that you do as an emergency response. Knowing that we're heading into a school break for a lot of people, is there a way to use these breaks to recharge and reorient and come back, I don't know what the word would be, a little bit more ready or emotionally prepared?

Jackie Zeller: I think in general with vacations, each of us might differ in terms of how we use vacations and how we're able to recharge over that time. It might be more difficult to recharge over vacation time for some people more than others. It's really important to be self-aware of what balance works for each individual. As I said, self-care is such a personal thing. To the extent that educators can plan ahead activities that will refuel them would be wonderful, so that it doesn't get to the end of the break and then they feel that they haven't taken any time for themselves in ways that will recharge them, whatever that means for them as an individual.
Particularly this year, it's even more important, probably, to be plan full for a couple of reasons. One, I think teachers likely need it even more this year, and secondly, because some of the usual ways that we might use break or many educators might use break, such as traveling or seeing loved ones that we're not able to usually see, might not be allowed at this time. We might need to think creatively about how to nurture ourselves under these more unusual circumstances.

Jill Anderson: If you're an educator and you haven't practiced self-care, or you have and maybe haven't found something that works, how do you know when self-care is working?

Jackie Zeller: Well, I think it goes back to that self-awareness. I'll start by saying it can be hard, if someone isn't used to practicing self-care, to get into that routine. Like I said earlier, we all have different upbringings, and again, in the helping profession, we might be more oriented to thinking about others, and so I think reminding ourselves that self-care isn't just good for the educator, but also for the students. Understanding that link between self-care and professional effectiveness can really help people understand it's not selfish. I mean, it really is helpful. It helps educators think more objectively about situations, keep more professional boundaries. It helps us set good examples for our students. For those of us who supervise, for our interns, it's important. It's important for longevity in the field for people who have been teaching for a while and for people that are just coming into this field.

I think it's really important for all those reasons and I think if you're trying to experiment with different types of self-care, you can think about those different categories we spoke about, be really self-aware and mindful. What makes me feel good? Is it physical exercise? Is it being outside with nature? Is it breathing? Is it connecting and nurturing relationships, whether it be personal or professional? Is it gratitude practice? There are so many things that can be helpful for people, and I think building awareness of when somebody feels like they've nurtured themselves and feel happy and fulfilled and what has helped with that is one thing, and then being willing to try out some things that we know are helpful often with people and see does that work for me as an individual.

Jill Anderson: So many people, we already know, leave teaching within five years. I'm wondering about the role of school leaders and how school leaders can help support educators' self-care and wellness.

Jackie Zeller: I just want to begin by acknowledging the incredibly difficult responsibilities and decision-making that school leaders are engaging in at this time. While I think it's always important for school leaders to practice self-care, I think especially now it's so important given the unique challenges of this time. I think we're all part of the environments in which we're embedded and building communities of care can be a really important aspect of promoting wellness, and school leaders set an important tone for the school context and culture. When school leaders recognize the importance of educator self-care and how it can benefit not just the educators, but also students, they can begin to start considering ways to reinforce communities of care in their schools to be, again, proactive. These caring communities celebrate and value diversity, they cultivate these caring and inclusive environments so that educators feel respected, they feel they can share ideas and concerns and feel that there's a team mentality, so when educators need feedback or support, they feel that they can have that from the team.

They can also set examples by incorporating gratitude into their routines, reaching out to someone who they think might need support or encouragement, acknowledging the efforts, especially this year, of educators and other school staff. School leaders, they can protect time for professional development on the importance of self-care. This is something that I've definitely noted an increase in requests for in recent years, and that was even before the pandemic. They can also offer partnerships or activities with organizations connected to self-care and wellness, such as yoga or other physical exercise. They can offer mindfulness-based programs for educators, advocating for health care benefits that also cover mental health care and making sure folks are aware of confidential services that can be offered through employee assistance programs, for example.

Like I said earlier, I think leaders modeling and encouraging that work-life balance is also helpful. Making explicit some boundaries and reasonable expectations can be particularly helpful this year because so many of the physical boundaries that we're used to having, such as focusing mostly on work when we're at work versus at home, are now eroded because of the pandemic. I think naming the challenges of this unique time and the different responsibilities we're all attempting to balance helps normalize these feelings and allows for some of these challenges and potential ideas to be spoken about in a more open way.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering if self-care is traditionally a part of educators preparation, or if this is not often something that you see in teaching programs and that type of thing.

Jackie Zeller: As we discussed earlier, there's been an increased awareness of it. It's become embedded in many of the professional ethics. I think there's more research showing that when educators can better regulate their emotions, it really benefits their classrooms and their students and their relationships with their students. I think that in addition to what makes sense intuitively, there's a growing body of literature that's also talking about this in terms of professional effectiveness and how it's connected to our ethics and how it might be built into curricular recommendations.

For example, even though this is the first year teaching a course specifically on this topic, this is something that I've talked about in classes that I have taught over the years because it is something that I think is hugely important and comes up just even as educators are developing their professional identities and trying to figure out how am I balancing this role with other aspects of my life and how will I continue to balance my professional self with my personal self once I graduate, once I start working, and so forth. So for all those reasons, it's very important.

Jill Anderson: If you could do one thing today to help with your self-care, what would you suggest?

Jackie Zeller: I'm hesitant to prescribe one thing because, again, I think it's so individualized, but I guess if I could say one thing is showing self-compassion. It's a hard year, people are really trying hard to balance everything that's going on. Yes, I think as educators, we are trying to be kind to others and also to share some of that kindness with ourselves. Secondly, and I know I might sound like a broken record here, but to take time to really plan ahead what some activities can be done that will help nurture one selves during the upcoming break and then also going forward once break is over so that it can be incorporated and doable into their routines once everyone's back in school in the new year.

I just want to say thank you to all the educators and school communities for just rallying and trying to do what's best for students while trying to balance all these multiple demands of public health and trying to keep people healthy and safe. It's really, really appreciated.

Jill Anderson: We all echo that here, probably, at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thank you so much, Jackie. I think you have some really great and useful tips here for educators who may be trying to get on that self-care path.

Jackie Zeller: Thank you so much, Jill. I appreciate the invitation.

Jill Anderson: Jackie Zeller is a licensed psychologist and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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