It’s no coincidence that back-to-school season is immediately followed by cold and flu season. As we are all now well aware, hanging out in enclosed spaces with groups of people breathing the same air is a surefire way to spread respiratory viruses. While, luckily, such infections are usually mild, most people would prefer to avoid the discomfort of getting sick and potentially missing work.
This holds especially true for teachers, who rely on being able to project their voices and have 20, 30 or more young people relying on their presence. There’s pressure to be “on” all day, every day.
HuffPost asked teachers what they do to try to keep themselves healthy at the start of the school year. Here are their tips:
Know that you won’t be able to avoid every virus, and stay prepared.
Maurice (“Coach”) Smith, who has been an educator since 2007 and is currently teaching in Los Angeles, told HuffPost, “I usually catch a cold/flu early to late September and it’s like clockwork.”
This wasn’t the case before he began teaching, however. “I may have caught a cold here and there before I started teaching, but catching the flu or stomach flu was rare until I set foot in a classroom. I absolutely believe that there is a direct correlation between the two.”
Other teachers also experience illness on a predictable schedule. “I tend to catch a cold at the beginning of the school year and again in the winter,” Matteo Enna, who is about to enter his 19th year of teaching kindergarten in California, told HuffPost.
This has changed since Enna’s first years in the classroom, when he experienced frequent illness, often as soon as school let out for a break. “It was as though my body was fighting against being sick while I was in class, however when there was any downtime in the school year, my exhausted body and mind would succumb to the illness.”
When the inevitable occurs, Smith said, he tries “to arm myself to be able to handle the illness once it gets to me” with nutritious foods, drinks and supplements.
Keep classroom air and surfaces as clean as possible.
A regular high school classroom can house 150-200 students every day; college classrooms sometimes have even more. It’s impossible to keep all germs at bay, but there are a few things that can be done to minimize their spread.
“In the classroom, we keep sanitizers and Clorox wipes. The students are pretty good with keeping their desk areas clean if we bring it to their attention,” Smith said. “We also keep air purifiers going in our classrooms at all times. It just helps with reducing the sneezing and coughing in general.”
Tracy Ramage is an assistant teacher in a high school special education classroom in Delaware. She will be “masking as the school year begins and students are coming back together.”
“I usually find my chances of getting sick are much higher at the beginning of the school year than at the end,” Ramage added.
Teach and model good hygiene habits.
As always, kids need to hear you say it and then see you do it. This applies to coughing or sneezing into your elbow.
Ramage does “a lesson on germs and hygiene at the beginning of the year” to give students explicit instruction in classroom expectations.
For elementary teachers, handwashing can be worked into daily classroom routines. Teachers can show students how to properly cover their mouth and nose when they sneeze or cough. Smith mentioned one such technique: “dab when you sneeze.”
Try to get enough sleep and exercise.
Getting the grading done and clocking seven to nine hours of shut-eye every night are often mutually exclusive for teachers. Being on top of things always seems to mean feeling exhausted. But adding even 30 minutes of sleep to your night (by, for example, not taking your phone to bed with you) can help you feel more rested and ward off illness.
“It is important to make sure you get enough sleep. Also, meal planning is important so you don’t end up skipping meals or eating unhealthy,” Latoya Rowlette, a high school English teacher in Maryland, told HuffPost.
Exercise in moderate doses has been found to prevent respiratory illness —though, again, it can be hard to make time for it without sacrificing some sleep.
“At the start of the school year I take steps to boost my immune system by getting adequate sleep, eating healthy and managing stress,” Ramage said.
Sleep and exercise are part of Smith’s prevention, too. “I usually go to bed around 9 p.m. and I’m up at 5 a.m. to start my school day. I play basketball regularly for cardio and I do pushups and box for strength training,” he said.
Over the summer, Enna adopted the habit of rising early to go to the gym and setting an earlier bedtime to allow for it. “Going to bed earlier has helped sustain my energy throughout the day,” he said, adding, “I leave my phone out of reach so I am not tempted to scroll aimlessly until I fall asleep.”
Take measures to prevent burnout.
If you’re a first-year teacher, you’ll be exposed to more germs than ever before — but your stress level may actually be the thing that brings you down.
Burnout “is actually more of a pressing issue for a new teacher,” Smith said, and “can lead to getting sick as well.”
“I find that I start getting sick around the middle of the school year. That’s when teachers start getting fatigued,” said Rowlette.
Smith recommended starting the year with the right mindset to avoid both burnout and illness. “Back to school season is the time to get organized both physically in the classroom and mentally. We must be fully prepared because even the smallest issues can lead to burnout by spring,” he said.
For teachers, self-care can actually be a form of caring for students, too. Enna has been learning jiu-jitsu, which he describes as “a humbling experience” in which “you have to embrace the fact that you will struggle.”
“Having this new perspective has strengthened my ability to teach,” he said.
On a smaller scale, Enna said, “one thing that has helped over the years is using a few minutes after class to sit in my chair and rest my eyes. This form of mindfulness allows me to relax and reflect so that I can proceed in my day with more energy and focus. I also tend to play music (hip-hop instrumentals), which creates a chill environment as I prep for the next day.”
Taking time to re-center and rest doesn’t mean neglecting students. “Students need us to be fully present in our daily interactions with them. Being tired or ill will impact those moments, the same goes for being healthy and mindful,” Enna said.
When teachers burn out, that impact spreads throughout the school community. “A lot of teachers who don’t practice self-care don’t last long,” Rowlette said.