Before the pandemic, many teachers were already struggling to get enough sleep with early morning wake-ups, frequent after-school meetings, hours of grading and lesson planning, and competing demands from students, parents, and administrators.
Then came COVID-19. Victoria Drew, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher living in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, says she’s never slept well. But after the spread of the coronavirus forced her to switch to teaching online and in-person simultaneously, she could no longer ignore her sleep needs.
“I remember being much more exhausted,” she says. “My weekends included a lot of napping and sleeping in during that time because I felt like I was trying to ‘catch up’ on sleep to beat the exhaustion.”
She’s not alone. Recent studies indicate teachers who had to quickly adapt to COVID-19 and take on more work are struggling to deal with increased stress as well as symptoms of anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep.
Although school will likely be back in session in-person this year for Drew and many other teachers, quality shuteye won’t necessarily be any easier to come by.
Worries about the Delta variant, unvaccinated students, and at-risked loved ones linger on—and that’s a lot to manage on top of the usual stressors.
Keep reading to learn more about the unique sleep issues teachers face and ways you can begin to get better sleep if you’re an educator.
Teachers and sleep deprivation
Running on too little sleep was a problem for educators well before the pandemic. According to a 2008 study by Ball State University, 43% of teachers often sleep less than six hours each night, and over half of them feel themselves nodding off on the job.
In a work environment where the risk of burnout and chronic stress is high, it’s not uncommon to push through fatigue as a badge of honor—especially if you’re trying to prove yourself early in your career. But failing to prioritize shuteye tends to backfire.
“You cannot handle stress, think clearly, or perform optimally if you are sleep deprived,” says Stephanie M. Stahl, MD, sleep medicine physician and assistant professor of clinical neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “Evidence continues to show that obtaining sufficient sleep is extremely important for your health and daytime functioning.”
And, as you’ve likely noticed before, you’re not the only one affected by sleepless nights. According to an August 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, a not-so-great day for you can negatively impact your students’ moods and commitment to the class.
When you’re well-rested, on the other hand, it’s easier to concentrate, ward off irritation, and keep your immunity up. Despite what hustle culture might lead you to believe, working less and sleeping more can ultimately make you a better teacher.
Tips to help teachers get better sleep
To make sure you’re prepared to show up for your students, don’t just update your syllabus. Start the semester with a new and improved sleep strategy.
Stick to a strict sleep schedule
First, make shuteye a priority with a firm bedtime and wake-up time to ensure you get at least seven hours of sleep each night, says Stahl.
For her part, Drew says the Bedtime feature on her iPhone, which reminds her to go to bed at 8:45 p.m. for a 5:45 a.m. wake-up, has helped her early bedtime become a habit. “I normally end up in bed trying to wind down by 8 p.m. and fall asleep before the reminder goes off,” she says.
Give yourself a grading curfew
If you’re often grading papers or checking emails late into the night, set an alarm with a soft tone to serve as a gentle reminder to put your work away about an hour before bed, suggests Stahl.
Worried about falling behind? “Students will, for the most part, understand if they need to wait one more day for a grade, so the problems caused by staying up past midnight grading are often unneeded,” says Patrick McKerr, 29, a U.S. history teacher at East Kentwood High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Follow a nighttime routine
Most people need at least an hour to wind down to ease into sleep, says Stahl, so add a wind-down routine to your schedule too.
For McKerr, a simple and predictable nighttime routine of brushing his teeth, washing his face, and taking out his contacts by his wife’s side seems to do the trick.
“It triggers my body to begin shutting down, knowing I want to fall asleep shortly after,” he says. Self-care activities like taking a warm bath, breathing in essential oils such as lavender, or listening to a guided meditation could also help shift you into a more relaxed state.
Leave your worries outside your sleep space
Find yourself lying awake at night with first-day jitters or worries over an upcoming conference? That’s usually when McKerr struggles to fall asleep too. His fix is simple: Carve out more time to prep.
“Preparedness really helps me to keep my stress level down as I have a plan for the day well in advance,” he says. If you’re feeling particularly stressed in the evening, take some time a few hours before bed to think through solutions and make a plan, says Stahl. Clearing your mind can help increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
Try comfort TV
While it’s best to put screens away before bed to avoid disrupting the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, sometimes watching something light can help take your mind off of school-related worries.
Drew says she often drifts off to sleep with anime shows like One Piece playing on low because they’re fun, light, and have simple plots that don’t distract her from falling asleep.
Ask for help
Leaning on your support system can go a long way when it comes to freeing up a little more time for shuteye. “My wonderful husband wakes me up and helps me get out the door with my coffee, breakfast, and a packed lunch,” says Drew.
A few other options: Recruit your partner, kids, or roommate to help with end-of-day tasks like doing the dishes or tidying up as well as morning to-dos like walking the dogs.
Are you a teacher struggling to make time for sleep? Saatva is proud to offer a year-round discount for educators so you can get the rest you need to stay healthy and support your students.