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Why teachers should sleep more

March 14, 2018

The other week I had Year 6, this week I visited Year 1. Ah! The merits of being a relief teacher!


There was a gaggle of boys who were passionate about play, blocks, pillows and farts. They were generally excited about active-ities and less so about writing. Most of them managed to focus on the retelling of the level 12 home reader “classic”, The Naughty Ann, but for Ryan, it was a challenge.


I flicked through his book and saw he normally got some good work done, and indeed wrote well. Having gone through the lower level stuff, I decided a stern, disciplined approach might be necessary.


“Ryan, I’ve already moved you away from Tyler and Sterling. I know you’re a good writer, so settle down and get your sentences on the page. I'd hate for you to miss out on some free play.”


He lolled about on his chair. Then put his head down on the desk. I gave him some take-up time and then drifted back.


Hrmm…perhaps this wasn’t about a different teacher, a change in routine or having to write about a fictional, misbehaving boat.


“Did you have breakfast this morning?” (I always try to dig into the basic needs first).

“Yeah, Weet-bix.”

Hrmm…not hungry.


“Did something happen before school today? With Mum or Dad or with kids on the playground?”

“Nah, Mum dropped me off. It was fine.”

Okaaay…not social or family drama…


“Did you have a good sleep last night?”

Tears rush to the surface and he shakes his head.

“No. I’m tired. I’m just really tired.”​


Aha! Sleep deprivation. I know the feeling.


If you’re a parent, partier, partial to a TV program or staying up late to get work done, you know how it feels to not have slept well. The scratchy eyes, shortness of temper and lethargy.


Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a range of short-term and long-term effects. From irritability, poorer judgement skills, lack of focus (like Ryan) and trouble retaining information – to obesity, anxiety and depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. As if that isn't enough to make you want to crawl under the covers!


Interestingly though, we live in a time where perceived laziness is detested and perceived productivity venerated. We feel guilty if we’re not burning the candle at both ends and our culture often relates having an early night or an arvo nap to being weak.


Of course, like many things in any culture, it is worth reflecting from time to time on why we think this way and whether it’s actually working for us.


Late nights, longer waking days and a culture of work-work-work is likely to be linked to the start of the Industrial Age and the light bulb. Before artificial light, we had less we could do in the night-time hours, and so sleep was a natural option. Now, we have social media, television and work that can be done at home all vying for our attention. It’s easy to see how that can benefit business and government, but does it always benefit us?


How does better sleep benefit us?


Sleep allows our body and mind to be restored. Hormones such as cortisol, insulin and leptin are regulated through sleep – which directly relate to feelings of stress, our metabolism and feeling full after eating. Sleep can improve mood, help control weight, improve memory and strengthen immunity. I don’t think I know a teacher who doesn’t want to improve one (if not all!) of those!


The easy part is knowing what we need to do: sleep more. Preferably eight hours a night, but not regularly more than nine. The hard part is doing it.


Here are 8 tips to better sleep:


1) Drop the i-word: As teachers, we

know the dangers of labelling someone as something. “Ahmed is dyslexic.” “Jimmy is bipolar.” “Mia is dumb.”

Erk – it makes me cringe just reading it. Jimmy may have dyslexia, Moussa may have bipolar and Mia may have learning difficulties but that doesn’t make them that. That is not who they are. It’s the same with insomnia. You may have trouble sleeping, but unless you want to be an insomniac, avoid calling yourself that. There’s a lot of power in language. It might sound a bit funny, but you might even try changing your mindset by saying to yourself, “I sleep 8 hours each night and wake up feeling refreshed.” (Go on! Try saying it 9 times right now!)


2) Turn off all devices at least an hour before going to bed: Our circadian rhythms are designed to have us feeling sleepy at around 10 or 11 at night. Light and stimulation, like that of your phone, laptop and TV, can hinder the natural inclination to switch off and feel sleepy. So, start by switching off your devices instead! Having a warm shower and pottering about as you get ready for bed can help to signal to your body that it's time to sleep.


3) Be active during the day: If your day has been filled with engaging, fulfilling activity as well as some physical exercise, we’re more likely to sleep well. So, have your busy day at work, squeeze in something to get the blood, lungs and muscles pumping (preferably in the morning, according to the research) and see if you’re not dropping into bed as soon as you can! 


4) Try going to bed at the same time every night: Our bodies have an incredible, inbuilt sense of time. In 1972, there was some research done studying a cave explorer who lived for six months in a cave in Texas. While his body went through a period of confusion because it was away from sunlight, it soon regulated to a cycle of about 24-25 hours. Our bodies are made to go to sleep at about the same time and wake up at about the same time each day. So, if you’re having trouble sleeping, try going to bed and waking up at the same time every night for a week or two. The results might just change your life!


5) Practice mindfulness meditation: Meditation has a lot of benefits that link to getting better sleep. One is that it can help us to manage an anxious, ruminating or active mind that keeps us awake. It can also help us to relax the body and be ready for sleep. In one scientific experiment, 49 middle and older-aged adults who had trouble sleeping were put into two groups. One was taught mindfulness meditation, the others were taught good habits for sleep in a sleep education class. Both groups met for two hours every week for six weeks. Those who were taught mindfulness meditation had less insomnia, fatigue and depression at the end of the six weeks. You can start by focusing your attention on the breath, as described here.


6) Know that “it can probably wait ‘til tomorrow”: I distinctly remember in my first year of teaching a colleague saying “If we had more hours, we’d just find more to do”. It rang through my mind as I stayed up planning and laminating and cutting and marking and preparing each night. Most of the time, what we think we should do that night can probably wait until tomorrow. If you have this attitude of leaving work at school, at least once a week, you may find that you’re more relaxed and can wind-down and get to sleep. You might even try to…


7) Go to bed really early every so often: I know, I know, I just said try having a routine of going to sleep at the same time! Routine can certainly help if you’re having trouble sleeping. If you’re just really tired, like poor Ryan, then go to bed! I love having an incredibly early night every so often. Early dinner, warm shower, bed at 7:30. The next morning I look five years younger, and all I’ve done is gotten some more Zz’s!​

8) Seek help: If you’re consistently having poor sleep then go and see your healthcare professional or a sleep specialist about it and find a solution that works for you. If you’re a woman, know that because of hormonal factors, we’re more likely to experience sleep problems. And that if you’re a snorer or have sleep apnoea (or your partner does) there is support. If you’re a parent of a young child, I’ve heard wonderful things about Tresillian from a range of grateful parents. Whatever the issue, it’s absolutely worth exploring the range of options to support better sleep - for the short-term and long-term benefits.



I had Year 1 again the next day. At 9:15, Ryan was sitting quietly, relaxed, at the front of the class, focused, listening, responding and ready to write.


“Did you have a good sleep last night, Ryan?”

“Yep!” His eyes bright, smile brighter.

The perfect inspiration to have an early night.


Have another tip for better sleep? Found a way to switch off and fall into bed? Realised the secret to snoozing?

Share your ideas in the comments box below.


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