Teacher’s guide to sleep – and why it matters

On average teachers get just six hours’ sleep a night. Neurologist Judy Willis explains why this is detrimental and offers her tips on how to nod off with ease in this article from The Guardian.

Is insomnia keeping you up at night? Try some of our tips to help you drift off. Photograph: Alamy

If you are a sleep deprived teacher you may not be aware of the term woodpeckering, but you’ve probably done it. It happens the day following a bad night’s sleep. You’re sitting in a long meeting and you can barely keep your eyes open, so you prop your head up with your hand. Next thing you know, you are jerking your sleeping head back to its upright position. Do this a few times and you are woodpeckering.

I thought I knew sleep deprivation when I did my medical internship in hospital. That year I frequently went 36 hours with no sleep. When I finished my residency in neurology, I welcomed the promise of full nights of sleep ever after. It went pretty well for the next 10 years until I became a school teacher and experienced a whole new level of sleep deprivation.

Teachers’ working hours go far beyond the 8am to 3pm schedule of kids in school. There are hours spent at faculty meetings, correcting homework, preparing for the next day – and then there is the worrying. Nothing I ever did in a hospital emergency room or doing CPR required the intense mental energy needed to keep 30 kids attentive enough to learn what I was teaching.

Good teachers are like jugglers keeping a dozen balls in the air so come nighttime, with alarm set for 6am to finish grading papers, memories of the day that’s gone – including the students who didn’t understand something, forgot their lunch or were embarrassed by wrong answers – become sleep-resistant barriers. Add to these financial stress – potential loss of income from spending cuts and job losses – and you have cycle of insomnia with its band of unwelcome consequences.

What is the impact of not getting a good night’s sleep?

With inadequate sleep comes irritability, forgetfulness, lower tolerance of even minor annoyances, and less efficient organisation and planning. These are the very mental muscles teachers need to meet the challenges of the next day. In wanting to do a better job the next day, the brain keeps bringing up the worries that deny it the rest it needs.

Studies of teachers’ response to high job strain reveal that they spend more time than most people ruminating about work-related issues and their brains take longer to unwind. Sleep hours suffer as well as sleep quality.

We need sleep to think clearly, react quickly, and create memories. It is during the later hours of sleep (especially between the sixth and eighth hour) when the brain releases the neurochemicals that stimulate the growth of the memory connections. The average teacher is reported to sleep six hours a night, falling short of the most valuable sleep time.

It is also during sleep that the brain has some its most profound insights and does some of its most creative problem solving. During the day, the neural networks for highest cognition are kept busy directing the rest of the brain’s moment-to-moment decisions, choices, prioritising, and just getting through the day. At night, these executive control circuits are free from those distractions. As seen on brain imaging, these regions can be extremely active during sleep.

After such brain activity, the subjects often awaken with solutions to problems, new insights, and ideas for creative innovation.

How to get a good night’s sleep: tips before bedtime

Increasing sleep time from six hours or less to eight hours promotes the growth of the brain connections that increase memory up to 25% and restore emotional calm, alert reflectiveness and job efficiency. Here are some general and teacher-specific tips:

1. The best sleep hygiene includes regular sleep and wake schedules – even on weekends. Exercise is also good, but avoid vigorous exercise in the two hours before bed. Vigorous exercise releases adrenalin and noradrenalin, both stimulants that could delay falling asleep. Vigorous exercise before bed also means it will take longer for your body to cool down to the lower temperature that promotes sleep. That said, calming music and gentle stretching, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation (going through each muscle group and tensing and relaxing it) before getting into your cosy bed is great.

2. Thinking about what you eat and drink before bed also has an impact. You may think you are avoiding caffeine, but look carefully at teas, soft drinks, cold and headache medications where caffeine may be hiding. Alcohol near bedtime might help you fall asleep, but when it wears off, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep.

In the normal cycle, deeper REM sleep does not come until several hours in. Alcohol before bed results in early onset REM thus helps with falling asleep. However, after several hours, the early REM is followed by sleep fragmentation – frequent awakenings. One lies in bed awake and come morning does not feel refreshed. The environment in which you sleep should also be cooler as this is more sleep conducive.

3. For teachers, bedtime rituals can clear your brain of that ruminating about work-related issues so why not have a warm bath with relaxing music before you go to bed?

4. If some worries do wedge themselves into your sleep cycle, write them down on an external notecard. Most importantly, let your last thoughts include self-recognition for the vital work you do and drift to dreamland recalling the day’s school successes and the faces to which you brought smiles.

Judy Willis is a neurologist and former teacher. She writes books and does international presentations about how the brain learns best.

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