(Editor’s Note: This post was originally intended for a multi-part series appearing in my Ed Week column answering the question “What are one to three things you would tell your first-year teacher self, and why would it/they be important to tell?” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to include it there.)

Tairen McCollister has taught all grade levels, including higher education. She is a speaker and consultant on all things The Whole Child; a Trauma-Informed Educator, SEL Advocate, Educational Neuroscience, Literacy Advocate, Diversity and Equity Advocate, and children’s author and podcast host (The Namaste Stories). Connect with her @msmccoco (Twitter/X) and IG @thenamastestories:

It is no secret that the teaching profession is experiencing an exodus. The movement of teacher recruitment and retention is at the forefront of all things education, and the overall morale of teachers is extremely low. As someone with over 15 years in Education, I have seen waves of teachers come and go, initiatives begin and end before implementation, and so many colleagues and students suffer through not just the pandemic, but also just the trials of life in general.

There are three things that I would lovingly tell my first-year-teacher self in retrospect in an effort to provide them with support in sustaining not just their careers, but most importantly, themselves.

Put yourself first: I know, it sounds harsh, but it’s not. No, it is also not selfish, it is necessary. In order to be a fully present, purposeful, compassionate, and effective teacher, you must be well. The demands that you will face will range from students suffering from homelessness to students with special needs, academically, socially, and emotionally; they will include initiatives that will frustrate you because you will see so many come and go (and here’s a secret, some of the ones that should stay, fall by the wayside.), you will lose children and colleagues to death–all while being expected to exceed academic goals and meet classroom management expectations.

You will spend your time outside of the classroom building your own life, family, and career, while staying up sleepless nights worrying about students and their well-being. You will be triggered each time a school shooting occurs or you have to do a drill. You will suffer from disrespect at times that will range from being underpaid and finding yourself on the receiving end of blame from the community when things go wrong. You will spend thousands of dollars of your dismal pay to create a safe, equitable, engaging classroom full of materials needed to ensure student success that budgets simply do not (or will not) cover. So, yes, put yourself first. The airlines do not tell you to put your oxygen mask on first for nothing.

Find the balance: Balance your life so that your career is not the end all be all. Love what you do, but do not lose yourself, miss out on life, time with your family and loved ones, for the sake of teaching. Do not compromise your health by taking on stress that is not yours to carry. You’ll be a better teacher for students when your life shares that delicate balance of being fully engaging on both sides of the teacher life coin.

Know when to go: Do not overstay your welcome. It is okay to move on, begin new variations of your career in the field. Burnout is real and it lurks beneath the surface. If you feel the need for change, if the teaching spark is flickering, you owe it to yourself and your students to move on. Everything in life has a season; teaching is no exception to that rule. Teachers can truly do anything-follow your bliss and don’t second guess yourself.

Teaching is not for the faint of heart; it’s important, it’s life-changing, but it is also an experience that no one outside of teaching can fully understand or appreciate, so take care of you. It’s always best for the students in the long run.