Tackling teacher insomnia: the sleep-easy teacher.
15 Oct 2017
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep” William Shakespeare ‘The Tempest’
In our relentlessly fast modern culture, there is one thing that is left tragically ignored. It is a spurred outsider, certainly not embracing our twenty four hour ‘always on’ lifestyle. Carl Honore in ‘In praise of Slow’ describes this incessant need for activity, pace and drive as: “the whole world is time-sick. We all belong to the same cult of speed”. This “cult” allows no time for the essential process that the humble sleep provides for us. As we shall see, this arrogant rejection is shattering all the qualities that are vital for our efficiency in the classroom: our memory skills, our capacity to manage emotions and our ability to present the most energetic and enthusiastic version of ourselves.
In a recent British wide survey, The Great British Sleep, 33 percent of respondents answered that they slept for less than six hours a night. When we consider the average recommended sleep for adults from the NHS is between seven and nine hours in order to remain fully functional, we see that we are coming up consistently short. As teachers we are arguably rather near the top of the sleep spurning pile. With the plethora of time guzzling demands on us, we go evening by evening rejecting the call of the pillow. We also survive in highly focussed, short bursts of term time, in which the amount we need to get through is intensive. This means we fluctuate from being intensely ‘on’ during term times to replenishing our sleep patterns during our much needed breaks.
I share what is without doubt a widespread teacher issue: I have a rather troublesome relationship with sleep. My slumber efficiency was never ideal, but it came to an ugly head in my late twenties and as I entered my thirties. A variety of reasons led to two years of a real sleep struggle. I know what a profoundly depressing and difficult thing it is to survive on very little sleep, and how it can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety and poor functioning.
While sleep issues can, as we shall see, manifest in a variety of ways – mine was, and remains to a certain extent, the early morning awakening: with a five o’clock in the morning for a long time officially defined as a lie in. In the attempts to overcome this rather dejecting cycle, I have developed a rather obsessional archive of sleep related knowledge (I make spectacular dinner party company!) I haven’t quite reached the magnificent attempts of Charles Dickens, whose obsession with getting a good sleep led to him sleeping in the exact centre of a mattress and ensuring the bed was facing north. As you can imagine, this was woefully unsuccessful and he ended up spending the wee hours wondering around London (although on the positive that did inspire some rather magnificent writing!)
Problems with sleeping can feel like a hugely isolating experience, one that grows, ironically, the more we are anxious and the more we fixate on it. There is comfort and a normalising element to knowing that lots of people struggle with this aspect of life. To show that none of us suffer alone in our sleep vacuums, here are the typical sleep problems as listed in ‘Fast Asleep, Wide awake’ by Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. Take a deep breath:
“Difficulty getting to sleep or sleep initiation problems.
Difficulty staying asleep or sleep maintenance issues.
Sleeping but feeling as if you’re not sleeping (mentally busy, ‘tired but wired’ sleep) – this is called paradoxical insomnia.
Oversleeping or hypersomnia and still feeling exhausted
Restlessness and restless leg syndrome (RLS)
Parasomnia such as sleepwalking, sleep talking, nightmares, night terrors or teeth griding (bruxism)
Delayed sleep phase syndrome – can’t get to sleep until late (midnight or 2 am.) Technology often plays a bit part here
Cicadian rhythm sleep disorder – typically due to shift working.”
Inevitably, the more holistic process of slowing down will have a significant impact on our ability to ‘switch off’ and fall gracefully into the arms of a pillow at the end of our long teaching days. The reality is that we bring the experience of our day to our pillows: even if we follow all the sleep easy tips below, if we fly through our days in a blur of cortisone and stress, our minds, clearly, will not drift into sleep. Yet there are some more ‘instant’ fixes, some strategies that we can arm ourselves with to make sure that we give our bodies the best chance to embrace serenity and sleep:
Consistency is a real winner when it comes to sleep. While the temptation is to use weekends to embrace a full sloth like 48 hours of sleep, it will merely serve to throw our fragile body clock’s completely off kilter. This means our sleep patterns are completely thrown for the next week. The best sleep hygiene includes regular sleep and wake schedules – even on weekends. As this article from sleep.org highlights: “our bodies crave consistency”. Setting a sleeping structure and sticking to it, as far as is possible, will help us to get in a real pattern of sleep.
There is so much evidence to highlight the value of sleep that exercise should effectively become a teacher’s best friend. There is a range of evidence to suggest that exercise improves both sleep quality and sleep duration. This, from the national sleep foundation highlights: “a national representative sample of more than 2600 men and woman, ages 18-85 found that 150 minutes of moderate ages 18-85 found that 150 minutes of moderate vigorous exercise has a significant impact on the quality of sleep”. What is particularly effective is if we can embrace the earlier morning excercising – the natural sunlight immediately is particularly effective, setting up our body clocks for a day of activity and a night of sleep. Avoiding exercise after nine o’clock at night is also useful, it will leave us too wired to calm our mind’s before sleep.
Curb the electronic device
Our phones and laptops are ubiquitous and addictive villains in the sleep easy mission. Unbeknown to us they omit a sneaky blue light that can have a real impact on our ability to fall asleep. As Richard Wiseman notes in ‘Night School’:
“Although any type of light stops you feeling sleepy, research has shown that light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially effective at keeping you awake. Unfortunately, computer screens, tablets, smartphones, flat-screen television and LED lighting all emit large amounts of blue light”.
The blue light from our mobiles and computers actually suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that influences our sleep cycles (our circadian rhythm). They are also ruthlessly addictive: there is a flash of adrenaline every time we receive a message or a status update. This flash of adrenaline leaves us wired and unable to calm ourselves down appropriately to get to sleep.
The best approach to allow our brains to begin to switch off completely is to completely curb the electronic devices at least one hour before we go to sleep. That means all aspect: not even a cheeky check of our Twitter feed! This will allow us to calm down and begin the process of preparing ourselves physically and mentally for sleep.
Embrace a bath
In this process of allowing ourselves to drift away from the stress and strains of the day, embracing the comfort of a warm bath can help us drift into sleep. While advice abounds about cooling ourselves down before getting in to bed, as Jim Horne notes in ‘Sleepfaring’, the bath will in fact cool us down and lead us comfortingly into sleep:
“Surely, then, a bath at bedtime will have the opposite effect and only make matters worse, especially for the individual with insomnia? No-not only is it relaxing, but better still, and more surprisingly, a warm bath helps cool us down even more”.
If you are feeling particularly dangerous, you can go one step further and try a cleansing bicarbonate bath. This will relax the mind and cleanse the muscles even more!
The bedroom as a haven of sleep
The bedroom ideally needs to feel like an oasis of sleep. It needs a serious approach: ridding anything else that might stimulate us that might lead us to consider it as a place for anything else. Trying to sneak those student books in with us, marking furious until the moment we put out the light will lead only to a broken sleep. Even worse, the mobile and laptops should be banished from the bedroom, never permitted entry!
What may also sound like very simplistic advice is, in fact, much under-appreciated: only go to bed when you feel tired. Forcing yourself to go to sleep earlier will result in an early morning rise. The beauty of letting a good book switch off our wired mind’s is another vital ingredient in the passport to a good sleep!
Cut out the caffeine
Medical recommendations suggest we can cope with 400 milograms of cafeeine a day. Take (another) deep breath and cast your eyes on the amount of caffeine in each of the following:
Cup of instant coffee : 80 – 100 mg
Cup of homemade filter coffee: 150-200mg
Cup of commercial coffee
(Costa or Starbucks) – 350mg
Cup of tea – 40-80mg
Green tea: 20-30 mg
Can of coke: 30-50 mg
Can of energy drink: 80 mg
Now, to confound the shock, the half life (the time it takes to half the concentration in your blood of caffeine) is five hours. That means if you decide to have a early evening coffee at six, half of the caffeine is still floating around your system at eleven – just when you might be heading of to sleep. The consequence of this is a disrupted cycle.
As teachers we are fairly high up on the caffeine hit list. The issue is that we are giving ourselves energy that is manufactured and will inevitably lead to a caffeine slump – one of the reasons why we are often rendered mute at the end of the day. Having tried and failed miserably to completely cut out coffee for some time now, instead here are some practical and manageable tips:
- Try to half your caffeine intact and replace it with water. Instead, embracing the purifying value of water will help to make us feel less stressed and wired.
- Avoid caffeine after three o’clock – this will result in your system being completely purified by the time you go to bed. Considering also the impact of what you eat before you go to sleep will also impact your sleeping patterns.
Deal with worries
In the Great British Sleep survey 82% of respondents said the main thing that kept them awake at night was “what happened today and what have I got on tomorrow”. Going to bed with our minds full of our many and widespread teacher woes will fuel another fractured night’s sleep. Being proactive and recognising that we are tired but ultimately wired is the first positive step. Next an excellent strategy is to write a list before going to bed of the things that we need to do the next day. Once we see this in written form it provides perspective for us and helps us to organise our thinking for the next day. Much better than swimming in the elevated feelings of panic that lying awake at night can generate.
Being thoughtful about how much and how well we are sleeping is an undervalued aspect of life in the teacher fast lane. Ultimately we have control over our sleep, we decide how much we are going to give ourselves and how effectively we are going to prepare for it. Being kind to ourselves and recognising that what will ultimately help our students is presenting the best version of ourselves in the classroom is clearly the best motto. Staying up till two in the morning marking books just won’t have the same impact. Thanks for reading, sleep well.
An edited extract from ‘Slow Teaching: A guide to calm, organisation and impact in the classroom’. Published by John Catt Education in early 2018.