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The science of sleep and why it should be every new teacher's priority

The-Science-of-Sleep Photo by Cris Saur on Unsplash

We all know the stereotype of the coffee-guzzling, yawn-suppressing teacher – but that image has its roots in the very real stress that teacher's early starts and long hours can put on your body. So how can you look after yourself as you adjust to the demanding schedule of school life? We spoke to sleep expert Dr Frances Le Cornu Knight from UCL to get the lowdown on getting enough rest.

New teachers can often find themselves sacrificing sleep to get work done. What are the dangers of this?

Sleep is fundamental to good health, both physically and mentally. People who are sleep deprived will have less energy, be less able to maintain optimal physical fitness, have more difficulty focusing on tasks and will be less able to turn new information learned during the day into stable and long- lasting memories, which is vital for a new teacher.

Poor sleep is also associated with unhealthy lifestyle habits. For example, people who sleep badly often crave a high- carbohydrate diet, and as a result are likely to put on weight. They are also more likely to get trapped in a high caffeine cycle (they feel tired, so they drink caffeine throughout the day, so they are then unable to sleep at night and so on). Poor sleep is also associated with reduced ability to cope with stressful events, and increased tendency towards depression and anxiety.

Teachers reportedly get about six hours' sleep a night on average – is this enough?

It is recommended that adults need an average of eight hours sleep, but there is considerable individual variation in this; for some people six hours will be sufficient, while others may need 10 hours. Interestingly, neuroscientist Russell Foster suggests that if you are relying on an alarm clock to wake you then you are not getting enough sleep (although I'm not sure I'd ever wake up if I used this approach!).

What can new teachers do to get into the right sort of sleep schedule?

Our bodies run on a diurnal body clock, meaning in a 24-hour period we have one block of sleep and one block of waking. This body clock is naturally trained by sunlight, but in the modern world it is often retrained to suit the routine of our lifestyle. So if as a new teacher, you are suddenly finding you have to get up at 6.30am, you need to figure out how much sleep you need, and adjust your routine. Let's say you need the typical eight hours, so you need to be asleep by 10.30pm, and should begin your bedtime routine at around 9.30pm. That doesn't mean getting into bed at 9.30pm, but beginning the process of relaxing (for example, finishing marking and turning off stimulating media).

What impact can stress have on sleep?

There is an established link between high stress levels and poor sleep and, like the caffeine cycle, this is probably cyclical. The hormone cortisol (nicknamed the stress hormone) is also the hormone responsible for waking us up in the morning – so having high levels of this hormone circulating in your body before bedtime can be incredibly disruptive. And then, in turn, evidence suggests that poor sleep has the effect of us perceiving stressful events as more stressful. It is difficult to avoid stress, especially when starting a new job, but you can try to be mindful of how you deal with your new venture.

Make time to do whatever it is you find most effective at de-stressing, whether that's exercising, chatting with friends or taking a long bath. These things may appear to be indulgent when you have a busy schedule, but they will help you cope with stress in the long run. And finally, prioritise sleep. If you are getting enough sleep, you will be less likely to experience as high levels of stress.

What can people do to stop their minds racing with work thoughts before sleep?

A lot of people find mindfulness apps helpful – they talk you through a step-by-step processes of clearing your mind ready for sleep. I have tried them and I find that I'm often asleep before the tutorial finishes. Making time to do something relaxing before getting into bed will also help. Some people find it useful to write down a list of things that are playing on their mind, as this helps externalise them before going to bed. And in terms of breaking the sleep stress cycle, make sure you are finishing work-related tasks within an hour of your bedtime.

Is it possible to catch up on sleep in the holidays?

This is an interesting question. In some senses we can catch up on some sleep in the holidays, and at the weekends. But your body craves routine, and getting in and out of different routines confuses it, so it's far better to prioritise sleep in your daily life and establish a consistent daily routine, rather than relying on holidays to play catch up. 

This article is taken from the EdCentral Alternative Student Teacher Manual, which is available to download now for free.

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