Your 4 Most Annoying Sleep Problems—Solved

Do you have trouble staying alert in class? Identify your sleep traps and wake up more refreshed every morning.

by NEA Member Benefits

Educators are among the most sleep-deprived employees in America, along with shift workers, pilots and physicians. With more students, fewer resources and greater demands, it’s no wonder today’s educators are lacking sleep! In fact, according to a survey conducted by Ball State University researchers, 43% of teachers slept an average of 6 hours or less each night (less than they need and less than the national average). What’s more, 64% claim they felt drowsy during the school day.

“Teachers never stop. There’s always something to do, whether it’s grading papers, preparing lesson plans for the day ahead or taking care of family responsibilities,” says Denise Amschler, Ph.D., professor of health science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and lead author on that sleep study. “Many teachers are forced to work a second job just to pay the bills.”

Trouble is, sleep is like nutrition for the brain. It’s as important as eating a healthful diet and getting plenty of exercise. Some experts argue that for educators, sleep is even more important than diet and exercise. After all, educators who are sleep deprived not only compromise their own personal health, they also affect their ability to supervise and educate students.

Here’s our guide to the four most common sleep problems facing educators, as well as potential solutions to help you feel great every day:

Sleep Problem No. 1: You have trouble turning off your brain and falling asleep—especially on Sunday nights. Maybe you’re anxious about the day’s lesson plans or staff meetings. Or maybe you’re having trouble winding down after a busy weekend.

Solution: Don’t use bedtime as a time to stress about the coming day or week. Instead, schedule “worry time” during the day, suggests Douglas Moul, M.D., staff physician in the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio—not at bedtime. “The challenge is to realize that you’re focusing on how you’re going to handle a certain kid in class, or how to conduct that meeting with your supervisor, and then turn your attention to something visual (and calming) that doesn’t involve thoughts or words,” he says. Picture yourself on a beach, for example, or in the serenity of a forest.

Sleep Problem No. 2: You have no trouble falling asleep, but within minutes or hours, you’re tossing and turning—all night long.

Solution: Practicing good sleep hygiene is key. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine—anything from a warm bath to meditating—and make your bedroom a work-free zone (no grading papers in bed!). “Don’t eat late in the day or consume caffeine after noon,” Amschler suggests, “and make sure to turn off the computer, cellphone and television at least an hour before you turn in.”

Still find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night? Instead of tossing and turning in bed, try something called “stimulus control.” If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and do something boring until you feel sleepy.

Sleep Problem No. 3: You seem to sleep through the night, but you’re still dragging the next day.

Solution: If you don’t feel rested, it could be due to any number of factors, from an uncomfortable mattress to stiff sheets. Try to pinpoint what’s causing the problem, and in the interim, go for brisk walks. And take every opportunity to get in the sunshine: Just as darkness stimulates the body to release the sleep hormone melatonin, sunlight suppresses it. Plus, the fresh air can help you stay awake and energized.

Jonesing for some caffeine for a quick pick-me-up? Restrict your use to the early morning hours and cut your consumption after two cups.

Sleep Problem No. 4: You find yourself repeatedly hitting the snooze button on your alarm because you can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.

Solution: Don’t hit the snooze button! In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need alarms to wake up. Instead, we would sleep in a set circadian pattern, going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day—even on weekends. The reality is that most of us aren’t getting enough sleep during the week, and we’re artificially interfering with sleep by setting an alarm. Then we try to make up for our sleep sins on the weekend.

The experts’ advice: Set your alarm for when you absolutely must get out of bed (not 15-20 minutes earlier to accommodate snooze time) so you can enjoy more uninterrupted sleep. Better yet, get up 10 minutes earlier and go for a quick morning walk. Studies show that exposure to bright light within five minutes of waking can help alert your system that it’s time to get up and get moving.

Of course, these problems and solutions only apply to those who are suffering from standard insomnia—not other sleep problems, Moul says. If you’re suffering from persistent sleep issues, visit your general practitioner to rule out issues such as anxiety, restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea and narcolepsy, and to ensure that your lack of sleep isn’t a result of medications you’re taking to treat another condition.