Ellen Ronalds Keene – Writer, Podcaster & Coach

You’re a person first and a teacher second, and you are worthy of your own care.

How do you describe what you currently do?

It’s a hard question because I wear a number of different professional hats day to day.

Hat number 1 is writing, podcasting and coaching. I’m a life and wellbeing coach and I founded Self-Care for Teachers to help support teachers with their health, happiness and wellbeing. I host the Teacher Wellbeing Podcast, which is now in its 5th Season. 

Hat number 2 is my current ‘day job’, which is my second business, Perk Digital. What began as freelance writing, podcast production and social media management on the side has slowly grown to the point where it’s now my main gig and I love it. It is not at all what I expected I’d be doing but in hindsight all the dots join up. 

How did you get to where you are now?

I experienced some major health challenges during my university years, so I began my first year of teaching about 6 months after treatment for thyroid cancer. This meant I wasn’t particularly physically robust, and I think in some ways that protected me from pushing myself to the limits like many early career teachers do. 

I did and still continue to experience health challenges, but over my years in the classroom I also saw a number of my colleagues burnout or experience very significant health challenges that were directly as a result of the stress and exhaustion of the job. I just kept thinking ‘somebody should do something about this’ and then I realised, ‘I’m somebody’.

I did my coach training in 2014, never intending to work with teachers, but one thing led to another and Self-Care for Teachers was born in 2015. 

Then, when I took leave without pay from my teaching role in 2017, as well as doing a little supply teaching, I began doing some freelance work to keep some income coming in. 

As a teacher I already had a whole lot of skills (writing, proofreading and editing, worksheet creation and other admin tasks etc) that can be put to very good use as a freelancer, and I’d learned a lot about a lot of online tools and processes as I set up Self-Care for Teachers and the Teacher Wellbeing Podcast. Over the last 2.5 years my freelance work grew and I leaned into it, especially as I grieved my teaching career. 

What has been one of the highlights of your career?

I was privileged to work at a small country high school for the last 5 years of my teaching career. The deep relationships you can build with students, staff and the wider community when you get the chance to invest over several years are one of the best things about teaching. The country setting was also very picturesque—seeing kangaroos, koalas, eagles and other native wildlife almost daily—so it will always live on fondly in my memory.

In my post-teaching career, I would say the Teacher Wellbeing Podcast has been a highlight, for sure. It’s given me a new skill that has sparked an accidental new career, but even more than that it again comes back to relationships: I’ve been able to connect with so many interesting and wonderful people, as well as make new friends. 

What has been the most difficult thing in your career?

Hands down it’s been the struggles to balance my health challenges with my professional dreams and ambitions, and the general need to earn an income. Work-health balance is an ongoing juggle for me and probably will be for the rest of my life. 

While I was still teaching I was certain that leaving the pressures of the classroom would solve my problems, however this has not been the case. “Wherever you go, there you are,” they say, and I agree with them wholeheartedly (whoever they are!). 

The process of career change has been difficult emotionally too. I have grieved hard for my teaching career and I probably will always feel a bit sad that the dreams I had as a young person at university before I got sick have not been able to be realised. 

In your current work, how do you help educators?

Self-Care for Teachers is an online wellbeing hub for teachers that includes digital resources, coaching services, online and in person workshops, and the Teacher Wellbeing Podcast, which is in its fifth season now. There are a bunch of free resources in my Freebies Library, plus I have a Teachers Pay Teachers store, and of course I work with teachers one-on-one to support their wellbeing too.  

Over at Perk Digital I help people start podcasts (and blogs and vlogs!), so if that’s something you’re interested in, get in touch!

What have been some common issues for educators you have noticed or addressed?

There’s a couple of broad patterns that I notice in educators that keep them stuck and/or impact their sense of wellbeing. 

The first is the double-edged sword of guilt and resentment. Either you feel guilty that you took some time out to do something for you or you choose to stay at work or show up for the person/thing you feel obligated by, and you resent the hell out of it. Both emotions keep you stuck, but resentment is toxic to your joy and your relationships, so it’s the one you want to nip in the bud wherever possible.

The other is the DIY and “soldier on” culture that exists in education. We’re very capable, and many of us will spend 18 hours of our own time creating a resource from scratch rather than spend $50 on buying it. Plus, it’s a bit of effort to ask for help or call in sick, so we ‘soldier on’. This culture blocks teachers from making life easier for themselves, taking time out when they’re unwell or asking for help when they need it.

What are your top three tips for achieving work-life balance?

I have SO many, but top 3 tips are:

1. Know yourself: what works for the person next to you in the staffroom, or what feels like balance to them, might not work for you. Get to know your preferences and personality, and also be realistic about what is achievable. There’s no one-size-fits-all so you have to differentiate for your own needs.

2. Track your work hours: this a great way to make all the invisible work of teaching become visible to you, and to account for it so that it doesn’t take over your life. Tracking won’t actually change anything about your work, but it will likely change your approach to it and help you lean more into the life part of the work-life balance equation. (there’s a free tracking sheet in my Freebies Library) 

3. Get support and/or accountability: nobody is an island, and remember that DIY thing that can hold teachers back at work? It’s a barrier when it comes to wellbeing too. Find yourself an accountability buddy in a teacher friend and keep each other on track with good habits, or hire a specialist (e.g. coach, personal trainer, dietitian) to give you the support you need. You don’t have to do it alone.

What would you tell someone who is considering doing what you have done?

I think in light of this conversation it’s that piece of ‘wherever you go, there you are’. Don’t fall into the thinking trap that when XYZ happens everything will be perfect. Quite a lot of the conversations I have with teachers involve them wanting to leave teaching to work for themselves because they think it will solve all their problems. 

The grass is greenest where you water it. I highly recommend focusing on your personal/emotional growth and your physical health first, as that will set you up well for whatever life throws at you, personally and professionally, down the track.

What would you suggest as the best way to get started?

Take your time to learn about business, and go through a proper process of ideation and validation before you start implementation. Your local chamber of commerce, business networks and small business departments of your state or territory are a good place to start. 

As for the decision to become self-employed, I would suggest you be very discerning about who you follow and who you take advice from online. There are some knowledgeable people full of integrity, and there are also a lot of snake oil salespeople. 

The other thing to remember is that career change of any kind takes time, and building a sustainable business doubly so. Make a plan, get good advice, work the plan and then be persistent and patient.

If you had one secret to tell others what would it be?

The secret is pretty much my tagline: you’re a person first and a teacher second, and you are worthy of your own care. 

Too many teachers put their work before the rest of their life and it means the equation is backwards. If you look after the person, that person will be much better able to show up as the excellent teacher that they are.

Ellen Ronalds Keene

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