Be Well to Do Well: Practicing Good Posture in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2022 Issue
By Martha Beach
Seven years ago, Kelly Krug, a high school business studies teacher with the Peel District School Board, hurt her right shoulder during a group exercise class. For weeks, Krug continued to teach and tried to take it easy as she let her shoulder heal. But she experienced a persistent tingling sensation down her arm and in her hand. Krug finally went to see a physiotherapist, who told her why her injury wasn’t healing after all that time and rest: poor posture.
How we hold our bodies throughout our daily activities plays a huge role in our overall health and wellness. No matter if we are still or moving, awareness of our posture, patterns, and even our breathing contribute to keeping our bodies healthy and happy during long days of standing or sitting in a classroom.
Krug’s physiotherapist helped bring attention to these issues. “She gave me exercises and she made me hyper conscious of my posture,” Krug says. Now, Krug lives each day with this in mind: proud chest, shoulders back and down, breathe deeply, and take movement breaks often. It’s something she even teaches her students. “In order for students and staff to do well, we have to be well,” she says. It’s the perfect recipe for a more comfortable day-to-day teaching experience.
“Teachers have a hard job—they’re on their feet all day,” says Surabhi Veitch, owner of The Passionate Physio, a Toronto-based clinic that offers virtual services worldwide. She estimates that about 20 percent of her clients are teachers (particularly those who teach in the kindergarten to Grade 6 range). They often complain of lower back, neck, and shoulder aches, largely due to physical tension, static posture, and lack of overall movement.
The good news is there are ways to ease the pain and incorporate changes into your daily routine.
First and foremost, Veitch recommends drinking more water and, by proxy, taking more bathroom breaks. It sounds simple, but in reality you can’t always use the washroom when you need—so you hold it.
“That’s not good for anybody,” says Veitch. “If you’re tensing the pelvic floor [to hold your bladder] it causes tightness in the lower back and core. Over the years, that takes a toll.” All that tightness causes an aching lower back and diminishes your ability to breathe deeply, which in turn contributes to psychological tension.
“So drink more water, take the breaks. Call in the principal if you have to,” Veitch urges. Water helps your muscles feel less sore. And taking a bathroom break gives you a couple minutes of activity while also relieving pelvic floor tension, freeing up your body for more easeful movement and breathing.
The next step is just that: breathing. “Practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing,” Veitch says. She suggests five to ten deep belly breaths when each class switches over, or at the top of every hour. “Allow the belly, lower back, pelvic floor, shoulders, and neck to relax,” she advises. This type of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which tells our brains to release rest-and-relax hormones, helping to reduce stress, anxiety, and physical tension.
“If you’re in a volatile, stressful environment, you tense up even more,” explains Veitch. So, yes, your pelvic floor tightens (even if you don’t have to use the bathroom!), your shoulders inch upward, your neck stiffens, your abdominals cinch up. But a few calming, deep breaths once an hour can do wonders to reduce that tension.
Krug is a big fan of deep breathing to relieve physical and mental tension. “I bring awareness to my body and I take a few deep breaths, do my belly breathing. It has helped me so much with stress, especially during the pandemic,” she says.
Shantelle Browning-Morgan, a high school ESL teacher with the Greater Essex County District School Board, also focuses on breathing to relieve stress. “For the first fifteen years of my career, I didn’t think this stuff was important at all,” she admits. But a bad bout of sciatica followed by a life-altering brain injury in 2016 completely changed her outlook. “Now, I have to do my breathing exercises to release tension in my body, otherwise I have physical pain. And it helps me change my posture, it reminds me to move.”
Mindfulness and breathwork go hand-in-hand with a physical strategy, which is less about sitting up straight and more about adding frequent movement. Krug gets straight to the point: “If you’re sitting for eight hours with bad posture, you’re screwed, and if you aren’t taking any breaks, you’re doubly screwed.”
She now understands the necessity of a good work station, good posture, and taking frequent breaks. “[My students and I] get up and walk around every thirty minutes, or do seated stretches. If we are in-person, we get up and leave the building and walk around the track,” Krug says. Similarly, Browning-Morgan does some kind of movement every 15 minutes, like walking, ankle and wrist circles, or neck stretches.
Krug and Browning-Morgan are on exactly the right path. “There is no perfect posture for teachers. You’re going to continue to hunch if you don’t move,” says Veitch. If you have a spare period, walk around the school or yard. Do the stairs a couple times, or do them two at a time. If you need to bend down, lunge on one knee, then the other, crouch, or squat.
Variety is key, Veitch reminds us. “If you’re right-handed and always turning one way toward the blackboard, switch it up so you’re challenging your body.” Stand on one foot to practice balancing, or stay in place and go up and down on your tippy-toes.
“If you’re worried about looking weird, just say to the students ‘I’m doing some calf raises, you can join me if you’d like,’’’ Veitch says. Involving students in your movement breaks is a very good strategy. “Including the kids is one of the most effective ways you hold yourself accountable,” adds Veitch.
Krug has found this to be true in her classroom. “My students love the stretching. They facilitate it. They all join in. And they even remind me. It makes a huge difference for all of us.” The students in Browning-Morgan’s classes don’t always do exactly what she’s doing, but they do use the opportunity to get up and move in some way.
Not only are the breaks good for our bodies, they’re good for our minds. “It helps you reset, gives your mind a chance to refocus,” Veitch explains. And a less stressed mind means a less tense body.
If this all sounds daunting, Veitch recommends starting small and working up. “It’s all about habit formation. Work on one thing at a time,” she says. “This week, work on breathing breaks. Once you’re comfortable with that, add another element.” Simply use whatever strategies you can on any particular day.
The pandemic has showed us how important posture, breaks, and mindfulness are for our everyday work and learning environments. Browning-Morgan has learned it’s all intertwined. “I do weight-training, yoga, and Pilates. I use a podium while teaching and I sit at my desk with an ergonomic chair. All of it together—I feel healthier now at forty-four than I did at twenty-four!” she exclaims.
Krug tries to lead each day with her simple mantra: be well to do well. So, drink water, take breaks, breathe deeply, add a variety of physical stances and motions, and move your way toward a healthier work environment.
- What you wear impacts the way you move and how your body feels. “Wear clothes and footwear that you’re comfortable moving around in,” says Veitch. Opt for tops and bottoms that allow for kneeling, squatting, and stretching.
- Footwear also affects your movement. Both Browning-Morgan and Krug used to wear heels daily, limiting their ability to stand comfortably or move easily, and for Browning-Morgan, causing knee and back pain. “Now I can’t remember the last time I wore heels,” Krug says. “I wear professional yet stretchy clothes, like slacks and a blouse and sneakers. I can move, I’m not restricted.”
- Today’s fashion focus is all about comfort and athleisure—so take advantage of the trend and find something that works for you.
It’s not about being perfect all the time—it’s about adding movement “snacks” whenever you can. “It’s impossible for anyone to sit up straight all day, that’s why the breaks are so important,” says Veitch. Try some of these quick exercises while doing your normal, daily tasks to add a variety of movements throughout your day:
- Pace the classroom
- Calf-raises in place
- Balance on one leg, then the other
- Lunge down on one knee, then the other
- Squat down desk-side
- Walk the halls or the yard
- Do the stairs twice
- Take the stairs up two-at-a-time
- Seated ankle and wrist circles
- Seated neck and shoulder rolls
- Cat/cow spinal stretch, on the floor or against the desk
- Figure Four stretch, seated or on the floor
- Seated gentle spinal twist
Martha Beach lives and works in Toronto as a freelance fact-checker, editor, and writer for a wide variety of publications. When she’s not working, you’ll find Martha on her yoga mat or hanging out with her daughter and husband.