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Virginia Journal of Education


A More Laid-Back Life

A former VEA president offers six practices for managing the stress in educators’ lives.

By Kitty Boitnott

If you’re like many people in today’s fast-paced, information-glutted, socially-connected-at-every-turn world, stress has become a fact of life for you. Most of us feel overwhelmed at least some of the time. Much has been written about the effects of stress on our mind, body and spirit, and research is constantly revealing new and sometimes surprising information about the nature of stress and its effects on the quality of our lives.

Additionally, if you are a teacher, a support professional, or an administrator in one of the over 2,000 public schools in Virginia or the thousands beyond, you may be suffering from what I would argue is a unique and specific type of stress. That stress is the result of decades of teacher-bashing, which has been part of our national culture since 1983 when the Reagan Administration issued “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” In the 30 years since the publication of that report, teachers have been subject to a particular type of criticism—criticism that has been very public and in some cases extremely demoralizing, not to mention just downright hurtful.

The teaching profession and the work teachers have dedicated their lives to have become minimalized in a way that I don’t believe any other profession has. Ironically, while legislators and politicians love to pay lip service to the work that teachers, support professionals and administrators do every day, few actually ask those same teachers, support professionals and administrators what needs to be done to improve our schools. Instead, educators at every level have been subjected to high-stakes testing regimens that are generally not even good for kids. And while students are subjected to too much testing, teachers are required to comply with impossibly complex and convoluted evaluation systems designed to weed out the “bad teachers” who, if you believe the hype, are the rule rather than the exception. In the meantime, school funding is slashed year after year, salaries are stagnant, and governors around the country delight in doing whatever they can to minimalize the very education associations that are designed to protect educators’ rights and promote high levels of professionalism.
 
Whether your stress is related to your personal life or your professional life, you probably think of it in negative terms. Most of us think of stress as a bad thing—something we need to reduce or eliminate from our lives. The fact is, however, that many of the stressors in our lives are not necessarily the result of negative events. Many American adults report, for example, that workplace stress is a major problem in their lives; but if you are planning a wedding, recently bought a new home, are planning an exciting new career move, or just brought home a new baby, you are also experiencing stress, even though these are generally enjoyable experiences.

Stress is the result of change, and change can be the result of a happy event or a sad event. In fact, stress can be the result of an event that has no emotional charge at all, but develops during a change over which you may feel you have little control. It’s that lack of control that causes you to feel stressed, and your body reacts accordingly.
 
How widespread are health issues related to stress in our nation? According to a report by the American Institute of Stress, over 40 percent of all adults in America suffer adverse health effects due to stress, and more than three-fourths of the visits made to our family doctors are for stress-related complaints.
 
As gloomy as that sounds, there are things that you can do right now to minimize, reduce and manage stress in your life on a day-to-day basis. There are, in fact, six things you can do right away or over a relatively short period of time that will help you to become more resilient in the face of day-to-day stress, whether it is the result of negative or positive events.

The six habits, or practices, not necessarily in any order of importance because they are all important, both individually and collectively, are:

• Staying hydrated by drinking at least 64 ounces of water each day.

• Eating well by taking in whole, unprocessed foods that contain the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your body needs for optimum health every day.

• Sleeping for 6 1/2 to 8 hours each night.

• Exercising for a minimum of 30 minutes each day at least five days a week.

• Having fun and seeking out something that will make you feel good at least a couple times a day. (Go to lunch with a friend. Buy yourself flowers. Take a long delayed vacation. Do something that just makes you feel good!)

• Develop a prayer practice or a period of meditation every morning for 10-20 minutes, concentrating in particular on those things for which you are most grateful.

Now, let me be perfectly clear: incorporating these six daily practices into your life will not eliminate all the stress in your life. If your boss is a jerk, he is going to continue to be a jerk even if you are getting your full 64 ounces of water a day and you just had a great night’s sleep. These practices won’t make your boss any easier to work for; but they will increase your physical, mental and spiritual resilience so you are in a more powerful position to deal with the challenges that your boss offers. You are stronger; you will feel more alert and ready to meet whatever your day holds. You will be healthier and less prone to becoming sick from being tired and run down. All of these practices, when taken together as a part of your overall lifestyle, will work together to make you feel better about yourself. You will feel more physically fit. You will be stronger and you will feel up to handling whatever comes your way.

So What is Stress?
If you think you’re feeling stressed about something, you probably are. You cannot see stress, but we can easily enough recognize the symptoms in ourselves and in others. Dark circles or bags under the eyes may be an indication of a lack of sleep. Bloodshot or red-rimmed eyes may be an indication that someone has been crying. Sudden weight loss may be the result of a loss of appetite during a stressful event. Conversely, weight gain in a relatively short period of time may be the result of eating to comfort oneself during a stressful time. Stress can cause you to feel and act in a manner that indicates increased moodiness, irritability or erratic behavior. It may also result in an increase in risky behaviors, such as drinking too much alcohol or using drugs to mask emotional pain.

Stress is something you feel. In general, it’s a feeling that something is “off”—either a little bit off or way off, depending upon the situation. In general, stress is the result of feeling like things are happening too fast for us to keep up comfortably, or some major life event has taken us by surprise and we are not able to cope easily with the resulting changes.

In a workshop that I offer on stress management, I talk further about the differences between acute stress, which results from a sudden and unexpected change like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, as opposed to episodic stress, which results due to a series of changes in a relatively short period of time, and chronic stress, which results from having to live with chronic pain or living in a dysfunctional household.

Stress definitely affects your health and, in fact, can make you quite sick. Hypertension and heart disease are two readily recognized direct results of stress. It is also a fact that stress can cause cancer, skin rashes, digestive problems, and a lengthy list of other illnesses. Our bodies are hardwired to deal with stress, and our brain doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or an imagined threat resulting from chronic worry over events that may not have even occurred. So many of us hang out in our heads mulling over the past or worrying about the future instead of relishing the beauty of the present moment. That’s why meditating or developing a practice of prayer concentrating on the things you have to be grateful for can be so helpful.

As I said earlier, making these six practices a part of your daily routine will not eliminate the stresses that inevitably come with life. They won’t prevent your boss from giving you grief at work; they won’t make everything suddenly rosy with your spouse if things have been rocky lately; and they won’t put money in the bank if you are worried about your finances.

What they will do is make finding ways to work around these challenges or dealing head-on with them easier. They will help you clear your mind so you can think more clearly and problem-solve more effectively. You will feel better about yourself, and you will have a better attitude about life in general. You will know that while you don’t have control over all the things that happen to you in everyday life, you do have control over yourself. You choose to incorporate healthy habits into your life. You choose to eat for good nutrition instead of for comfort. You feel more rested and stronger because you are choosing to get the sleep and exercise you need for a healthy body and mind. And you are taking care of yourself spiritually as well by making time for things that lift your spirits, like playing with your pet, catching up with a friend, or buying yourself a bouquet of flowers just because you can. You also feel more connected with yourself and your Creator when you take time to meditate or pray each day, keeping yourself grounded and knowing that no matter what is happening around you, you are okay.
Stress is a given in our modern society, but suffering because you can’t get a handle on what’s going on in your life is not. You can take control of some things, and by incorporating these six daily practices into your life, you can exercise that control in a way that will make you feel much stronger and better about yourself in the long run.

Boitnott, NBCT, PhD, is the VEA’s immediate past president and a longtime Association leader in both Roanoke and Henrico counties. She is now a Certified Life Strategies and Stress Management Coach and the owner of Boitnott Coaching, LLC. You can contact her at admin@teachersintransition.com or (804) 467-0435.

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Six Ways to Battle Burnout

By Erick Lauber, PhD
 
If you feel yourself losing enjoyment about work, if the excitement and sense of accomplishment you once had is slowly being replaced by a lack of motivation, you may be sliding toward burnout.

To turn this around, you’ll need to look at the underlying causes of the problem. Why do any of us enjoy work? And can we re-ignite those reasons in our own work environment? The answer is yes. I think there are at least six different reasons we enjoy work (apart from the money we make, of course):
 
Inner Accomplishment
Seeking a personal sense of accomplishment is natural and can be harnessed every day. The remarkable time and energy many educators put into their work can only be understood as an “inner drive” – it can be described as “taking pride in my work” or a sense that “this is what I was meant to do.” Whether the objectives are short- or long-term, making progress toward a goal makes all of us feel good.
 
The Greater Good
Many school employees are also motivated by a sense of community, and the feeling that they’re part of something larger—that life isn’t just about their own individual needs and wants. This particular joy and peace can happen in the workplace. Reframe your circumstances and see how you’re contributing to the greater good.
 
Personal Relationships
Everyone enjoys individual relationships; it gives us something to look forward to each day. The laughter, the camaraderie, the forgiveness, and even the occasional stress are all things we wouldn’t really want to live without. Look for this basic human need to connect with others in your school.
 
Sense of Team
Similarly, some people enjoy a special sense of wholeness when they feel part of a team. Is there something you can do to encourage this shared identity in your school? For quieter colleagues, a sense of “team” might provide an important opportunity to connect and feel like they belong. How much team spirit has your administration created?
 
Physical Exertion
For some, a special sense of joy comes from physical exertion, and everyone knows about the stress-management benefits of working out. Modern day psychology reaffirms the benefits of physical activity. Could getting physical be a way to battle a lack of motivation?
 
Mental Challenges
Finally, a great many of us enjoy the special mental feeling that comes from exercising our creativity or satisfying our curiosity. The small euphoria that comes from developing something new or conquering a complex problem can be a big part of enjoying work. Are you bored or frustrated by your tasks? Try coming at them from a little different angle.
 
Lauber is an applied psychologist and faculty member at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He speaks and consults on leadership, personal growth and development, and taking charge of our own life stories. His video log is located at www.LifeFraming.org. You can also visit www.ErickLauber.com.

 

 


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