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Virginia Journal of Education


Chill Out!

Helpful information for dealing with the high stress levels of teaching.


by Sandra B. Cohen, Wendy W. Amato and Natasha A. Heny

Looking at magazines along the grocery checkout lanes, you can’t help but notice the coverage given to stress reduction: it’s a recurring theme. You also can’t help but notice that the advice given can usually be narrowed down to three things: get enough rest, eat right and exercise. These popular recommendations are generic, one-size-fits-all ideas that are useful—but cannot begin to fully address the stress management needs of today’s education practitioners. Today’s teachers are responsible for navigating waters filled with administrative directives, parental concerns, state standards, national accountability measures and tightened budgets—on top of meeting expectations for students whose social and emotional needs are increasingly complex. Our purpose here is not to rehash old recommendations, but to identify some sources of stress in teachers’ professional lives and to offer concrete ways to manage professional stress factors. We’ll also recommend an approach to stress reduction that is now being used with teachers and children to bring focus to the classroom.

Connect with a professional learning community. Whether it’s survival instinct, school policy, noise control or the historical arrangement of one teacher to one classroom, as teachers we often work behind closed classroom doors. Isolating ourselves does not enable us to avoid the sources of anxiety that our profession generates. Just the opposite, in fact: We can best tackle our sources of stress by opening the proverbial door and forming effective partnerships and strong professional networks. From the first year of teaching to the final year of a career, teachers benefit from being part of a reflective, collaborative group of peers.

Think back to your first year of teaching. If you had a positive experience, what made it so? Many teachers identify an experienced teacher or two who took them under their wing and helped them in some way; from the generous offer of unit plans to the shoulder to cry on, that mentor was available. If you are a novice teacher, find out if your school district has a new teacher mentor program, and take advantage of it. If there is not a formal program or if you are a more veteran teacher, create an informal network of your own by seeking out a like-minded colleague. You may find someone with whom to navigate the intricacies of school culture, provide insight into lesson planning, and help you reflect on your practice in the classroom.

For even experienced practitioners, finding a reflection partner, a learning community, or a teacher research group can alleviate stress. The key to making these collaborative relationships work is to dedicate a regularly scheduled period of time to working together, define your personal and/or group goals, and regularly monitor your progress towards those goals. It is also vital that your own needs, interests and questions determine your goals for these partnerships. If you set up your group/partnership effectively, not only will you strengthen your practice, you will also find yourself invigorated by the act of inquiry into issues that matter to you, supported by the collaboration and reflective nature of a professional learning community.

Break yourself out of the rut that generates stress and refresh yourself with new ideas: join the professional association for your content area; set up an e-mail for listserv notifications; attend conferences; seek out continuing education opportunities; try out an online presentation or forum; ask for a professional development day to visit a colleague at another school. Stepping away from your daily routine can give you a fresh perspective to tackle your questions anew.

Are you wondering how adding to your already overwhelming schedule can alleviate stress? Start small. You’re reading this article; take that as a sign of your wish to transform your situation. Set a goal of incorporating one or two improvements into your instructional practice each marking period. The result is that you will make steady improvements in the teaching and learning in your classroom without having to reinvent the wheel each time.

Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. Just as the airlines tell passengers before take-off to attend to themselves first, we support the notion that you need to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. If you don’t, you are in danger of losing the ability to do what you have set out to do: teach. One of the undeniable features of our profession is that it is not a 9-5 job. In fact, for many, when boundaries are not explicitly set, we can work around-the-clock. The very characteristics that guided us into the teaching profession (a love of children and content, a fervor for democratic learning, an abundance of creativity, and a passion for helping others improve) often are responsible for driving us out again if we do not find a way to balance our personal needs with our professional needs. Regular exercise and relaxation needs to be counterbalanced with work and the needs of our relationships with friends, family and even finances.  This becomes a tricky juggling act of keeping all of the proverbial balls in the air, but it can be done!

Finding a balance that works for you requires some serious self-reflection and prioritizing. It means listening to yourself and to those around you. Start with your health (put that oxygen mask on). Make the doctor’s appointment you have been putting off; if exercise has been sacrificed, start putting it back into your weekly schedule slowly; reassess your eating and sleeping habits. Then, start considering the areas in your life that are being neglected to your detriment and the areas where you spend the most time and energy.  Create manageable goals that help you transfer some of the time and energy you spend inefficiently at school to places that are missing in the other parts of your life. Getting started in these areas can be as easy as walking down the hall to consult with the school nurse.

When you have the central area of personal health back on track, expand to your personal finances. Is your budget allowing for savings? Consult a financial advisor about the tax credits available to teachers. Speak to someone in your school system’s human resources department about available flexible spending accounts for health and/or dependent care. Support your students with encouragement and enthusiasm rather than contributing to every organization’s fundraiser. Making an effort to maximize our benefits can minimize our financial stress.

Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Have the presence of mind to know when to engage in the moment and when to disengage. Specifically, be attuned to the things that are within your control and work to improve them while recognizing those things that you cannot change. This is not only the basis of good behavior management, but of good personal management as well.

Establish class routines and rules and stick to them. Use your lesson plans to establish structure to your day. This consistency can concretely influence classroom outcomes and your own sense of self-efficacy. When you have clearly defined classroom expectations, uphold them. It’s the old philosophy of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” A quick, firm and immediate reminder of the rules compared to a conference about an ongoing, built-up misbehavior is reason enough to engage in the moment of classroom management. Conversely, be aware of and recognize desired classroom behavior so that positive models are reinforced. Some call this “with-it-ness”; others call it “mindfulness.” Either way, it means being fully aware of what is going on around you.

Think about your colleagues and be conscious of who leaves you recharged and who leaves you drained or frustrated. Use that knowledge for decisions like where to sit in the faculty lounge, who to join for chaperone duty, who to see in person as opposed to leaving a note or an e-mail, who can give an objective second opinion, who to observe for professional development, and who to meet up with for brainstorming and problem-solving. Walk away (or run!) when conversations with colleagues turn negative and you cannot swing it back around. Avoid the co-workers who regularly make withdrawals from your reserve of energy and seek out those colleagues who bring out the best in you. It’s okay to look out for yourself! The reality is that we cannot change other people. However, we can change our own behavior and enforce personal consequences. Your plans, your expectations, your relationships are all within your influence.

Reduce the clutter. Teacher clutter comes in two forms: clutter in our schedules and clutter in our physical space (the classroom). Along with figuring out what you can and cannot control comes learning to say ‘No.’ Teachers, by nature, are generally eager to help when asked or to step in when we see a need, but taking on more than we can realistically handle means adding to our professional stress. Try to ask yourself some simple questions before taking on a new task: Will this improve my teaching or enhance the learning experience for my students? Will this help me balance my personal workload? Will this add pleasure to my day? If the answer is no, consider letting the opportunity go or allowing someone else to take on this task. Setting personal priorities helps reduce scheduling clutter.

For many of us, creating learning environments means creating happy and creative spaces, but when the classroom is disorganized or has too much in it, it becomes a fine line between a pleasant space and a cluttered space. By organizing the classroom space (desk included), we feel more in control and can better manage the demands of the teaching day. Even better, students see us as in control and recognize our authority.

Get new glasses. You can reduce your stress by seeing things from a different perspective. Today’s stress-causing student behaviors can be reconsidered in forward-thinking ways that make them much more digestible tomorrow. For example, it may be reassuring to think of the student who is combative in class as a future advocate for social justice, or the daydreamer as a contributing member of a creative think-tank task force. How about the perfectionist as a medical researcher? In most cases, stress-causing student behaviors are not purposefully directed at you.  Redirect your reaction to open up the possibility of that classroom behavior playing out to be a positive adult characteristic.

Remind yourself of your original reasons for going into education—perhaps it was because you loved a particular content area or age of student? Perhaps the day-to-day variety of responsibilities appealed to you? Perhaps you sought challenge? Perhaps teaching allowed a balance of outside interests and obligations?  Whatever the case, remind yourself of those reasons for teaching and use them to preface any interaction that you may dread. It can change your perspective from negative to positive. For instance, opening a conversation with a parent about a student concern is going to go much more smoothly if it starts with your affirmation of why you teach. Compare “I’m calling to talk to you about your son always forgetting his homework” to “I’m calling because I enjoy working with your son and want to help him stay on top of his daily assignments.” The use of positive phrasing can change minds and behaviors—what better way to reduce stress?

Get hip. Cutting-edge professionals are looking to help teachers cope with the increased complexities of being a modern-day educator. Teachers are being encouraged to practice personal training methods of relaxation and mindfulness to help address teaching “events” that come with the immediacy of real-time classroom decision-making and to achieve personal and professional balance.  Current thinking in neuroscience confirms that including elements of relaxation such as mindfulness and yoga facilitates awareness and self-regulation and increases a teacher’s ability to stay calm and focused. The University of Virginia this past fall instituted mindfulness and yoga training for all student teachers as a way to help them enter the profession with tools to manage the many demands placed on teachers.

So what can you do for yourself? We recommend that you search online for information on mindfulness and learn what you can, attend workshops on stress reduction in your area, or organize a group of colleagues to spend some time each week envisioning a relaxed and calm classroom using mindfulness techniques. Need more? View videos of mindfulness training with children (www.stillquietplace.com/press_video.html) and then focus on how you can extend stress reduction from a technique for helping yourself to one that can help revise your teaching and improve children’s learning. Our advice: Get hip, give it a try!

Like many of you, we’ve layered the demands of the classroom between health concerns, family crises, financial crunches and over-commitment. We are under no illusions of a stress-free existence-- this article is about reducing stress.  As a result, in the same way that we urge our students to make progress towards a goal, we urge teachers to work towards connectedness, self-preservation instincts, presence of mind, and perspective. It is with these tools that we keep ourselves tuned up and stress down, allowing us to continue to teach one more day, one more marking period, one more year.

Cohen is a professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Amato and Heny are doctoral candidates there.

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