Stress. We all feel it. There’s really no way around it. The fact of the matter is a certain amount of stress is healthy and even necessary in our lives—it serves as the impetus for us to respond to the obstacles and uncertainties we face every day.
However, chronic stress, or the otherwise prolonged and repetitive arousal of our stress responses, can have dire effects on our well-being, including serious physical and psychological consequences. As teachers, of course, it can also affect our work performance and even our students.
Below, we discuss what stress is and provide some stress management techniques geared towards teachers. Try some of the techniques below to help keep your stress levels at bay this school year.
What Exactly is Stress?
Stress refers to both the psychological perception of pressure, as well as our body’s response to it. While stress hormones, like cortisol, are produced daily to help us meet everyday challenges and prepare the body for emergencies as necessary, high levels of these hormones can depress our immune system and actually change the way our brain functions.
This can sometimes lead to cognitive issues, memory impairment, anxiety and depression; as well as contributing to physical ailments such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Stress is not something to take lightly.
Dealing with Teacher Stress
Stress is a given in our industry, unfortunately. All of us have felt frustrated, overwhelmed and tired for a variety of reasons. So, in what ways can teachers recognize and deal with stressful symptoms?
1. Know the Signs
One of the first and most basic steps to managing our stress is knowing what to watch out for. Muscle tension, headaches and stomachaches, rapid breathing and a racing heart, insomnia, irritability and trouble concentrating can all be signs of heightened stress. When we see these signs in ourselves, it’s important to take steps to help manage our stress, lest we become emotionally and physically exhausted and find ourselves on the road to burnout. Luckily, there are numerous tips and tools we can use to help us manage the stress in our lives.
2. Let Go of What You Can’t Control
Although often easier said than done, it is important to remember that we cannot control everything. Here are some reminders to help you figure out, accept and release those things that that are simply out of your hands:
- Try your best and take your time
It’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out right away. Your students don’t need 100% perfection from you, so there’s no need to demand it of yourself. Just take your time and do the best you can rolling with the punches. Modeling flexibility for your students as changes and difficult situations come forth, and even acknowledging that it’s all a work in progress, will prove especially important life lessons.
- Don’t dwell on past mistakes
If you were in the wrong about something, apologize, learn from it and move on. Taking responsibility for your mistakes and then letting them go will serve you immeasurably as you work toward that new normal at school.
- Try not to take things personally
Daily uncertainties may put a strain on the dynamics between you, your colleagues, administrators and students, but it probably isn’t personal. Do what you can to address what needs to be addressed in order to avoid letting anger and frustrations build up, and then move forward, keeping in mind that you can’t please everybody all of the time.
- Limit “grass is greener” thinking
It can be easy to find ourselves longing for another time—a time when things seemed simpler—or wishing for changes in the future that may or may not come. Do your best to stay in the present and deal with what is happening here and now. (You’ll find more tips on mindfulness and staying in the present below.)
- Avoid fixating on worries and overwhelming thoughts
One good exercise to help put things into perspective is to write down your worries. Rank them in order of importance, and then, for each one, decide whether it’s best to accept, change or reject it; then create plans to do just that. Scheduling a time to worry and then sticking to it can also be a great tool to prevent overthinking throughout your day.
- Prioritize, Plan and Organize Your Time
When responsibilities start to feel overwhelming, do your best to work out your priorities. Be specific about the tasks that need to be completed, and then break those down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Rather than working yourself up into a frenzy trying to multitask (and then not getting anything done), focus on one step at a time. You want to work smarter, not harder.
- Don’t Forget to Have Fun in Class!
Focus on planning activities that make teaching fun for you—and learning fun for your students—and then do those things! This will help you to reduce stress by bringing laughter and enjoyment back into the classroom. Some great ideas include:
- Creating a class book—this collaborative project will help to bring your class together, as well as allow your students to improve and practice their artistic and literary skills. Not only that, you’ll also be making something that you and your students can hold in your hands and be proud of.
- Highlighting a “Star of the Week”—this activity is a fun way to help you and your students share and get to know each other better. In addition, each student will have the opportunity to feel like a “star,” building their confidence and presentation skills.
- Going on scavenger hunts—this game can serve as a great break for you and your students, allowing you all to get up and have a little bit of fun. You can tie the items for each scavenger hunt into your current curriculum.
- Taking field trips—this activity will allow for a bit of escapism, all while teaching your students about places near and far that they are interested in. Tie this into lessons or make it a part of getting to know your students and where they’ve been or would like to go.
3. Practice Self-Care
You have heard the term “self-care” a million times in the past and may have just written it off. However, during stressful times, it can be difficult to remember to take good care of ourselves. If we aren’t able to manage our own mental and physical health, we won’t be any help to our students or our families and communities. Therefore, it’s important to practice the basics of self-care and to give ourselves some special attention when we need it.
- Eat and sleep regularly
As simple and obvious as maintaining regular eating and sleeping schedules may seem, their importance cannot be overstated. When we aren’t well rested or eating well-balanced meals, it can throw everything out of whack, making us more susceptible to unstable emotions and energy and running down our immune systems. Do your best to eat a regular, healthy diet and get enough rest on a daily basis.
- Get out and exercise
Moving your body may be more important than ever. And it’s also important for you to plan and look forward to things that you really enjoy—don’t wait for summer vacation to do them! Getting out and into nature can often do wonders for our overall health and well-being.
- Make time for yourself (including self-care days as needed)
Take breaks from work to walk and avoid thinking about the things on your to-do list. Give yourself time for personal reflection; journaling is a great way to reflect and gain insight and perspective. And, perhaps most importantly, allow yourself at least five minutes a day to do nothing at all—without giving yourself a guilt trip about it!
- Seek support
Discuss your thoughts and feelings with supportive listeners, whether they be friends, family, colleagues, mental health professionals or support groups. We can all use someone to talk to, especially when times become tough.
- Set boundaries for a healthy work-life balance
Protect your energy by saying no when you need to. You can politely refuse invitations and avoid taking on more responsibilities than you can handle, no matter who is asking. You don’t even need an excuse.
- Treat yourself!
It’s okay, and even important, to indulge in healthy things that make you feel good now and again. Watch programs that make you laugh, listen to music, soak in a hot bath or even book a massage. These kinds of treats can help to rejuvenate you for the work that lies ahead—but don’t worry about those responsibilities while you’re treating yourself.
- Give relaxation techniques a try
The following practices can really help you to unwind when you’re feeling especially tense, anxious or overwhelmed:
- Deep breathing
- Muscle relaxation
- Stretching and yoga
Even if it’s just for a few minutes each day, techniques like deep breathing, meditation and stretching can go a long way in calming your emotions and nervous system.
4. Promote Your Overall Well-Being
- Mind your emotions
Emotions affect just about every aspect of our lives: our attention, memory, learning, decision-making, relationships and physical health. Pleasant and positive emotions help us to be more open and engaged, while difficult and negative emotions can interfere with our functioning and diminish our ability to be effective educators. Pay attention to your emotions and work to reframe negative thoughts that may play into your feelings overall.
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to be present in the here and now and can help you to better observe your thoughts and feelings without getting too wrapped up in them. Start by focusing on your five senses in the moment—touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.
When you pause to take in what is around you without judgment, you tap into a peaceful part of yourself that is always there for you to access, regardless of your circumstances. This is also a skill you can impart to your students to help them manage their own stress in and out of class.
- Reflect on your values and strengths
When teacher stress strikes, it’s all too easy to focus on the negative, getting caught up in whatever issues seem to be arising around us and ruminating on what we perceive to be our own deeply ingrained flaws. By taking time to reflect on the values that matter most to you, you’ll be less likely to get caught up in the negativity that doesn’t really apply to you. And in reminding yourself of your own strengths, you’ll be more apt to treat yourself (and even others) with kindness and respect—which of course you deserve.
- Practice gratitude
Finally, developing what they call “an attitude of gratitude” can do amazing things for your overall well-being. One simple way to practice gratitude is to make a list of three to five things you are grateful for on a daily or weekly basis—for example, you can be grateful that you have such an essential, meaningful job in the field of education.
Sharing this practice with your students by having them write their own gratitude lists will help you and the whole class maintain positivity, even in the face of today’s current challenges.
Remember, it is natural to feel stressed and not having all of the answers is okay. Just do your best and provide guidance to your students like you always have. Set aside time to take care of yourself and try a few of the stress management techniques above.
Studentreasures provides FREE classbook publishing kits. Creating a classbook is not only a fun activity that teaches students about the writing process, it can also help build their confidence as young writers.