One of the most surprising things about teaching I discovered when I first started in the profession was how much stress a teaching job generates. Nowadays I think teacher training programs incorporate more material about that, but even with some preparation, it’s difficult to really understand the levels of stress involved until one actually teaches.
The second surprise is that students are often not the primary cause of teacher stress. Sure, we’ve all had the mischievous soul who tried our patience or the student in trouble who tugged our heart strings a little too hard, but in my experience much more stress can come from outside factors such as inadequate funding or excessive politicization, as well as adults in the system who somehow find ways to make your life more difficult.
Why should you be concerned about stress? Because too much stress reduces the effectiveness of your teaching. I won’t repeat all the evidence for that here, since it is amply documented elsewhere, but if you are interested in specifics, you might want to look at articles like this (though it focuses more on depression, one of the possible consequences of stress), this, and this.
Searching the links above reminded me what part of the problem is. Even with searches carefully tailored to elicit results about teacher stress, most of the top hits were articles about student stress. Don’t get me wrong–student stress is also very important. However, a lot of analyses have a tendency to forget that teachers are people, too, and that their psychological state can also be important.
Not only is stress destructive in the classroom, but it’s toxic to your health as well. You can find a good summary of those issues here. I didn’t really become aware of the variety and seriousness of the problems until my former school district stated having trouble with insurance providers. They frequently cited stress-related health problems as a reason to charge more for group insurance, and that naturally got me thinking about the subject.
In the interest of full disclosure, I never succeeded in mastering my stress; it’s why I retired early. I apparently got out just in time, too. I was starting to develop some very obvious stress-related symptoms, like having chronic low-level headaches that stopped every summer.
That said, my experience with handling stress and seeing how other people handled it might be useful to you, so I have provided some tips below.
- Organize yourself well. That was always hard for me, but I definitely felt less stress when I had more control. In practice that meant not having to hunt for things, not getting two meeting scheduled at the same time, that kind of thing. The time organization takes is more than made up for by the time–and frustration–you save down the line.
- Set manageable goals each day, and, except in unforeseen circumstances, meet those goals. I don’t know why, but I used to go into a day sometimes thinking I would get far more grading done than I did. When I failed to meet my goal–which happened often with overly ambitious grading goals–I ended up feeling more stress. I’ve seen students fall into the same pattern, and in either case the result is likely to be a downward spiral, since rising stress levels will make it harder to meet the next goal down the line.
- Make time for relaxation and enjoyment. Some of you, particularly English teachers or others in high-paperload disciplines will laugh about this one, but it’s true. You cannot work all the time without running the risk of overly high stress levels, and eventually, burnout. Part of having a good organization is making time in your plan for pleasurable activities.
Make time for family and friends. Don’t forget about the people in your life, no matter how much work you have. It’s easy to lose track of old friends and even create tensions within the family by not keeping in touch. When I first started teaching high school, I couldn’t help noticing how many of my colleagues in the English department were either divorced or unmarried. In fact, one of the standard jokes among the younger teachers was that the official card game of the English department was Old Maid. Ironically, I ended up unmarried as well, and over time my friends outside of school faded away. You may think this is an avoidable problem, and it is, but it is also very easy to keep putting off the people in your life until a more convenient time–which sometimes takes weeks to arrive.
- Take advantage of every little opportunity for exercise. Unless you teach physical education, there may not be much built-in exercise in your job, and though teaching itself isn’t that sedentary, grading and planning both are. Even if you don’t have time for a regular workout at the gym, you can still increase the exercise you get–and lower your stress in the process–by finding ways to insert short bursts of exercise into your daily routine. For example, I worked in a multistory building and always took the stairs instead of the elevator. When I could run errands on foot rather than by car, I did that (which also saved me the stress of traffic and finding a parking place). Some schools will help by organizing teachers for before and/or after school fitness walks or something similar. Make use of any opportunity like that if it fits your schedule.
- Realize that you can’t do everything. One of the biggest stress creators in teaching is the fact that it is in many ways a bottomless-pit job. No matter how much you’re doing, you can always be doing more. Because of that, it’s easy for teachers to overwork themselves, as well as to be overworked by the system. Realizing one’s limits is hard; I got there only near the end of my career. Hopefully, you’ll be better. The key is figuring out how much you can reasonably do for your students, and, except in cases of dire emergency, resist the urge to keep escalating. For instance, if you’re an English teacher, you have to learn not to give massive amounts of feedback on each essay. Perhaps a few key assignments will need that much. Others can get less, or get feedback focused only on one aspect. Others may get a check-off rubric rather than comments. If you train your students well enough, peer feedback can also supplement the feedback you give. If a student is really struggling, you can also vary the amount of feedback you give on each assignment based on student need–but in that case, monitor yourself carefully to make sure your feedback is not creeping beyond a manageable level.
Yes, all of these suggestions are common sense. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose track of common sense in the maelstrom that is teaching.
(A form of this article was published on October 30, 2016.)