Dealing with Stress: Ideas for Teacher Rejuvenation

For Middle Level

Student drawing of water drop

Student drawing of water drop

Teaching is a stressful profession. It's consistently ranked in the top three of "most stressful jobs in the world" indices, along with air traffic controlling and cardiac surgery. According to health professionals, stress weakens the immune system. It can cause anxiety, depression, anger, and a host of physical illnesses.

For insight into avoiding or relieving stress from teaching, teachers in an Origins Developmental Designs workshop in July generated a list of stress sources, as well as their coping strategies, both proactive and reactive. We also did some research to find out what the experts say about easing the stressors in schools.

Four Levels of Relieving Stress
Think about stress relief as occurring in four arenas: while working with students; at school, outside of class time; at school, working with adults; at home.

LEVEL 1 At school, while working with students

You're in class and one of your students is pushing your buttons, trying to provoke a response. You can feel your emotions taking over. Your heartbeat quickens; perhaps a vein or artery begins to throb.

Before things get personal, what can you do to ensure you'll redirect in a way that's meaningful and helpful? Start by identifying what student behaviors trigger stress.

Teachers identified these stressors:
Student conflict
Students in crisis
Complaining, negative students
Absent and tardy students
Non-compliant and defiant students
Competent students who avoid work and fail
Students not paying attention, off -task, not engaged
Students acting out
Students yelling or swearing at teachers
Student violence, temper tantrums, and other out-of-control behavior

How do you react to these triggers? What could you could to calm yourself?

Surveyed teachers suggested:

  • Sing a song; do a quick sketch
  • Use a mantra: whisper "Patience" to myself
  • Say "Stop" to the negative thinking
  • Say to oneself, "If you're in a hole, stop digging!"
  • Play Mozart during class
  • Smile or laugh with students – tell a joke or funny story; read Shel Silverstein
  • Play a quick game or movement activity, perhaps student-led
  • Ask student to stand up and turn in a circle (turn the day around)
  • Do jumping jacks
  • Sip something warm – coffee or tea
  • Take 5 while students quietly read
  • Soften voice
  • Take an impromptu class field trip within school
  • Remember that students aren't out to get you
  • Mentally scan body & relax muscles
  • Count backwards silently

Once you've centered yourself, you'll have a better chance of depersonalizing the next decisions you make.

LEVEL 2 At school, not during class time

It's your prep or lunch time. Or maybe you just have a few minutes to catch your breath as students pass from class to class. Your last hour was stressful, or perhaps your most difficult class is coming in soon. What can you do to reduce stress?

  • Walk outside or inside, around the school
  • Ask yourself how you want to experience a particular student or class, and then decide what you have to do to accomplish that; then, when that student or class arrives, do what you've planned
  • Sing yourself a song
  • Listen to some soothing music
  • Do a little dance
  • Practice a quick bit of yoga or meditation; stretch
  • Engage in "mindless movement": erase the board, straighten the furniture, water plants, etc.
  • Improve your classroom environment

Many people – students included – are affected by wall color, lighting sources, furniture arrangement, clutter, white noise, unhealthy odors, etc. Make the room a more appealing, aesthetic place for comfortable learning

Teachers suggest...

  • Relax with a magazine article
  • Close eyes and repeat mantra "Relax"
  • Talk with colleagues who can lift your spirits
  • Organize or clean up something
  • Power nap
  • Eat an apple
  • Play games with students at recess
  • Call a friend or your partner to get moral support
  • Send an email to a friend
  • Cross things off your "To Do" list
  • Remember that students want to learn
  • Sit at the rowdy table during lunch
  • Write in journal
  • Visit the library or another quiet place

LEVEL 3 Creating and maintaining a caring, supportive adult community

To help build professional relationships into sources of strength, it is useful to identify the origins of stress in the adult community.

Teachers surveyed described stress from other adults...
Adults not being proactive
Teachers not doing their jobs
Administrators not listening
Staff members in crisis
Parents with time-consuming issues
Parents who don't hold children accountable
Unrealistic expectations from administration
Colleagues not working together
Lack of communication

What can be done?
Socialize together through team- and trust-building exercises; birthday celebrations, gathering for formal and informal staff acknowledgments, sharing hobbies and interests

Create change incrementally. Prioritize.

Hone your craft together: concentrate on what you want out of teaching; read and share professional books and articles; attend conferences; use peer coaching (try this!); create meaningful staff development opportunities

Be enthusiastic. Expressing a positive outlook infuses your classroom environment with possibility.

Avoid negative, gossip-centered exchanges. Carefully choose how and with whom you spend your time. Find a colleague who agrees to be your "distress buddy" and talk regularly. If you struggle with a tendency toward negativity, sarcasm, or cynicism, recruit a "positivity mentor" in your building and check in regularly.

Exercise "Presumed Positive Intentions" (PPI).

Teachers suggest...

  • Walk together at lunch
  • "Primal scream" together
  • Carpool sharing with positive reflections
  • Eat together – healthy food, staff cookouts
  • Laugh together
  • Greet each other throughout the day
  • Have a staff wellness day w/massages and bio rhythm readings
  • Share your stories and get positive feedback from colleagues
  • Make wellness pacts (walking teams, weight-loss support)
  • Tell positive jokes together
  • Use CPR for staff or team meetings
  • Tireless Effort Award – selected teacher honored with gold-painted tire wheeled into classroom

LEVEL 4 Outside school

Take care of yourself  you are a teacher, a precious resource! WE ALL NEED YOU! During late afternoons, evenings, weekends, holidays, or vacations there are many things you may already do to rebound, refresh, rejuvenate, reinvigorate, and otherwise build resilience.

Teachers suggest...

  • Be active – bike, fish, swim, hike, canoe, play soccer, walk, play with a dog, ski, jump rope
  • Play with your children
  • Attend a concert
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take a bath
  • Visit with friends and family; talk about your stress
  • Read for pleasure
  • Sleep! (go to bed early)
  • Nurture hobbies – knit, write, scrapbook, quilt, sew, garden
  • Meditate
  • Get outside!
  • Draw firm boundaries between school and home
  • Do community work
  • Do something pleasurable each day
  • Take a nap
  • Watch the birds and other animals
  • Go to a ballgame
  • Look at photos, reflect
  • Do Tai chi
  • Coach a youth sport
  • Journal
  • Do Sudoku, crosswords
  • Take a vacation

The experts agree with much of what the teachers surveyed suggested, roughly falling into these main areas of wellness: sleep; eat right; exercise your body, spirit and brain; plan fun (have things to look forward to); and manage stress from home. Here are a few examples gathered from experts on the topic:

[Special online insert; not in printed newsletter version].

Sleep: To log those much needed hours each night here's one strategy for falling asleep quickly: Find an uncommonly difficult book (anything by Kant, or Joyce's Ulysses) and curl up with it at bedtime. You'll be "out" before you can say, "circumlocution!"

Eat right: Remember to eat breakfast and carry in a healthy snack to help keep you going.

Exercise your body: Those who exercise slough off stress better. If you're out of shape, start with a regimen you can do. Build any physical activity into your daily routine. Walking 15-25 minutes a day rids body of adrenaline and gets the endorphins circulating. (Endorphins are a natural tranquilizer, a balm.) In a recent study, 156 men over the age of 50 who were suffering from diagnosed depression were placed into three "remedy" groups: 1) exercise 2) antidepressant 3) both exercise and antidepressant. After six months, 19% of the group one subjects had relapsed, compared to 38% in group 2 and 31% in group 3! (Blumenthal, 1999)

Exercise your spirit: Meditation can help boost your immune system – it can help produce antibodies against illness and lift spirits. Meditation helps on two fronts:

  1. People who meditated for one hour a day, six days a week had more brain activity in the part of the brain linked to positive emotion and higher levels of antibodies than those who didn't meditate.
  2. Its biological effects seen in the study are long lasting – up to four months after the end of the meditation training. (Psychsomatic Medicine, 2003)

Exercise your brain: Learn. If you love what you're learning, stress (and time) vanishes! So for wellness' sake, stoke your passions! For example, learn a new language; select a favorite author and read all his/her extant biographies; or engage in a hobby that taps creativity such as gardening, playing an instrument, knitting, and chess.

Have things to look forward to
Big things:

  • Travel abroad, to include establishing relations with a sister school
  • Teach abroad
  • Sabbaticals
  • Vacations
  • Long-term PD relationship with a professional trainer
  • PD school visits to nearby successful schools
  • Visiting a retreat center (SC, for example)
  • School events/assemblies
  • Retirement

Small things:

  • Massage
  • Pedicure
  • Evening routine
  • Garden
  • Cup of good coffee
  • Personal day
  • Dinner
  • "Girls' (or Boys') Night Out"

Take care of home life strife so problems don't affect your approach to misbehaving students

MindSpring Consulting in Asheville NC maintains that teachers – not students – create much of the conflict in classrooms. Part of this is attributable to the fact that we have lives, and things can go awry at home. When this happens, we sometime carry those problems with us, to the detriment of students. Student behaviors that trigger stress can bring out the worst in yourself, and this problem must be addressed. Mindspring's Hadyn Hasty: "I have never seen a teacher who is feeling badly produce positive outcomes in students."

  • Schedule time for yourself
  • Set routines
  • Talk with family members – try using effective language
  • Communicate
  • Declutter
  • Pack your lunch the night before school
  • Resolve family relationship conflicts BEFORE going to bed each night

Laugh it off: Rent a funny movie and laugh your stress away. Go out with friends, and keep it light. Remember, the key is to release the tension, not add to it. (Kenia Morales)

  • Laugh at your silly mistakes
  • Say and think positive things
  • Share good stories with colleagues, especially funny ones
  • Exchange funny Youtube Videos

Other ideas....
Local community organizations can help support your community's teachers. They may:

  • Run positive messages to teachers on electronic signs outside banks or other businesses, or on billboards, banners or storefront signs.
  • Invite teachers to a before-school "coffee, juice and pastries" salute at a local grocery store or other business – or even in a school parking lot (think tailgate party!).

School volunteer organizations can help keep teachers in good shape – some of these could be taken up by a student council or other student leadership organization:

  • Hang a handmade sign on each classroom door saluting the teacher within.
  • Student groups furnish punch and cookies for the teacher's lounge on Teacher Day.
  • Give teachers candy, apples, or other food gifts with appropriate notes attached (e.g., fortune cookies with a note about how fortunate the school is to have a teacher of such high caliber).
  • Flowers.
  • Set up a lunchtime "Musical Relaxation" on a designated teacher day, where teachers are treated to a student or parent playing a mellow cello or equivalent.
  • Hold student performances (drama, music, dance, poetry readings) in honor of your school's teachers, seating them in a VIP section near the front. Refreshments for them are an added bonus.

Stress is inevitable but not incurable. This year, take some hints from your colleagues and the experts and intentionally set yourself right.

Christopher Hagedorn is a Developmental Designs consultant and a staff writer for Origins.