4 Ways for Frazzled Teachers to Fend Off Stress and Burnout
Are all the supplies ready for tomorrow’s art project? How should I answer the email from the parent concerned about the friends her daughter is making?
When will I prepare my presentation for the math curriculum committee? Will my contract be renewed for next year? And if it isn’t, how will I pay the bills?
Teaching can be an exhausting, stressful profession, with classroom concerns layered on financial stress, especially in areas where the cost of living is high.
Teachers have to make lesson plans accommodate a wide range of learning styles while keeping up with the latest changes to the curriculum. They have to stay on top of new technology and determine how best to use it in the classroom. And they are asked to serve on school committees in addition to teaching.
“There isn’t enough time in a given day to get everything done,” said Candace Alstad-Davies, founder and owner of A+ Resumes for Teachers and a career coach for teachers.
Still, there are ways to lessen the effects of stress — sometimes by identifying the cause of the stress and fixing it, and sometimes by learning to cope with the stress itself.
Alstad-Davies and others offer tips for teachers handling on-the-job stress:
Assess the Level of Your Personal and Job-Related Stress
The first step when stress feels overwhelming is to analyze it. Are you worried about one big issue—a conflict with your principal, for example—or is the problem an accumulation of smaller stressors? Is the main source of stress work-related, or is some outside factor, such as a relative’s illness or financial strains, making normal workplace issues seem more difficult?
If one major problem causes your stress, consider how bad it is. Can you do anything to solve the problem or lessen the stress it causes? Is it so bad—and so difficult to change—that you should consider looking for another job? Or is it more of an annoyance? Even an annoyance may be worth trying to fix if you can—but realizing that it’s not a big problem can help you put things in perspective.
If you realize that your stress is caused by a lot of small issues, try to fix at least some of them.
“Look at all of them individually,” said Alvah Parker, a career coach and owner of Parker Associates. “Rate them. Is there one that you should really work on?”
If you can solve some of these small problems—or at least get rid of the stress surrounding them—then the rest of the problems may be easier to live with.
“Some stress you have to accept—life is stressful,” Parker said.
If You Identify a Cause of Stress, Set Aside Time to Deal With It
When you are looking at your list of stressors and wondering how to make them better, consider whether setting aside some regular time to tackle some of them might make you feel like your professional life is more under control.
For example, Alstad-Davies said many teachers she talks to say trying to keep up with advances in technology adds to their stress. She suggests setting aside time to learn something new.
“Spend 15 to 20 minutes on it per day longer if you can,” Alstad-Davies said. “That’s your technology learning time.”
This focused time helps in two ways: You will actually know more about technology once you spend some time on it, which will build your confidence. And knowing that you are taking action to solve a problem can lower your stress levels.
Focus on Elements Under Your Control
Another benefit of listing the causes of stress in your life is being able to see which items you can control and which you can’t.
If you are not certain that your teaching contract will be renewed for the next year, for example, that is an issue that is basically out of your control. You won’t be able to get an early answer, and although you can try to perform as well as possible, there may be little you can do to affect the outcome.
However, you can control how you respond to this uncertainty. You may seek out stress-reduction strategies, such as breathing and meditation. You may also start preparing for a job search so you will be ready if necessary.
“Instead of being worried sick about this, you say, ‘I’m going to forward think, I’m going to be proactive. I’m going to be ready for it if it happens.’” Alstad-Davies said.
Ask for Help
Teaching can feel like a solitary profession: just you in a classroom, with infrequent adult contact. But many situations that cause stress may be made easier if you get some help—and many people are glad to share their expertise.
“People tend to struggle and struggle and think, ‘Who am I going to go to for help?’ They’ll wonder, ‘why I can’t do it,’” said Alstad-Davies. The truth, though, is that “a lot of people like to be asked to help other people.”
So if you’re wondering how to use a new app on the classroom iPads, or if you are teaching a new subject and would benefit from reviewing another teacher’s lesson plans, reach out to colleagues and ask for advice. Some schools have mentor teachers or technology experts who are there for just this purpose. If you need to cast a wider net for advisors, consider asking a professional association or a university with an education program to connect you with someone who can help.
Take Care of Yourself
When work seems overwhelming, it can be easy to cut back on the activities that help reduce stress.
Alstad-Davies suggests keeping a journal, for example, to help you track your accomplishments. Even though journaling takes time, it can help “keep your thoughts on track,” she said.
“It’s not anything fancy—just things that you have done that day or would like to do,” Alstad-Davies said. “When you go back and review your whole day, you realize, ‘I did get a lot done today.’”
Sleep is another key area of neglect. People think that if they sleep less and work more, they will be more productive, said Alstad-Davies.
“That’s not true. You need good sleep to have good productivity the next day,” Alstad-Davies said. “Don’t try to reduce the number of hours you sleep to get stuff done.”
Similarly, she said, don’t cut out family time, exercise, or preparing healthy food to be more productive. “You have got to have breaks, and you have got to take care of yourself,” Alstad-Davies said. “People still believe that if they stay up for two extra hours, they will be ahead. Usually, it doesn’t work that way—they get more burned out.”
- Alvah Parker, “Ten Ways to Reduce Stress so you can be Happy at Work,” Parker Associates