Teacher Stress

This evening I’m participated in a twitter chat about teacher stress. The topic got me thinking…

I do believe teaching is one of the most stressful jobs. I haven’t based that on research, though there is apparently plenty to support it, but just my anecdotal evidence. There are also all sorts of articles online to back me up like this and this.

A quick google search for teacher stress reveals its actually quite a divisive issue. High numbers of teachers are reporting that they are extremely stressed, and high numbers of non-teachers are telling them that they don’t know what stress is.

Whether or not teaching is one of the most stressful professions is not really the point. The point is large numbers of teachers report FEELING high levels of stress. Those stress levels have serious implications for health, family and our ability to perform our job well.

So why are we stressed?

Again, speaking only from my own experience here are some of the things I believe contribute (in no particular order).

1. We Have An Impossible Workload

We are expected to cater for every individual need in our class. Planning a lesson isn’ t just planning a lesson any more. Lesson planning involves individualising it to ensure all students are accessing appropriately challenging curriculum. As I plan my lessons for tomorrow, I have to consider my student with ADHD who cannot concentrate for longer than 5 minutes, needs frequent changes to activity and plenty of physical activity. I also have to consider my student with learning difficulties who needs an entirely individual program, my ESL students one of whom has only very limited English language, my very anxious student who is reluctant to attempt any task without an adult by her side, my gifted student who is already working at a Y5 level in my Y2 class and requires her own curriculum. Then there is my student on the autism spectrum, and the one who…. I could go on to describe all 26 of my students, but you get the picture. We teach approximately 6×40 minute lessons per day over a 5 day week – with 3 lesson times a week taken by another teacher while we do administrative tasks. That’s a lot of planning and individualisation. Planning one 40 minute lesson well, with all the differentiation required to meet individual needs frequently takes well more than an hour.

Of course, not only are we asked to cater for all our individual needs, we are also supposed to document how we do it. To accurately document our work also takes an enormous amount of time.

Our workload also includes:

  • marking work
  • decorating our rooms – to create that welcoming and engaging environment
  • responding to student discipline and welfare issues – sorting out playground issues can take a very long time
  • parent meetings
  • reading and responding to emails
  • staff meetings
  • curriculum meetings
  • professional development meetings

On top of that, if you are an assistant principal like me, you have to fit in an executive load as well.

2. We Feel a High Level of Personal Accountability

Our personality is intricately linked to our work as a teacher. We use it as a tool to welcome, support and engage our students. Teaching success or failure feels personal. Because our work is so tied up in our personality, our ego is greatly invested. When things aren’t working, it is very difficult not to take it personally. When a parent complains that their child is bored or doesn’t want to come to school, it’s hard not to take that as a personal failing. Instead of looking at what adjustments can be made to the lesson or the curriculum, we frequently beat ourselves up. We become full of self-doubt.

3. Children’s Futures are at Stake

We are very aware of the consequences of failure. If we fail, our students become illiterate or innumerate. The social consequences of a failure to educate are dramatic.

4. We are a Political Football

Just in case we weren’t aware of the importance of our work, and the consequences of failing in our duty to educate today’s children, the politicians and media are constantly reminding us. We keep hearing of failing schools and failing teachers. We are frequently demonised in the press.

There are many other contributing factors to teacher stress as well – student behaviour, angry parents, unsupportive working environments… The list is endless.

How to Deal with the Stress

I’ve noticed, that while all those issues still exist for me, I don’t suffer from stress nearly as much as I used to . Here is why:

Set Priorities

It took me years to work out that my workload actually IS impossible. I can’t possibly achieve all that is asked of me to the standard I would like  – ever. I used to have sleepless nights worrying about everything I wasn’t doing, but that’s changed. Now that I’ve finally worked out I can’t do it all well, I just figure out what the most important things are and do those. As a result, my desk is untidy, and my classroom walls don’t look as nice as I would like. I’m also behind in all but the essential paperwork. I don’t cater for ALL student needs ALL of the time, either. But I do cater for all of them throughout the week, and I’m constantly finding better ways of doing that. Really what’s changed is my attitude. I’ve become more realistic about what is achievable, and put time into the things that will have the most impact. I don’t put a lot of time into things that aren’t really going to lead to improved outcomes – like putting up nice borders around my displays.

Single Tasking

When things are really busy, I find it easier to focus on one goal for the day or the week, and accomplish that. It’s better than attempting multiple tasks and finishing none.

Trust Myself

One thing I’ve learned is that there are always times when it is going to be stressful and the workload seems impossible to manage. But I also know that in the last 20 years I have successfully navigated my way through every one of those busy periods. Somehow, no matter how much is dumped on us, we always manage to make it work. A lot of the stress I used to experience was anxiety – a fear that somehow I wouldn’t get through what I needed to. Now I know that I will, and just get on with things.

Stop Taking Things Personally

I used to assume I was at fault if an angry parent stormed into my classroom. Now I am able to step back more and look at the problem objectively. On the rare occasion a parent does storm in, it’s usually because of issues outside of school. If it really was a problem with me, then there would be a class full of parents storming in. I’m also aware that you can’t please everyone and chances are I’ll have 25 satisfied families, but one who is very critical and quick to find fault. That’s just the nature of a democratic society. When I do have those difficult conversations, instead of becoming defensive, I find the best approach is to simply listen to the issue and come up with a plan. Take the focus away from who is to blame and towards ‘Where do we go from here?’. Usually, once the parents understand that I am listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, any aggression or anger just dissolves. We start working productively as a team.

Don’t take work home

Because there is always more that we can do as teachers, I learned a few years ago to stop taking work home. I work long hours at school, often not leaving until around 7pm, but that’s it. My evenings and my weekends (mostly) are my own. Home is a place where I can relax. I don’t even have to think about work if I don’t want to.

Yoga

I love going to my hot yoga classes. The health benefits are enormous, and I love the mental focus – it shuts out all thoughts of school, and is incredibly mentally relaxing.

Outside interests

Yes, it might surprise some people that I do have other things in my life aside from teaching, since it’s all I tweet about. But I do. I am always studying something – usually art, writing, or learning musical instruments. I sing in a very amateur covers band (we have had one gig). I’m part of a book club. I also have a very satisfying home and social life.

Well, those are some of the reasons I find teaching stressful, and some of the ways I deal with it. What do you find stressful about teaching and how do you manage it?

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Know Your Intentions

 

Tonight, I just have a very quick update for you. I’ve been very busy the past week, so I haven’t had much time to think, let alone come up with a well thought out post.

My work schedule was crazy – I averaged 13 hour days at school, without breaks. There were a lot of reasons for that.  There are times as an assistant principal, when juggling the responsibilities is difficult. We have a full time teaching load with only 40 minutes additional time to attend to our executive role. I spent my breaks, and the hours before and after school, organising casual relief, re-doing timetables, in meetings with teachers, support staff and parents, and attending to student welfare issues that cropped up which simply couldn’t be ignored or delayed.

Some weeks the workload is manageable, but others, like last week, the workload gets on top of you.

As a result of all the demands on my time, I had absolutely no time to plan lessons, reflect, mark work or do any of the things that are really necessary for quality teaching. But, in spite of everything, my students still were engaged in meaningful learning.

This evening I wondered how I managed to make it all work.

I think the key was that I had worked out clear and explicit learning intentions for each lesson. I was able to articulate these to the students, and draw on the repertoire of strategies I’ve developed over the years to come up with some engaging activities on the spot.

Knowing the learning intention is critical. Without a clear idea of what it is you want your students to learn, it’s impossible to plan well. It’s also impossible to see whether or not you have been effective.

Weeks like the one I just had are rare, but we all have them. When they come along,  try making it a priority to set the learning intentions for the week. Once they are in place, the rest of it will come more easily.

 

Getting Connected – How My School Encourages Staff to Use Twitter.

Those of us who have spent time using social media to build a personal learning network often talk about the transformative effect it has had on us professionally. We are part of a global staffroom, encouraging and learning from each other, sharing ideas, becoming inspired to look deeper in to what we do and how we do it.

It’s a very natural thing to want our coworkers to become involved in this too. We want them to experience the same inspiring, transformative experience  that we have.  Yet, we are often met with skepticism and disinterest when we try to explain to others how powerful connected learning is.

My colleague, @susiej18 and I have been trying for a long time now to persuade our colleagues to get involved, but with little success until recently.

The world of Twitter and PLNs is still alien to many, and it takes time to figure out how to use it in a way that is beneficial. Many of our colleagues couldn’t really see the point of it. So, instead of trying yet again to bring them into our online world, we decided to bring our PLN to theirs.

Step 1: A Website

We started by building a professional learning website and blog where we could share some of the great resources and ideas that we have picked up on our Twitter journey. You can check out our website here. We publicise the website at meetings, and post updates on our staff bulletin.

Step 2: Twitter

The second part of our strategy was to create a Twitter account, @CCPSlearning, that we use to publicise updates to the website and share other links and news items we think might be relevant to our staff. Of course, most of our colleagues are not using Twitter, so this could be seen as an exercise in futility, but that’s where the rest of the strategy fits in.

Step 3: Facebook

In addition to the Twitter account, we set up a Facebook page. Our Twitter account automatically posts its updates to Facebook as well. While very few of our colleagues use Twitter, we know that most of them are on Facebook. All they have to do is “Like” our page, to receive our updates. Even if they never log into Twitter or our website, they will at least start to see some of the valuable things that we discover.

Step 5: Workshops

Finally, once all of this was in place, we sought the permission of our principal to run a professional learning workshop  for all our staff in which every teacher had to create a Twitter account and follow @CCPSlearning. Surprisingly, this part of the workshop was met with enthusiasm. Many of our colleagues commented that they had been curious about Twitter for sometime, and were happy to have the opportunity to explore it.

That was just over a month ago.

After all that effort and so much energy put into making it accessible, we’ve made just limited progress. We know from our hit counter that only a few of our colleagues actually look at the website, and most, even after the positive feedback from our Twitter workshop, have not sent a single tweet since that day. Of our staff over 30 teachers, only 10 have connected with the Facebook page.

Of course there are some who will never participate, and that’s okay – connected learning is not for everyone.

But there are signs that things are changing.

A small group of colleagues are gradually becoming more and more visible on Twitter. Their eggs have been replaced with photographs. They’ve started sharing links, retweeting others, and even commenting and joining in conversations. Very occasionally they will ‘Like’ an update on the Facebook page, or even post something to our page.

When I think about my own Twitter journey, I realise that it took me over a year before I started using it for professional learning. Perhaps it will be the same for others.

Change takes time.

What makes an effective teacher?

Sometimes I think we are forever looking for a magic bullet in education. A recipe for the perfect teacher. We create frameworks, standards and checklists, trying to distill the characteristics of the most effective teachers into a simple formula.

 

We talk about good practices and bad practices and best practices, and we base it all on research.

 

In my twenty years of teaching, however, I’ve seen a lot of different teaching styles. Some of the most effective teachers I’ve known, with highly engaged classes and whose students show significant growth, teach with wildly different approaches.

 

Some use textbooks, some are very teacher directed, some rarely use technology, some are very traditional. Others are more student centred, or won’t touch textbooks, some are constantly ‘innovative’ and use technology very effectively to support learning.

 

I’ve seen some teachers who appear do the exact opposite of what a lot of best practice statements tell us but achieve great results with their students, and some who would do well on any checklist but are just not as effective.

 

My point is, I don’t believe good teaching can be reduced to a set of behaviours or indicators on a checklist. These sorts of guidelines are useful, but good teaching is more than that. It is as much relational as it is behavioural.

 

In my observation, students respond to teachers who care about them and respect them, who are enthusiastic about their subject, who genuinely want their students to share in that joy, and who bother to find out where their students are at so that they can bring them to the next level.

 

The strategies a teacher employs in their classroom are less important than the relationship they build with their students. Without a relationship of trust and mutual respect, a passion for the subject and a committment to helping each and every student to learn, even the best strategies can fail.