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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?