Teacher Stress: Sometimes We Cause This Too!

A few months back I wrote a post about student stress and how we, the teachers, are causing it. Through high expectations, high stakes, piles of homework, and little workload balance between ourselves, we’re sometimes making our students’ lives a misery.

Well, it turns out teacher lives ain’t no picnic either!

An article in the March 2018 edition of The Conversation, reported this stat: “Teachers are actually tied with nurses, with 46 percent of both groups reporting high daily stress.” That is crazy. How long can can our bodies deal with this before something happens?

Causes

Much of our stress comes with the job. Teachers have a lot on their plates and almost all of it is beyond our control: growing class sizes, infrastructure and equipment issues, standardized testing, supply shortages, and more.

Sometimes, however, we do it to ourselves. There’s a culture in education of self-improvement and exploring new practices and technology that adds a lot of additional pressures onto our shoulders.

Here’s my story:

In 2014 I began my second year of teaching at my new school. My first year represented a sharp learning curve, where I had to get used to a new country, a new culture, new colleagues, and a new organization. At the start of year two, I decided that I was going to head down a path to awesomeness. And to self-destruction.

So, from 2014 to 2017, I took on the following:

  • Helped coordinate my school re-accreditation initiative
  • Wrote a book on boys and education
  • Was department chair (for 2 years)
  • Wrote a book on middle school education and career studies
  • Wrote a young adult novel about zombies
  • Was the keynote speaker at our NJHS swearing-in ceremony
  • Co-created a blog for history teachers
  • Was 8th grade Team Leader (for 2 years)
  • Planned our 8th Grade trip to Washington DC (5 years in a row)
  • Helped organize our 8th grade ‘Moving On’ ceremony (2 years in a row)
  • Helped organize our 8th grade student council elections (for 2 years)
  • Was the keynote speaker at our high school career day event
  • Co-wrote a book on education practices and strategies
  • Created an education-related blog
  • Wrote and illustrated a children’s story book
  • Led a Research and Design team on experience-based learning
  • Wrote and illustrated another children’s story book
  • Created and delivered a presentation at an international education conference
  • Performed in a play
  • Joined Twitter and posted 2000+ education-related Tweets

Don’t just skim the list. Really explore my crazy. I wrote 6 books in less than four years!

Oh yeah, and during all of this, I was teaching full time. And I am married. And I have four kids. And I have a dog.

Then, in the first semester of 2017, it all caught up with me.

Stress Symptoms

In a 2017 Edutopia article by Todd Finley about teacher stress, some of the symptoms listed included: “anger, cynicism, anxiousness, avoidance, chronic exhaustion, disconnection, fear, guilt, hopelessness, hypervigilance, inability to listen, loss of creativity, poor boundaries, poor self-care, and sleeplessness”.

For me, the symptoms of stress were both physical and mental. The physical symptoms were specific and obvious, consisting of tinnitus, hearing loss, a rotator cuff tear, and a pinched nerve in my shoulder. Although the rotator cuff and pinched nerve occurred in the gym, they were definitely linked to rushing my workouts.

The mental stress symptoms were less obvious. I felt like everything was okay. But, later I saw that I was growing increasingly angry at everyone around me. Why were they always asking me questions? Why were they constantly hanging out, appearing to do nothing? Why was I doing all the work around here? Thankfully, I had enough wit to realize that if everyone around me was seemingly useless, then maybe (just maybe) it wasn’t them; maybe I was the one with the problem. So, rather than lashing out, I began to withdraw from relationships.

Then, one of my colleagues, our elementary school counsellor Michael Vandeloo, delivered a presentation at a staff meeting entitled Changing Your Relationship With Stress. Through the presentation, I learned that I wasn’t alone. What I was feeling were common symptoms of stress – symptoms shared by many educators.

Here is one of the slides from the presentation that resonated with me:

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 8.20.26 AM

For me, I was in the “stuck on” position. I was constantly on edge and filling my life with one activity after another.

Strategies

In the Edutopia article I mentioned above, Finley lists a number of great ways that we can deal with our stress:

  1. Connect with quality friends.
  2. Expressive writing.
  3. Use drive time for self-talk.
  4. Avoid toxic colleagues.
  5. Do something tangible.
  6. Don’t suppress painful feelings.

My first step was to dial down the awesome. I am still doing awesome things, but I am doing fewer of them. I am populating these newly vacant areas in my life with non work-related activities. My wife and I are practicing yoga. I am getting out of my classroom at lunch time. As Finley suggests, I am taking time to listen to and talk to colleagues and am saying yes to social engagements. I am trusting again.

I am also trying to build in mindfulness moments – time to slowly and carefully process incoming stimuli before I react.

I won’t lie – this is not an easy process. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with my reputation as a go-to person. There’s an old saying: “Need something done? Ask a busy person.” I was a very busy person and many people came to me to seek insight or pile on tasks. And, for too long I took on these responsibilities because I thought that was what awesome did. When I started limiting my involvement in some tasks, I felt some push back and, once in a while, a little bit of anger. But, for the sake of my health, I held firm to the power of “No”.

I don’t feel guilty. My health is important.

The bottom line is teachers need to take care of ourselves.If we aren’t operating at our healthy best, then student learning (and the overall education experience) will suffer.

I’ll close with some wise words from my colleague Mike Vandeloo:

Sometimes we are running on an empty tank. What are some ways that work best for you to fill yourself up again? Our brain is 3-5 times more sensitive to negative information than it is to positive. This is how we evolved. Increasing our attention to positive events is one way to trigger the release of dopamine leading to increased alertness, determination, attentiveness, and energy.”

Hi 5!

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