Stress is a natural phenomenon that affects all living things. It is when we become overloaded with stress that we need to pay attention and act. One way stress is described is that it results from situations where the demands made on a person’s mental and physical resources exceed that person’s ability to fulfill them. Does that sound like a description of the pressures of teaching?
The good news is we can reduce our stress. There are some simple acts of stress-reduction we can make now, and every day, and some more profound actions we can take to increase our long-term ability to thrive amid the joys and demands of the teaching life.
In our book, The Way of the Teacher: A path to personal growth and professional fulfillment, we discuss helpful practices and new thought patterns to adopt. We share the ideas in summary form here—both what we have learned from the literature in this field and from our own experiences.
Stress is Physical
We can recognize when we are over-stressed by tuning in to our bodies. Too much stress speeds up our heartbeat and causes headaches, uncomfortable sensations in our gut and shallow breathing. A first and simple step we can take is to stop, even for a few seconds, and pay attention to how we are feeling in our bodies.
Taking three slow, deep breaths is very helpful and not time-consuming. You may want to stop at the beginning or in the midst of a fast-paced lesson, or when students seem restless and inattentive to say, “Let’s all take a minute here to slow down and refocus by taking three deep breaths. Let your breath start in your abdomen, and travel to your chest and forehead. Just breathe long and slow and enjoy the feelings.” In that short interval, you are teaching your students a valuable life skill while improving your own well-being.
Nature can be a wonderful stress-reducer. When students are working, take a moment to look out your classroom windows and notice the sky. Suggest this as something students can do when they are struggling with an assignment. Go for a walk every day to experience the air on your skin and to enliven all your senses. Look, listen, smell and enjoy the rhythm of your body in motion.
Find a space in your day or week to engage in a favourite physical activity. At the same time that you are enjoying the exercise, you are reducing your stress levels. These simple actions have immediate results.
Stress is Mental
Stress always seems to include being caught in spiralling, anxiety-producing thoughts. The road to stress-reduction is through developing greater awareness of our harmful thought patterns and having strategies to transform them.
Negative thoughts are common to all of us; it is when they dominate our consciousness that we need to pay attention and reverse them. The basics of noticing and speaking back to negative thoughts can be summarized in nine questions. These are good ones to apply to negative thoughts about teaching situations as well as to life stresses more generally:
- Is this thought really true?
- Am I overemphasizing a negative aspect of this situation?
- What is the worst thing that can happen?
- Am I certain that the situation will turn out that way?
- Is there another way to look at this situation?
- Is there anything positive about this situation?
- Am I “catastrophizing,” jumping to conclusions, assuming a negative outcome?
- Am I using words like never, always, worst or terrible, to describe this situation?
- What difference will this make next week, month or year? (In Finney & Thurgood Sagal, 2017, Appendix B; adapted from Jacobs )
The bonus is you can use these same questions in a lesson for your students. As the focus of a Language Arts, Health & Well-being, or Psychology lesson, students can write responses to the questions in relation to a worry they have, or share their ideas about the uses of such questions with a dialogue group.
Stress is Emotional and Affects the Spirit
When stress goes on too long, it depletes our emotional energy and overall well-being. We are all aware of the reality of teacher burnout. If our stress reaches that point, we feel both exhausted and deficient in some ways. Recognizing that our feelings of anxiety, failure or inadequacy require self-compassion is central to healing. We often empathize with our colleagues when they are feeling stressed but fail to offer empathy to ourselves.
Comparing ourselves to other teachers is not helpful. Telling ourselves we should do better is not helpful. Having standards that don’t allow for lapses and unexpected events can make us constantly tense; while believing in our abilities to handle what life sends us and saying, “I can do this” gives us energy.
Self-compassion reduces the power of the feelings that accompany prolonged stress. We are better able to look for solutions to our high stress levels once we face ourselves with kindness and acknowledge that we are doing the best we can given the circumstances.
A Summary of Accessible Stress-Reduction Practices
- Start every day as a new beginning. Let go of anything that happened yesterday or last week. Today is a new start for you and for your students.
- Nature is a great stress-reducer. It is also a source of the beauty that we all need.
- Humour is a good way to break out of worrying. Sometimes colleagues can help us see the funny side of a classroom incident or share bloopers of their own.
- Physical activity gets us out of our heads and into our bodies.
- Finding moments of “downtime” such as taking deep breaths can help to alleviate stress and refresh our spirits.
- Positive visualizations of ourselves being successful and happy lower anxiety.
- Increasing our awareness of things we are grateful for decreases our stress.
- Describing a worry or stressful incident in a journal or to a supportive colleague or friend can be helpful in putting things in perspective. (Adapted from Finney & Thurgood Sagal (2017), p.77.)
Remembering the Bigger Picture
So much of the stress we suffer comes from seeing ourselves as separate entities—individuals who should be able to control that which is not ultimately controllable. Eastern philosophies, Indigenous wisdom traditions, and the findings of scientists share the understanding that everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else and that everything is in a process of constant change.
We are part of the web of life and we don’t really know what might happen next. Knowing that everything changes and ends, we can adopt the belief that “this too shall pass.” The beauties of the world can nurture and strengthen our spirits and increase our gratitude for our lives. We can remember that we are in relationship with all of life and with this larger view our life becomes more whole and meaningful.
Finney, S. & Thurgood Sagal, J. (2017). The Way of the Teacher: A Path to Personal Growth and Professional Fulfillment. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Jacobs, G. (2009). Say Good Night to Insomnia: the 6-week program. New York: Henry Holt. (p. 154).
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Sandra Finney, PhD. has had many roles in education including classroom teacher, teacher educator and author. Her first book, Strong Spirits, Kind Hearts: Helping students develop inner strength, resilience and meaning (2013), is a practical resource for classroom teachers with ready-to-use lessons.
Jane Thurgood Sagal, EdD. has been a classroom teacher and curriculum leader in the K-12 education sector for more than 30 years. She is also the author of Shifting Horizons of Understanding: How teachers interpret curriculum in their practice which demonstrates her belief in collaboration and inclusive processes.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.