I taught lessons for the first time in my career last year, and it was a challenging experience. I was responsible for 27 students in a course that focused on the cognitive development of adults with developmental disabilities. My students ranged in age from 18 to 33, and some were performing at a level that put them in the top 1% of their high school class. Looking back, it was probably the most challenging year of my life, but I got through it by learning two important things:
Teaching is stressful. For me, teaching also means a lot of students that I don’t know. In the beginning of the year, I get to know them during the prerequisites. I like them sometimes, not so much. I don’t get along with a few of them, but I have to appreciate them for the students they are. I learn a lot from them. I think I turn them into better people. I have to love them because of that. I’m not going to complain about them. I’m going to love them and also appreciate the fact that I’m working with adults.
Teaching is hard. The four years of college have been stressful, but I’ve learned to manage the stress of teaching by reminding myself that I work with adults, but for my students. Here are some ways I’m doing this:
May is the month of mental health. One thing we know for sure: This school year has been difficult for everyone. I recently had a conversation with Lindsay Jensen, an award-winning teacher, to find out how she handles the stress of teaching during a pandemic. Check out our conversation for tips on how to take care of yourself!
How do you take care of yourself – physically, mentally, spiritually, etc.? What are your best strategies? Honestly, I didn’t take care of myself at all at the beginning of the school year. I was awake. I was constantly worried and full of stress. I didn’t have time to eat three meals a day and I was a real workaholic. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming. Lindsay Jensen, NEA Photo. I soon realized I needed to take better care of myself and started focusing on my fitness. I contacted a former student who now works as a personal trainer, and she taught me how to track and monitor my water intake and diet (it turned out I was only eating half the calories my body needed to fully function, probably due to work stress). She also planned a series of exercises to help me get rid of stress, which improved my sleep considerably. In my mind, I began to focus on the things that brought me joy outside of work, and I consciously decided to look for ways to incorporate that joy into each day.
Nothing brings me more joy than my pets, and after I finished my thesis in December, my husband and I decided to add a puppy to our family, bringing the total number of our furry friends to three dogs and a cat. That puppy was so good for my soul. Mentally, I read a lot and think about how to be nicer to myself, how to not be so perfectionist, how to not be so workaholic, etc. I’m learning that it’s just as important to take time to enjoy the silence, to be alone with my thoughts, and to make a conscious effort to speak kindly of myself.
It helped me focus in this chaotic year. What have you learned about yourself this year? What adjustments did you make? How do you deal with stress? I have learned that I cannot thrive in places where the voice of educators is not valued. This year I learned how to better protect my colleagues and myself, not to mention my students. I also realized that I wouldn’t follow policies that I knew were bad for kids (like forcing kids to turn on video cameras), even if it meant getting a reprimand. I deal with stress by always remembering that I work with adults, but I work for children. And that usually serves as my moral compass.
What do you want to do by the end of the school year? I teach high school students, so I plan to take advantage of the two weeks I have left with them, encourage their creativity as they finish their final products, and give them a boost for the end of the school year. Focusing on my students helps to drown out the negativity of the school year. How do you help your students? I’ve always considered myself a fairly flexible teacher, but this year I was exceptionally flexible. More than ever, I have asked my students to participate because I know that, like me, they are dealing with the stresses of the school year and that their opinions and views are important in making decisions this year.
In many ways, I feel like a beginning teacher this year, and my students’ knowledge and skills are a great asset to my classroom. I have learned that students often tell us what they need. You just have to be willing to ask, and that knowledge has allowed me to be a better teacher to my students during this difficult year. How can we show our appreciation for educators this year? We express our gratitude to educators by valuing, honoring and listening to their knowledge and experience. Period. What are the big administrators doing to help teachers this year? Great administrators create spaces in their buildings/districts that allow teachers to be leaders. They challenge the status quo of the administrative hierarchy and involve teachers in key decisions to do what is best for the children.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can a teacher manage stress?
I have been working as a high school teacher in the Bay Area for the past few years, and I have met many teachers who have tried to manage the stress of teaching by telling themselves that they are “just” working with adults. As a teacher, you have a responsibility to help your students, not just to teach them. But is this enough? In my classroom, I started a routine of coming to the classroom every day for 10 minutes at the beginning of the class. During this time, I would write down my thoughts, review my plans for the day, and listen to music. I attempted to do this during every 10 minute period throughout the day.
What causes the most stress for teachers?
High School students can be a handful. They can be the most hardworking or the most uninterested, but they often have a lot of expectations they are not sure how to handle. If you are a teacher, you probably feel the stress of dealing with these teenagers on a daily basis. Adults in the classroom tend to be an independent bunch, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need reminders that I’m there to help them succeed. Every year, teachers make lists of their students’ accomplishments and they acknowledge these achievements. But there are many other ways to show your appreciation too.
Why is stress management important for teachers?
I have always believed that teachers deal with the pressure of being hired and then have a long, difficult process to be labeled and certified, but what I had not considered was the pressure they face day-to-day. Teachers are constantly under a microscope, and while the job changes over time—and will continue to do so as the student body changes—teachers are still being judged on how they teach. They are watched as they walk down the halls, and are constantly being judged on how they grade papers and evaluate students. And as they go through their days, they must continually deal with the stress of their jobs.
Teachers are often targeted by students seeking to ‘get back’ at them for a perceived ‘wrong’ in the classroom. As teachers, we are often responsible for students’ mental and physical health, and we have to be prepared to deal with their stress and anger, frustration and anger, and sadness and anger. We also have to be prepared to deal with the stress and anger that comes from dealing with the stress and anger of the students, and then again with the stress and anger from the school administration, the district, the state, and the country as a whole. While this never seems to end, it is important for teachers to be mindful of their own stress levels and the impact they have on their students, so they can better manage the stress.