Keeping Teachers Healthy and Balanced In Trying Times

At the end of a conference on resilience I gave to a group of first year teachers, one of the participants told me her abbreviated story of the great stress she had been experiencing for months and what she did to end the slide.  Paula taught in an inner-city charter school traveling an hour and a half each way by public transportation, leaving her apartment at 5 am each morning and usually ending her school day no earlier than 5 pm for the ride home.  In between, she had the challenging task of educating a group of special education children with the usual assortment of major issues facing poor children along with additional complications ranging from academic deficiencies to some with severe disruptive behaviors.  As if that wasn’t enough, she was required to attend mostly on-line courses and bi-monthly Saturday full-day classes in pursuit of her advanced degree and permanent teaching certification.  Arriving home in the early evening, she told of usually stopping at the local market to grab a quick bite to eat, chatting briefly with her husband, doing some planning for tomorrow, maybe catching a half-hour or so of television, showering and going to sleep. She had become exhausted, unhappy, unfulfilled and worst of all sleep-deprived.  Insisting on getting herself to bed by 10 pm and often earlier to avoid the anticipated exhaustion she expected to feel the next day, she would instead lie awake in bed unable to fall asleep.  The longer she lay there, the more anxious she became.  This cycle went on for months.  She had stopped exercising and socializing during the week.  Her life had become entirely consumed with work, work and more work.  She was wracked with anxiety, anger and depression, dreading the workweek and spending her weekends anticipating their end.  To my considerable surprise, she then talked about how much she actually enjoyed her job, taking pride in the academic and behavioral accomplishments of her challenging students.  Sadly, while she enjoyed her job, she was deriving little joy and lots of angst from it.

Terrified woman

Lots of Stressors in Teaching

While there are many real stressors like difficult students, insufficient support from above, inadequate resources and disconnected policies made from afar that lead to teacher dissatisfaction, too little attention is given the importance of attitude to stay fresh, balanced and motivated.   Paula came to realize that while she had little control over when school starts and ends, the location of her classroom, how much love each of her kids gets at home, the extent of parental support afforded each student and the perception/evaluation of administrators as to her degree of competence, she could choose her attitude both at work and away.  Do you smile or scold when a student walks in late?  Do you celebrate the progress a slow student made or get stressed at how much more progress is necessary for the standard to be met?  Those choices are within our control.  Instead of worrying about the consequences of too little sleep, Paula reclaimed a meaningful life after work that included visiting with friends during the week and exercising.  At first, she had to force herself to do these things, but after awhile they became part of her renewed normal.   She talked about how great it felt to feel "normal" again.

Many of us don't create the right kind of balance between our 'school' life and our 'other' life nor do we pay sufficient attention to how our attitude can restore a healthy balance to our lives.  Here are some tips for doing just that

Keys to Creating/Restoring Balance

After school process time - Before calling it a day, take a half hour after school to process two components to your day.  First, identify one or two successful experiences/moments/events that happened during the day and spend a few moments savoring those (All but two students were on-time today; Carlos had one tantrum today instead of his usual five; At least half the class seemed engaged during the math lesson).  As a helpful daily reminder, you might even begin a journal to accumulate these since too often we tend to forget or take for granted the many positives, no matter how small.  Isn't it interesting how much more attention we give to the occasional irritations and annoyances than the many moments that go smoothly ?  When is the last time you celebrated how well your car performed on the way to work?   Imagine how much more joy there could be if we stopped taking for granted the many positive things we have come to expect and instead paused for a moment each time to feel thankful.

After reflecting on what went well, spend a few moments developing a plan for a better day tomorrow (Tomorrow, I've got to remember to notice Leah before she does her attention-seeking.  I'll plan to initiate a positive interaction with her after each ten-minute interval of cooperation.)

Now that you have celebrated today and planned for a better tomorrow, leave school and move on with your day.

Father and kids on sea vacation

Learn to compartmentalize - On school time, give your all.  In athletic terms, leave it all on the field.  You can't often control the outcome but you can control your effort.  The educator inside you needs to make it as hard as possible for each of your students to fail or misbehave.  On company time, it needs to be all about them.  If you have a particularly difficult student who acts out to satisfy his needs for attention and power, you can decide to make him a helper, have him pass out papers and be the line leader which are all strategies likely to give you a better chance of having his inappropriate behavior diminish, but at the end of the day, you can't behave for him.  A student who makes herself hard to like because of her obnoxious behavior will require the educator to make repeated efforts to build a positive relationship because nobody gets to choose their students.  You owe it to yourself and your students to leave your educator when you turn out the last light of the day at school and quickly assume the persona of regular you.  That's when you get to choose who to be with and what else you want to do.

Define your time(s) of availability - In this era of email, facebook and texting, many have come to expect an instant response to whatever is on their mind.  For most teachers, this means that it can become impossible to get away from the work day and that is unhealthy.  Let parents, students and colleagues know when you are available after school and more importantly when you are not.  For example, you might post on your web-page something to parents like:

If you would like to discuss an issue pertaining to your child, the best way is to by email.  I do my best to respond the same day to all emails I receive before 2 pm.  If I get your email after 2 pm, I will do my best to get back to you by the following day.

Finally, while we each need to decide how much communicating we want to do through social media, my advice is to either avoid 'friending' anyone with whom you have a professional relationship or keep entirely separate school & personal social media accounts.

Live your out of school life with more of a "so what" attitude – Naturally, do your best to eat right, get enough sleep and keep yourself fit.  That said, worrying about these things as Paula did, is most likely to exacerbate anxiety rather than alleviate it.  Her real breakthrough came when she resolved to reclaim the components of her life that she had been sorely neglecting.  Realizing that if she was going to be exhausted from too little sleep, she may as well have a life so she started exercising again, calling friends and reading for enjoyment.  Interestingly, when we stop trying and start doing, balance often returns to our lives.  On your time, let yourself be and see where that wants to take you.

Surround yourself with at least a few positive energetic colleagues  - Hopefully, your school has an energetic leader who is encouraging and supportive along with a majority of colleagues who are positive and enthusiastic.  You can't beat those combinations to create a climate where virtually anybody wants to be.  Unfortunately, not all schools offer this picture so take the time to figure out which colleagues are most likely to provide support and optimism when you are most in need.  These are usually folks who rarely have a negative thing to say about students, including those who are challenging.  In fact, they seem able to sustain a positive attitude consistently.   Find times and ways to be in their presence.  Use them when seeking suggestions on how to improve.  Ask them what they do to keep themselves upbeat.  Then follow their lead.  Do more of the things they do.

What tips do you have for keeping yourself balanced in trying times when teaching?

Portrait of woman carrying girl at park

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