Reduce Teacher Stress with These 18 Unique Suggestions


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Teaching has always been a stressful profession. According to CNN, more teachers are leaving the profession and fewer college students are studying to become teachers. One in five teachers feels stressed all or most of the time, a much higher number than other professions.

If you are suffering from frequent stress as a teacher there are solutions. Traditional stress-relieve methods, such as exercise, eating well and sleeping enough are important. However, there are LOTS of small changes that can dramatically increase your contentment on the job. For instance, who can feel stressed when they’re laughing? Read on for some out-of-the-box techniques to start enjoying your classroom.

1. Laugh often.

Whatever is happening in your day laugh at it. Did a kid just spill his water all over the floor in your class? That was me today. It was a – yes, I’m going to say it – an annoying young man who’s always fooling around. He was apologetic and tried to clean it up.

I stopped for a moment and pictured him slipping and sliding on the water. You know, cartoon-like, with arms and legs flailing. I immediately felt the stress build-up dissipate.

Then I considered the bright side. Our floors are only washed during school breaks. So the spill gave me the cleanest floor in school!

Start your day with a short video that cracks you up. Or remember 1 funny thing your child, or friend, or mother did. 

Last week my son-in-law had a car accident and hit a telephone poll (he wasn’t hurt). When my daughter pulled up to the scene with my grandson, Austin he took in the scene and said, “Why did that poll hit my daddy’s car?”

That made me laugh. And I’ve thought of it many times since, like when I see a poll while I’m parking at work. And I smile again. And again. Doesn’t take much.

2. Play Hookie.

Plan it strategically. I look at the school calendar and pick a few days to cut class that will have the most impact. Before or after parent-teacher conferences is a good one. One of the first beautiful days of spring is another.

I know teachers with young children have to save their days for when your own children are sick. But most teachers can spare, at minimum, 1 day off each semester.

Which do you pick?

Maximize your day off. Sleep in a little but you don’t want to waste the whole day in bed. Unless that’s what you love. I have a friend who can sit in bed all day watching old sitcoms and crocheting and she’s in pig heaven. 

Don’t let the day slip away. What would feel luxurious and amazing to you?

Think about your upcoming day off every day until it happens. Anticipation is often more satisfying than the actual event. Circle it on your calendar. Look at it every day and smile.

So you don’t get the perfect attendance award. It’s okay.

3. Plan for the future.

So many people get in the car that is their life and put it on autopilot. It’s so easy to do! You get up each day and do what needs to be done: work, cleaning, children, shopping, exercise, insurance, etc. In the evening you watch tv, read a book, whatever.

And then you’re 60. Or 70. And you finally stop and look back and say to yourself, “What the hell, how did I get here?!”

Even though it’s easy to drive Elon Musk’s self-driving Tesla it’s also stressful. Subconsciously you know that you’re not fully in control of your life.

How often do you sit quietly and reflect on how your life’s going? What do you want next year to look like? And 3 years from now. Five years. Ten years. It’s empowering to aggressively design your life.

I spent many years coasting. But it’s the default way to live. I was super busy with 2 kids, a husband, a dog, a house and a job. Ain’t nobody got time to ruminate!

I don’t remember why I stopped hustling long enough to self-reflect. Then I started making lists (I love a good list!). I wrote down short and long-term goals for different aspects of life.

And after 15 years as a court reporter, at the age of 40 (almost) I went back to school and got my Master’s in teaching. It was scary. But it’s a different kind of stress, a good stress. It was I’m- taking-life-by-the-horns-and-when-things-go-wrong-it’s-okay kind of stress.

If you don’t do this (self-reflection on a regular basis) you need to start.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

4. Journal

Journaling has become a big deal. Your can spend LOTS of money on fancy journals. They are really nice. The bullet journal is all the rage right now.

There really is something to dumping your thoughts and ideas onto paper. Picking up a pen and actually writing whatever’s on your mind. It forces you to organize your thoughts.

Sometimes when you write stuff down it doesn’t seem so bad.

Or if it is, add some pictures of mean faces, label your nemesis. It will feel good.

Seriously, there are tons of studies showing that journaling is good for your mental health. It doesn’t have to take much time, just 5 or 10 minutes most days.

It’s interesting to go back, even a month later and see what your mindset was at the time. Whatever was stressing you is probably no longer an issue.

Try it.

5. Remember the starving children.

Most of us got some version of this as children when we wouldn’t eat our broccoli. My mother’s version was, “there are starving children in Africa who would be grateful for that food.”

And I would tell her, “you’re welcome to send it to them.” Yeah, I was a bit of a brat.

But this idea of gratefulness and keeping things in perspective is an awesome stress-killer. 

Gratefulness

First the grateful part. We’re not coal miners. Or septic tank cleaners. Remember the show Dirty Jobs? It featured a different nasty job each episode. Watch that.

We get summers off. When you learn to leave school on time we have the late afternoons for ourselves. Most of the time we are in our classroom and in charge of our environment. We often have at least one awesome colleague.

Did I mention summers off?

Even after a really bad day, I try to remember to be thankful.

Perspective

You’re stuck in traffic and running late. The students were bouncing off the walls yesterday. You didn’t submit your unit plan or finish your bulletin board by the deadline and got a nasty email. Your observation last week was a disaster. You need a lesson plan for one of your classes for today. You need to make copies and the machine is down again.

Can you feel the tension thinking about these stressors?

Stop and think again. Actually, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. A week from now it will have no impact on you and your loved ones.

So how do you get perspective? Plan out the worst-case scenario. Let’s say you missed a deadline. First of all, this is a contrived date your administration chose. Nobody is hurt in any way when you miss a school-related deadline. 

Yeah, but you’re in trouble and have a meeting with the principal.

Principal: I’m very disappointed in you. It’s a dereliction of duty to neglect to submit your unit plans. You’re a professional and I expect compliance with the rules at this school.

You: (head down, looking contrite) I am so sorry, Ms. Principal. You’re absolutely right. I’ve been slammed with outreach for failing students and let the deadline pass on my unit plan. I will submit it by tomorrow and it won’t happen again.

After your stupid meeting for a stupid nonevent, Google a unit plan and slap your name on it.

Let’s look at the same scenario with an even worse principal. You’re accused of dereliction of duty and get a letter in your file.

OMG, a letter in your file, yikes! Now what happens? Oh, yeah, absolutely nothing.

That’s perspective.

You’re not a brain surgeon. Yes, your job is important and you teach young minds, blah, blah, blah. But if you mess up nobody dies.

That’s perspective.

6. Print out a funny teacher meme of the week. 

On Friday during lunch find a meme or joke that makes you laugh. Print it out. Hang it near your desk.

Look at it before starting class each day and before you leave. 

That’s it. The little things matter.

7. Make like a navy seal and practice 4×4 breathing.

This is a simple method of calming the body and clearing the mind. It’s called box breathing or four-square breathing. It’s a technique you can do anywhere and for any amount of time. 

There is a lot of hype lately about box breathing, but it’s rather new. That means concrete statistics as to its efficacy is still being tested. However, the Navy Seals do it. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me!

The procedure is simple.

1. Let out all of the air in your lungs to the count of four.

2. Keep your lungs empty for a count of four.

3. Inhale for a count of four.

4. Keep your lungs full for a count of four.

8. Look in the mirror and talk to yourself

You’ve done this at some point; right? Self-talk is SUPER important. Most people have a running dialogue in their head acknowledging their strengths and weakness.

“Why did you have to ask that question at pd today? You know the principal would go into one of his sermons! When are you going to learn?! It’s your fault the meeting lasted an extra 15 minutes!”

“That was a great response to disrespectful Debbie. You kept your cool and handled the situation well. Good job, you earned extra credit toward that ice cream sundae.”

Unfortunately, most of our internal conversations are negative. That has to stop. One way to do that is to speak out loud whenever possible.

It’s much easier to catch yourself in the act of self-beratement out loud than it is in your head. 

I talk to myself out loud A LOT. At home. In my classroom. In the car. In the ladies room IF no one is there. 

Give yourself a pep talk every morning and every night. Physically pat yourself on the back. Exchange a high-five with your right and left hands. Be your best cheerleader. 

Keep it up until it’s become a habit. You will feel better about yourself and probably laugh more in the process.

9. Embrace B work in yourself

This is very counterintuitive as an educator. You’re always pushing your students to do their best how in the world are you supposed to do less? What kind of role model would you be?!

Actually, a very good one. Teaching students how to prioritize is an essential tool for them to sharpen. 

Maybe your bulletin board is lackluster. Or you don’t take the time to find those pictures or gifs for your slide presentations. Are your handouts always in the same font – ain’t nobody got time to mess with Comic sans!

That’s all good.

Doing work that is “good enough” is absolutely where you should live for most tasks. Think long-term and big picture. Is it going to move the needle for your students or improve your teaching? If the answer is no – and it often is – keep it bare bones.

I’ll never forget a former colleague of mine. I had just finished teaching night school (teachers need side hustles!) and went to the teachers lounge to grab something. It was 8:30 p.m.

Who was sitting at a computer working? Edith. 

“Edith, what he heck are you doing here?”

“I’m making an exam for my biology students. I can’t get the wording just right for this question.”

“Edith, that one question of one exam for one class doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in 2 days. Go home.”

I know, I’m bossy. I later found out that one night a few months earlier Edith worked so late the custodians had locked up the school. She left through a side door of the building only to find a 20-foot gate that wrapped around the football field and the path she was on was locked. Edith, who was over 40-years-old, climbed over the fence because it was her only option.

Luckily she didn’t hurt herself.

Don’t be an Edith.

10. The little things matter 

I say this all the time! I tell my children, my students, my friends. I even said it earlier in this article. Because it’s soooo true; the little things really do matter.

Identify a few things that make you happy. For me it’s lunch; I HAVE to have a good lunch or I’m grumpy. And there has to be a small treat in my lunch, a few kisses, a single delicious cookie, something.

Comfy shoes are another one. When I bought my first pair of Toms by Sketchers OMG; the memory foam soul was amazing! I could easily walk 5 miles and still have happy feet. My colleague, John, wears slippers when he teaches. The kids love it and think he’s very chill.

Is there a particular gel pen that writes really nicely? Indulge.

Play your favorite song before you start teaching. It will put you in a pleasant frame of mind.

Who do you love? Do you have their pictures posted somewhere in your class, even if it’s inside a locker? Stop by and say hi a few times a day.

Everyone has tiny little things that matter to them. Find yours and immerse them in your day.

11. Walk around the block

How about a quick walk at lunch in nice weather? Even if you only walk around the block. I know you have tons to do. Don’t care. Five minutes won’t matter. 

Make it a mindful walk. No thinking of school, notice the trees, the birds, the squirrels. Feel the sun on your skin. Just a quick, meditative stroll can do wonders for your day.

12. Follow Positive-minded Instagrammers

It’s so much easier to commiserate with teachers who are complaining than it is to find positive ones. This holds true on social media as well. I love me a few minutes of Instagram each day, but it’s often Negativity City.

Find a few IGers who are upbeat. Mood is contagious. I’d rather catch a good one any day.

13. Hang with a fun teacher or school employee

Who do you work with that makes you smile? I’m lucky enough to have several. I find a couple of minutes each day to stop by and say hello.

Don’t restrict yourself to other teachers. Two of my favorite people are school aides. They have funny student stories all the time. And one of our custodians – Hi, Pete! – is ALWAYS in a good mood. 

It is easy to go visiting and eat up your whole prep period. Been there and done that. You don’t want to do that. I like to stop by a few minutes before the bell so I’m forced to keep it short.

Your work life will be infinitely richer with this daily habit!

14. I didn’t do it and will never do it again

Do you want to throw your class with the best attendance a party? Or show a PG-13 movie in high school? Are you thinking of walking your class around the school to make a point of some kind? 

You should probably get permission from the administration before doing these things. But that means emailing and explaining. You may get follow-up questions or – god forbid – a meeting to discuss the matter. You may be told no.

Just thinking about the aggravation you nix the idea. And feel resentful.

That’s why I say sometimes make the decision: Don’t ask, apologize later if necessary. Realistically, 99% of the time no one will notice. And .5% of the time they will notice and be okay with what you’re doing. Then there’s the .5% when they notice and are not all right with it.

That’s when you contritely apologize, make it clear you had no idea permission was needed and promise to never, ever do it again.

Sometimes it’s worth the risk. Just don’t do something really dumb,

15. Consider but don’t own negative feedback 

One major stressor that teachers face each year are observations. It can be nerve-racking when your assistant principal walks in with her notepad and silently starts writing away. If you are an untenured teacher your very profession is on the line.

But even seasoned teachers feel unnerved during observations.  It’s not easy to have someone evaluating your every move, especially when there is so much out of your control. For example, that high-maintenance student may decide to upend your lesson with bad behavior. (link)

Ouch.

When it’s all over and your receive negative feedback it stings. Here are a couple of pointers. 

First of all, it’s an administrator’s job to give “glow” and “grow” reactions to your lesson. Part of her job is to support and mentor teachers. If you were perfect she would be out of a job! So keep that in mind.

There have been many times when my boss has complained about aspects of a lesson that I did not agree with. You can choose to politely push back. My opinion, it almost never works and is a waste of time.

You should definitely listen to the suggestions and try to include them in your next observation. That will make your boss feel listened to and validated and will win you brownie points.

Try and consider the feedback on neutral terms. Are there any truths hidden in there? Everyone can get better; maybe there are some useful tips.

But a bad observation does not make you a bad teacher. Even if the lesson was a disaster. You had a bad day. You tried something new that didn’t work out (hint: NEVER do that). 

Refer back to suggestion number 8 in this article and give yourself a good pep talk. You can read more about how to survive a poor teacher evaluation here.

16. Don’t try to be what you’re not.

Many teachers suffer from stress because they’re trying to be someone they’re not. And that’s hard.

Once upon a time, there was a teacher who wasn’t great at getting her class to quickly settle down and be quiet. One semester she co-taught with another teacher who was great at it. She would count down from 5 and have all students “stop, look and listen” with 3 fingers in the air to show they were on point.

And if they didn’t she would give them a no-nonsense lecture. For 10 minutes. Then she would try again. And again. Her students learned that she accepted nothing but silence and – for the most part – got compliance.

So I – I mean this fictional teacher – tried this method. And it did kind of work. Except it didn’t feel right.

One day I (okay, it’s really me, not a fictional teacher) I handed my co-teacher some of the papers that had to be returned to the students and I took the other half. A minute later I noticed she had given a student the papers to hand out.

Do you know why she did that? Because my co-teacher still didn’t know the names of half the kids in the class. And it was December!

She is so focused on structure and procedures that she doesn’t have time to get to know the students.

I went back to my old ways. Yes, it takes me a few more minutes to settle the kids at the beginning of class. But I’m okay with that. I use that time to walk around and touch base.

If a kid is out of sorts my first response is to find out if something’s wrong. Usually, it’s not, but they know I’m asking because I care and they often settle down. Or I have them go for a lap around the hall and come back calmer.

It’s not perfect, but I’m less stressed being myself.

You’ve got to do you.

17. Focus on why you became a teacher

With all the craziness that encompasses the average school day, it’s easy to forget why we wanted the job in the first place.

Why did you want to be a teacher? Really and truly. Can you remember?

Don’t feel bad if it’s not some lofty goal of changing the world. Maybe you just wanted summers off to be with your future children. Or to travel. Perhaps you have a passion for music and teaching hours allowed you to indulge in your avocation.

I just wanted to connect with some kids each year and model happiness. Show those who are steeped in negativity or worse at home that there’s hope and they’re powerful.

If they remember that Hitler was NOT the president of the United States that’s good, too.

And I wanted a pension. As a freelance court reporter, I didn’t have any benefits.

When I remind myself of these whys it’s calming. I can let a lot of stuff roll off my shoulders. Yes, there are a LOT of things I didn’t sign up for, but that’s okay.

I do connect with a few kids each year. And I will enjoy a pension. It’s all good.

So remember your why. Focus on that. And if your why turns out not to be part of the job take action. Start planning your exit, even if it takes a few years.

18. Consider a class pet

If your school allows it consider getting a class pet. The science teacher has 2 guinea pigs in her class. They serve so many purposes.

Stressed-out students can sit and feed them. They’re so warm and fuzzy. Some kids love to nurture and taking care of the class pet fills that need. The teacher plays with them when she’s upset.

My daughter’s nursery school had pet rabbits. Students took turns bringing them home on the weekends. After my weekend was up I was enlightened. I knew that I didn’t want a pet bunny.

Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, fish, sea monkeys, hermit crabs are all potential class pets. 

If you don’t want an actual living creature to take care of consider a pet rock.

Conclusion

So there you have it, 18 out-of-the-box ways to lower your stress. Do some of them sound kind of hokey to you? That’s okay.

You do you and I’ll do me!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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