Having worked within education in a secondary school for over 10 years I have seen many good teachers struggling with stress, often leading to time off work and sometimes a person having to make the decision to leave the profession. In October 2015 the NUT published a survey finding that ‘over half of teachers were thinking of leaving teaching in the next two years citing ‘volume of workload’ (61%) and ‘seeking better work/life balance’ (57%) as the two top issues causing them to consider this’. I have wondered what are the stresses that are unique to schools that lead to such a high turnover of staff?
Around 3 years ago I was delivering some training to trainee teachers and I asked them how many had gone a day without laughing. Quite shockingly in a room full of around 30, at least 25 put their hands up. I then asked how many had gone a whole day without having a drink, going to the toilet, having something to eat, and all of their hands went up. How is it acceptable that this is seen as normal, that people are not taking care of basic needs throughout their working day? And how can teachers protect themselves from this becoming the norm particularly so early in their career?
Identify causes of stress. Taking stock of life is important and sometimes stresses can creep up on us. I would suggest at least once a term making a list of what’s going well and what is causing stress. Once you’ve identified your stresses try to identify some solutions. Think about whether you can change something about the situation itself that is causing stress. If it is something integral to your work that you can’t control think about what you can change about yourself or what additions you can make to your life in order to minimise the level of stress caused.
Prioritise. It becomes clear quite quickly when you work in a school that no matter how many hours you work, you will never get everything done. Teachers new to the profession often get stuck in the trap of feeling the harder they work the better teachers they will be. I’ve found the best teachers to be those that have been able to find some kind of work life balance. In order to achieve this think about how many hours you feel comfortable working and then prioritise, prioritise, prioritise! This includes prioritising within work as well as relationships, family life, fun, relaxation. Decide how many hours per week you are willing or want to spend on each area of your life and then make a plan and stick to it. Remember your work ‘intray’ will never be empty so putting boundaries around your hours is necessary.
Saying No. When being asked to take on something new reflect back on the role you have been employed for, as well as what your aspirations are in terms of developing your role. Think back to your priorities, does what you’re being asked to do fit in with those? Developing the habit of saying to managers and colleagues that you will get back to them when they ask you to do something gives you space to reflect so that you can consider your options. A common assumption is that if you don’t say yes straight away this will lead to conflict, or result in not being liked. The opposite is usually true. Setting boundaries can help people develop respect for you and helps them to understand what your boundaries and goals are.
Practice Mindfulness, Exercise, Relax. Overthinking perceived mistakes from the past, or worrying about the future can cause a large amount of anxiety and stress. Feeling that a students’ negative behaviour is a personal attack on you, being unable to sleep due to panicking about the amount of marking still to be done, worrying about results, can all lead to stress. Finding a way to relax can help to stop negative worries and thoughts from becoming a problem. Finding the right exercise for you can help your body and mind remain healthy, whether it is going for a run, a walk or a swim. Maybe going to a class is more your thing, yoga, Pilates, body pump, Zumba. Learning Mindfulness techniques can help you to learn to enjoy the present moment rather than focusing on things you have no control over such as the past or the future. Find a local Mindfulness group or download one of the many Mindfulness apps to begin your practice.
Look After Basic Needs. If basic needs are not met your higher needs cannot be fully met. An essential part of teacher planning is how to meet the basic needs of toiletting, having enough to eat and drink throughout the day, talking with other adults and, perhaps most importantly, laughing. Talk with colleagues about how you can work together to ensure these needs are met. Cover each other’s classes for 5 minutes, for those essential bathroom breaks, make each other a drink when you can, take it in turns to bring in lunch, whatever works for you and your team. Ask colleagues for tips and advice and share you ideas with others as well. It will make you a much better teacher.
With so many teachers leaving the profession remember why you joined in the first place. Making a few small changes will make a huge difference to your enjoyment and ability to manage the stresses of a career in teaching. Counselling and learning Mindfulness techniques can help you learn to manage stress and remain in a hugely rewarding job.