If you’re a teacher and you’re stressed, you’re in good company. One in four teachers rates their jobs as very or extremely stressful. It is estimated as high as 46% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years of their career. In Germany, only 26% of teachers make it to retirement age – compared to 54% of other public sector employees. Research shows that 52% of early retirements can be attributed to psychiatric or psychosomatic disorders. The statistics are damning. Despite what the general population might think and or joke, teachers need to be conscious of their stress levels for the good of their careers and health.
Occupational stress is considered most prevalent in professions that involve human interaction. Teaching fits this category as the social nature, uncertainty, emotional intensity and high levels of attention to others contribute to the stresses that accumulate over hours, days, weeks, terms and years. How should we cope with this stress? How do we ensure the role we play is sustainable for over thirty to forty years?
My Experience and What Helped
A few years ago, I dealt with chronic stress. It ended up being a crash course in stress management. My personal life combined with my professional life to create one of those perfect storms that have the potential to bring destruction if you don’t catch it early and batten down the hatches. It’s important to acknowledge that stress is like a storm, completely unavoidable. It is how we prepare, perceive and manage it that determines how much damage it does before it passes. And it does pass.
While I was continuing to move forward through the year, I adopted a two-pronged approach that is research-based and proved a lifesaver: Direct-Action and Palliative techniques.
Direct-Action is self-explanatory. It involves identifying the source of the stress, determining the reason it is stressing you and then deciding how to resolve it. Then, you activate the plan and execute. Stress is said to be the result of an imbalance between the demands you are facing and the resources you have to meet those demands. If you have lots to do, you may become stressed if you don’t have the time. If you are faced with a child who you find particularly challenging, you may become stressed if you feel you don’t have the expertise to deal with it. If you have an inspection coming up, you may become stressed if you feel unprepared. Taking a direct-action approach to these examples, you will seek to manage your time, develop your knowledge and complete the necessary work respectively. You are working towards reducing and eliminating the source of the stress.
Palliative techniques aim to reduce stress without dealing with the source. This can mean different things for different people. Personally, I began to journal (link here), I took up yoga, I played a team sport, I went away on trips with friends for the odd weekend and got out in nature as much as I could. For others, this could entail socialising, additional sleep or anything you deem to be a stress reliever. You’re switching off. You’re in a different mode and you’re fully immersed in whatever activity that you love and enjoy.
The five most common stressors for teachers are school environment, student misbehaviour, relationships with parents, time demands and inadequate training: all stressors which can be dealt with through a combination of direct action and palliative techniques. You have to find the right balance for you between trying to put out the fire and stepping away from it every once in a while.
The space to avoid, for me, was that space in between. Where you take one step away from the fire so you’re not putting it out but not too far away that you’re safe from getting burnt. The equivalent of this, for me, was sitting around complaining about my stress without taking action or lying around the house thinking about my worries when I could have been off enjoying myself. My stress was at its highest when I was in this space, neither working to eliminate the stress or taking my mind off it and enjoying life. When I fully invested in either the direct action and palliative approach, which I managed for sustained periods with the occasional lapse to despair, I managed to contain my stress and gradually work my way through it. I also managed to make some great memories when I was fully switched off and tuned into things that I loved. Take my advice and either take direct action or switch off with some palliative activity and whatever you do, avoid the middle where you’re doing neither.
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