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Helping Teachers in need
“Hey, are you okay there? You look a little stressed,” Mike’s girlfriend, Linda, said as he stared blankly off to the side. A buzzing sensation had filled his ears as he had zoned out, his mind trailing off to the familiar situation he had created in his mind: his classroom and students. He had so many things to do – so many things to plan and work out before the break was over. Surely it can’t be stress.
She tapped him on the arm, looking at him with a raised brow. She pursed her lips as she stared at him through expectant eyes. A hot shame filled his chest as he looked down at his meal, nodding. Linda had always been understanding of his job and the expectations he had to uphold, but Mike still felt uneasy.
“Yeah, don’t worry, I’m fine,” Mike responded before he took a bite out of his sandwich. Admittedly, Mike felt guilty for ignoring his girlfriend, though it was unintentional. His upcoming year was always at the back of his mind, scratching away at the inner workings of his brain. It was almost as if he couldn’t let go, even when he was on a break or holiday. He knew he shouldn’t live with such a heavy burden on his shoulders, but he did.
He was not okay. He was stressed, but he didn’t want to admit it to anyone. How could he?
“You know that you can tell me anything, right?” Linda reassured him. Mike fell silent as he nodded his head; how could he tell her that he was feeling dejected and burned out when he didn’t want to accept it himself?
Mike had heard about teachers experiencing stress and burnout but would shrug it off. He would claim it’d never happen to him. After all, Mike loved to teach. How could he ever feel burnt out by something he adored? Oh, how wrong he was.
What made him realise hadn’t been his students nor their varying skills – he still loved seeing them every day despite how hard his job could be. It had occurred when he was creating a test from scratch; the printer had backed up and wouldn’t print out any of the work he had put in. He felt his heart pump loudly in his chest as his blood boiled over. Mike had to take a few moments to himself before going back to the printer and trying again.
That incident had happened a while ago, but he refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong. That is, until now. Mike was sure that he had let this go on for far too long – zoning out was one thing, but allowing it to interfere with his quality time with his loved ones was another thing. He couldn’t let that happen again.
I totally lost myself there, Mike thought. Once he and Linda had gone home, he sat himself down and did a much-needed assessment of his emotions and how he was feeling. Mike soon realised that he had become increasingly annoyed and had trouble feeling grateful for anything or finding joy in the thing he loved most. As someone who once loved to crack jokes and find humour in everyday living, he saw that he had difficulties doing so.
“Are you really okay?” His girlfriend, Linda, asked him as she handed him a warm cup of tea. Was he okay? Rather than verbally respond, he shrugged as he leaned into the couch, sipping from a mug.
“Maybe a little stressed,” he said, admitting it. As the words escaped his lips, he felt his world fall apart. How could he have ever let this happen? Despite trying very hard not to feel like a failure, he did.
“I know just what you need,” Linda said as she pulled out her laptop, typing away until she found the article, she wanted to show him. She had stumbled on a web article that talked about using the power of happiness to stop stress from the classroom and improve his personal life.
During the holidays, students are happy, and parents are glad to have their children around. It can be a different story for teachers as that small voice keeps checking in about what to do for next term or planning some project for class. Juggling gift buying, attending staff parties, and managing all the classroom responsibilities required by the holidays can be tricky.
So, when we have those precious days off, we need to know how to de-stress just like Mike. A great psychologist and researcher, Shawn Achor, suggests using the power of happiness to kill stress.
He states that happiness is not just a fleeting emotion. It is a choice to have joy; you feel moving towards your potential – even when your situation is not good. Inner joy brings true happiness.
Here are Shawn Achor’s five things you need to enable happiness: gratitude, journaling, exercise, reflection, and acts of kindness.
It costs nothing to show gratitude. Just saying thank you to those around you shows your appreciation. Take a moment to think of at least one thing you can be thankful for, each day. Each morning write a quick text or short email to someone praising them.
During the holidays, make time to do something entirely different and separate from work. I make sure there’s a particular time set aside for my husband. He goes fishing while I draw and paint. We can go at it a whole day and not realise the time. We get to eat lovely fish and possibly enjoy viewing a new painting of the place we visited. We take the time to sit and relax on the verandah, chatting about stuff and enjoying being together.
Humour, naturally, provides instant relief and a soothing feeling, at least for a moment. As long as the intention is not to mock others, it allows us to step back and take everything, including ourselves, less seriously. So practice the art of finding the ludicrous, paradoxical and nonsensical in daily events. And laughing itself is priceless. A belly laugh changes biochemistry and clears out emotional gunk like little else.
Identify a problem, and it is halfway to being solved. Before you can tackle stress, you need to know what is stressing you out. Keep a journal of all the things you can remember that are causing you stress right now. Create two lists from your journal: things you can control and things you can’t.
Here comes the task; focus on searching for solutions to the things you can control. From your list, select the one that will have the most significant impact on your stress levels. What can you do to tackle this issue? Set yourself a goal to manage it and write it down using positive language.
It’s a valuable thing to know what you can and cannot do. You love to be perfect, and that’s okay, but sometimes, you need to wrestle your perfectionism to the ground. Also, don’t let idealised expectations influence you into doing more than you can realistically manage. It’s difficult not to, but it will pay dividends. Learn to say no and set your limits.
Try as much as possible to do all those things you know are right for your physical well-being: get regular exercise; take it easy on the caffeine, sugar and alcohol; get enough sleep; eat healthy food — you know this stuff. Caring for your body is the baseline of stress reduction. Oh and don’t overeat ice-cream, chocolate, pastries and cakes, you will only have to work them off later.
It might not be summer where you are, but your body still needs to get out in the fresh air. You’ve spent months inside the classroom, so there’s no excuse to stop you from getting out there. A change in the environment makes all the difference. Make time for a walk each day in a place you haven’t been before if you can’t get away on holiday. You might even meet someone and make new friends outside of work.
Find an excellent book that will relax you. That will engulf your mind in another world. It can be anything, but not one that evokes stuff about school life. That’s cheating. Remember this is supposed to be a break from all things school. Give your brain a break and read something entirely different from school stuff. Make time for your mind to recharge. You will be more amazing next term for doing this.
In the big summer break, I also try to read one educational book that will improve my teaching.
How many times do I hear teachers worrying about who will be teaching next door to them? That teacher is probably just as anxious about you. We can increase our happiness according to how well we manage our mind. There are only really two possibilities. The teacher next door will either be worse than I thought or just the most beautiful colleague to partner.
I choose to love others and treat them just as well as I would like to be. A kind word can make all the difference. Even if it doesn’t, it is still better to be kind and be a friend.
Each year my upper primary class learn what it is to do random acts of kindness. Each week we study how someone did an act of kindness. Then each student chooses someone they don’t know in class to do something kind.
One week it might be to talk with someone they don’t know for 10 mins each day. Another week do something kind for their mother or guardian, or for a teacher they don’t know. They must not tell the person why they are doing the act of kindness. Each week students journal their experience and what they learned.
I take the time to reflect and map an outline of the year. I’ve started more recently to use my iPad as it’s with me all the time. During the first semester, I try to do a lot of curriculum planning for the whole year while assessing students needs. It reduces any stress, and I only have to spend two to three days writing it up as a curriculum document for the second half of the year.
Don’t over-schedule! Just brainstorm the things that have caused you stress. Find ways to improve them on one sheet of paper and circle three things. I always take too much time grading, so I’m still on the lookout for better solutions. Now I use a digital teacher planner which makes everything move fast. During the school break, I also like to organise my digital resources into files on Google. This way, my materials are always at my fingertips.
Plan your ideas for morning routines and classroom procedures. I love to draw simple poster directions for my students. Don’t just reflect on how you want your classroom arranged. I have to sketch it out to scale. I think through how my students will walk around and get supplies. During week zero, I set it up, and you’ll find students learn to maintain the classroom from week one.
One of my main tasks in the holiday is to make time to sort, store, and discard stuff in my home office. During school time, so much stuff accumulates at home with the different projects I’m trying out. Starting this way, while I’m still in work mode, just for one day, makes for a lovely relaxing environment.
There are numerous ways that one can make time to relax in the holidays. So, make time, plan a little and rest a lot. It’s especially crucial around holiday time. When trying too hard to do too much can create the exact opposite of the holiday feeling you’re striving for, and you morph into the cranky, resentful, martyred, overworked nightmare you swore you’d never be.
Watch Shawn Achor’s – happiness Ted Talk – Nov 2015
Listen to Oprah’s Conversation with Shawn Achor – July 2019
“You look happy,” Linda said as she brightly smiled at him. Was his mood change that obvious? Or had he gone so long feeling stressed that he forgot what his usual feelings were?
“I feel good,” Mike admitted as he returned the smile, holding his hand in hers as they took a stroll around the park, taking in the fresh air and the warm sun against their skins. After all, taking a break and exercising the body was essential to his emotional well-being.
Mike was quick to learn about the five easy steps to dispel stress. He learned to set up boundaries and unplug himself from the expectations of teaching. During his holidays, he would take the time to hang out with his closest companions and go for a walk. They would laugh until their bellies ached, and their cheeks hurt as they cracked jokes with one another. As a teacher, he would often forget how important it was to soothe himself and make sure he was at his best. If not for himself, then for those around him.
He also took the time to journal all of his worries and problems. He had to admit that once it was all on paper, his issues didn’t seem so daunting as they did in his head. Rather than focus on everything at once, journaling allowed him to prioritise, and problem solve.
Naturally, he still agonises over the upcoming year and everything he needs to do. But rather than let it go unchecked, he now knows how to manage his stress without getting overwhelmed. Overall, he lives a fulfilled and happy lifestyle after discovering the secrets of battling anxiety with happiness. He gets to enjoy his time with his friends and family on his vacation while still planning his year.