I am a lucky. I rarely feel much stress about anything outside of the classroom. But, I am also unlucky; I regularly wink awake in the middle of the night, mind racing with “work stuff.”
Luckily, I have made some progress with nurturing a healthy, relaxed state of mind. Of course, my success is relative. Depending on the week (or even the day) my stress level fluctuates. Honestly, the week in which I’ve written this post has been particularly jam-packed, and I felt more stress than usual.
Regardless of my daily state-of-mind, however, some things consistently help me navigate the ebb and flow of stress that comes with being a classroom teacher:
I feel better when I exercise. I, like you, have no time. Every teacher I know is incredibly busy. Yet, I am slowly starting to realize just how important exercise is to my mental health. This year I have been running in the mornings before work. In the northern climes of Germany this means strapping on a headlamp and getting out in the cold and the dark and the wet. Whenever I summon the willpower to do this, I always feel better for the rest of the day. I am less likely to get amped up about my busy work schedule, I sleep better, and I laugh more often.
Often times my stress is related to a pile of grading. As an English teacher, there always seems to be something to grade, but I find that I get most anxious when I avoid the pile. If I simply get started, just marking an essay or two, I inevitably feel better. In fact, as I write these words, I am thinking about the in-class advertising commentary essays that my grade 9 students wrote. I have to start grading them today, or my anxiety will increase.
I once read an article about how Buddhist monks cope with stress. To paraphrase, they work to realize that no matter how many things they have to do, they can only deal with one thing in any particular moment. They strive, then, to stay in the present and complete that one task well. By focusing on the now, the pressures and distractions of “what is to come” fall away. I absolutely stress about “what is to come” more than the present. During the work day, I break my time down to twenty minute units. I ask myself, “In the next twenty minutes, what is the best use of my time?” I then try to work in a focused manner on that one task for twenty minutes. Of course, my mind drifts to the myriad of other things that need my attention, but I simply jot down those distractions on a to-do list, staying focused on that one thing I have decided to do. My mind begins to race less, and I become calmer and more productive. (All my blog posts, by the way, are written in such bursts. I try to carve out ten to twenty minutes from every day to write. It’s the only way I ever get anything down.)
Find a hideout
If your school is like mine, quiet workspace is at a premium. Our hallways are packed (a good problem for an international school) and every classroom is used almost every hour of the day. Finding a quiet place without noise and distraction can be next to impossible. For me, however, I need a secret lair to get work done, and I have gotten very creative about where I go. Having a secluded workspace helps reduce my stress considerably.
Pop a pill
Some people attach a stigma to taking a pill to help with one’s mood. I understand that position; any one stress management technique cannot work in isolation. Just popping a pill won’t have any real effect. I have, however, started taking a daily dose of St. John’s Wart, and I also occasionally take Valerian (Baldrian Root) as a sleep aid. Both seem to help me stay more relaxed and focused. Of course, any kind of herbs or medications work differently for different people, but these have worked well for me.
Get your sleep (and an Up bracelet)
I used a gift card to buy an UP bracelet by Jawbone. It’s the kind of thing that I would never buy for myself, but I am so happy I got one. Originally, I was most drawn to the pedometer function. I wanted to take more accurate measure of my daily activity. It has worked wonderfully in that regard, but it has also helped me sleep better. When I purchased the bracelet I knew it also tracked sleep patterns, but I did not think I really needed this information. I always assumed I was a heavy sleeper who regularly got eight hours of sleep a night. I was surprised to learn that I average more like seven. I have now made changes to my nightly routines in order to improve the sleep I get. Study after study shows the importance of sleep to our physical and mental health, and before I started tracking my sleep with the UP bracelet, I would have never suspected that I was sleep deprived.
Ask for help
I nearly left teaching during my first year. I could go on and on about those horrors, but my story can be boiled down to a very common one. I felt utterly ill-equipped to deal with the inexorable workload that is a very real part of teaching. I did not really realize how stressed (and depressed) I had become until one day, when I was talking to a counselor about one of my students, I off-handedly asked about stress management programs offered to new teachers. Suddenly, I was sobbing. I am not a macho guy who never cries, but I am also not someone prone to public blubbering. I was shocked by this moment (probably much more than my seasoned colleague). Luckily, she was an excellent co-worker and helped me find the support I needed. I was smart enough not to be embarrassed when I wasn’t coping well, and other people in my life stepped up and helped me. They will do the same for you.