Dealing with stress in teaching

Recent events in my work life have made me evaluate how I manage stress and I have come to the conclusion that I am in need of a stress management MOT (the chronic shoulder-ache was the catalyst).

Stress at work is an important issue, and if left ignored, can trigger deeper and far more serious issues in terms of a person’s health and general wellbeing. Therefore, stress is also something employers need to think about carefully - over 100 million days are lost each year making it the biggest cause of illness in the UK (source: http://www.stress.org.uk).

A history of stress

Walter Cannon, a physiologist, was the first to identify something that we are all familiar with, the concept of the “fight or flight response.’ In certain situations if we feel endangered or at risk, our body prepares us for certain changes. We may feel an increased awareness of our surroundings and our heart rate increases, resulting in changes to our breathing. In the short-term, this response protects us but it also can be costly in terms of the energy expended to sustain this level of readiness. 

In modern societies, we may not have to fight off giant beasts that might be causing us stress (unless you count Ofsted as one) but in modern society, our day-to-day lives are filled with stressful events known as ˜stressors’ and our bodies have not adapted to accommodate these. There are two types of stressors:

  • Acute: sudden stressors such as being attacked.
  • Chronic: ongoing stressors such as with a job.

Stress-related hormones such as adrenaline (this boosts the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles) are released in the former and cortisol (burst of energy and a lower sensitivity to pain) in the latter.

As well there being links between stress and physical illnesses such as a lowered immune system (Evan et al., 2000) and cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, many scientific studies have focused on the link between stress and the stressed person’s chances of developing depression.

Some stress is good for you, it can make you feel motivated and can give you a much needed boost of energy. The subject of stress within teaching is nothing new and everyone that I have ever spoken to about the subject has stories about firstly, how they recognise that they are stressed and secondly, how they cope with the stress itself. 

Recognising the symptoms

As well as some of the scientific methods of measuring stress, such as taking a blood or saliva sample to measure cortisol levels, psychologists also use other methods to measure stress.  

Holmes and Rahe (1967) produced The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) and this consisted of 43 life events taken from analysis of over 5000 patients. All the life events increased stress to different extents and were both positive and negative in nature; for instance marriage and divorce. Holmes and Rahe concluded two key things about their research; firstly, that change is central to all life events and secondly, that we all respond differently to these events due to the amount of energy that is required to deal with them

Our different personalities can shed light on this. Research has shown that some personality traits may make us more susceptible to the negative effects of stress, whilst making others more resistant. 

Psychologists have identified what is known as a Type A personality or Type A behaviour that typically relates to someone who demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Competitive
  • Impatient
  • Can be hostile if provoked.

 

Art teacher

 

Someone with Type B personality/Type B behaviour tends to far more easy-going, relaxed and therefore less prone to stress-related illnesses.

There are a myriad of self-assessments available on the internet that allow people to check which personality type they are more likely to be. 

The problem with stress is that we don’t always realise at first that we are actually suffering from stress although some of its symptoms could present themselves to others, such as being short-tempered. Once we do recognise that there might be a problem some people are more likely to talk about it than others. Some people may feel scared to talk about stress because other people may view them as weak or unable to cope, this is something that I can certainly relate to on a personal level.

For me, it was earlier this year when I began to cry in front of a Year 10 class that I finally realised that I needed to take a long look at myself and how I dealt with stress.

It was such an unreal experience that when I look back now part of me questions whether it actually happened. I certainly hadn’t thought that I was stressed in any way prior to this; and there was nothing that any of my group that I was teaching had said or done that had triggered the tears!

Fortunately it was towards the end of the lesson and after sending the group away the flood-gates opened. Unfortunately however, I had a lesson straight after break-time and it was only with help from one of my colleagues, who started my next lesson that I felt able to continue. I recall arriving home at the end of the day feeling utterly exhausted, not just emotionally but also physically so I immediately went to bed.

I couldn’t explain rationally what had happened and each time I thought about it, the tears began to fall and I would feel such a heightened level of anxiety. I had most definitely felt stressed before but I had actually never cried in a lesson.

It was at this time that I first contacted Education Support Partnership (then known as Teacher Support Network) via anonymous email. Why the anonymity? I felt embarrassed at my behaviour and how I could so easily crack from the demands of my job when I was an experienced teacher with six years under my belt.

Education Support Partnership got back to me almost immediately providing me with clear, practical advice and a recommendation to call them on their support number. I also spoke to my partner, a teacher too, and before I knew it (as well as a few more tears) I began to pinpoint what was making me feel the way I did.

The following are what we came up with: a number of new policies had come into force at work meaning that I had a considerably greater work-load than the usual work pressures, adding both to my role as a teacher and that of a Head of Year. My partner and I had begun to discuss plans for the following academic year with the possibility of leaving our current home and country. And it was around this time that two of my closest friends suffered parental bereavements.

It was a sense of guilt and shame that I believe led up to the event in my Year 10 class. I didn’t want to be seen as weak, a burden or even suggest that my problems were any greater than other peoples' and so I simply tried to “get on with things’ or at the very least muddle through. I felt guilty that I wasn’t working hard enough, guilty that I couldn’t fit in an extra meeting with parents, guilty that I couldn’t be there for my friends, guilty about feeling guilty! So I ended up fighting a losing battle.

It is with these kind of experiences in mind that the next step is to consider how to combat stress or at least learn to manage it.

 

Paint

 

Stress management

So what can we do when we are feeling stressed? Some people deal with stressors better than others and utilise strategies, consciously or not, to cope with the demands of events, whether this is due to personality or different coping mechanisms to the challenges that occur day-to-day. 

From my own experience, I tend to over-react in certain situations and can feel the adrenaline begin to pump round my body when I’m so busy that I cannot think straight. For instance, when I have a full day of teaching and an incident happens that I have deal with, right that instant. This is something that is indicative of teaching and many professions - the pace. We are told that pace is crucial to a good lesson, to keep students engaged but this intensity can also bleed into our down-time (although that’s perhaps partly why some people may be attracted to teaching in the first place). However, our bodies cannot function at such a heightened level day in, day out and it can result in burn-out and other health problems.

Folkman and Lazarus (1980) developed two methods of coping with stress: problem-focused and emotion-focused.

  1. Problem focused: here, you seek support by speaking to others and trying to take control of the situation (sometimes easier said than done). You also might try to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of possible different options and seek a way through the difficult issue. Having someone to talk to can also decrease the amount of distress associated with the stressor.
  2. Emotion-focused: this is when you experience different emotions to try to deal with a problem, such as denial, crying or getting angry and in some cases, you may experience wishful thinking i.e., how things could have been different if you didn’t feel so stressed.

Both methods have their positive attributes, for example if we are able to think about a particular issue in a different way we may feel better and thus decrease our feelings of stress. Other strategies that can help include adopting a healthy lifestyle; such as eating well and exercising, making time for yourself and people you love.

Making contact with Education Support Partnership and speaking to my partner helped put things into perspective and gave me the confidence to reflect upon my own situation. I am trying to become more aware of how I react psychologically and physiologically to workplace stress and beyond whilst in the same vein, I have finally recognised that any strategies have to be flexible so I can react to events as they happen. 

Recognising the symptoms is one step but in certain circumstances, more help and support may be required and this is perhaps when it might be necessary to talk to someone such as your GP or telephone Education Support for free, confidential counselling at any time of the day or night.

Author Bio

Sarah Best is a teacher of Psychology and Sociology.  She qualified in 2007 and has worked in two different state schools in Nottinghamshire, UK. She moved to Spain in the summer 2012 as for a long time she has wanted to teach abroad. Now, she is in an international school teaching mostly Spanish students.