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A Teacher's Guide to Balancing Stress and Finding Well-Being





After recently retiring from teaching, I honestly can say it was the most amazing, terrible, and stressful career. I loved it. I dreaded it. I fought for it. I cried over it. I had so much fun and made wonderful memories. I impacted thousands of lives, hopefully for the better. Teaching brought me joy and so much anxiety. And it felt like every year got more demanding.


There are a whole bunch of reasons why your plate is overflowing, cracked, broken. There is a lot of research showing that high levels of teachers are dangerously close to burnout. You are not alone in your stress.


The term "burnout" was coined in 1974. It means the "failure to meet high demands caused by excessive workloads” (sound familiar?) and includes 3 parts: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.


Emotional exhaustion means that you are emotionally worn out and drained. It can look like a lack of energy, fatigue, poor sleep, and decreased motivation.


Depersonalization describes feeling detached or numb. You might be cynical and have consistent negative attitudes towards colleagues. You might feel like you're in a fog, or a dream, being emotionally disconnected or distorted from your friends or family.


Reduced personal accomplishment is another way to say poor productivity, low morale, and being unable to cope. You might feel depressed, demoralized, stressed, failure, shame, and low self-worth.


Burnout is serious, it feels awful and affects all parts of your life, and a few weeks off in the summer will not cure it. It requires RADICAL CHANGE. If you recognize these signs, take them seriously and seek support.


Why are you so stressed? Um...you know why...take your pick!


How about decision fatigue? Some studies from the 1990's suggested teachers make 1,500 decisions a day. That was 30 years ago! How many daily decisions do you think you make now? I know I made more than that, starting at 6:20 a.m. with which black shirt I was going to wear.


You might get to work before dawn, you have many children in your class with high needs, and you are expected to meet the needs and desires of parents, admin, staff, district protocols, and society.


You work late, take work home, grade work, and answer emails on nights and weekends for no additional pay, all while managing your own life and family.


And that's just the physical aspect. The mental load of teaching never stops. I bet you plan lessons in the shower.


There are going to be days when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked. It's normal. However, if these powerful feelings become consistent, they can take over your joy and peace. There are healthier ways to respond to stress from a place of logic and calm, rather than react with emotional outbursts.


Let’s look at some real, practical strategies to help you manage stress both inside and outside the classroom, avoid burnout, and maintain your well-being. Ok look—these are not perfect, and may not work for everyone. To be honest, these interventions probably won’t stop you from reacting in confusion and shock when a mysterious pooper shows up, but they can help you respond in a healthier way.


1. Acknowledge Your Feelings:

Before diving into strategies, let's start with something fundamental about being a teacher today: It's normal to feel stressed. It's normal to feel miserable. It's normal to feel hopeless and helpless. Teaching is an incredibly demanding job, and stress is a natural response. Begin by acknowledging your feelings without judgment. By recognizing your hard feelings, you take the first step toward managing your stress. When you say“I feel _______!” what you are doing is recognizing and labeling that emotion, which helps you feel more confident, capable, and empowered. It's weird and wonderful.


2. Prioritize Self-Care:

Don’t roll your eyes. I’m not talking about taking a bath (unless that is your self-care, Epsom salt baths are amazing). Here's the thing: Self-care is not a luxury; it's a necessity. Self-care is putting yourself first. It's saying NO to late-night emails, weekend phone calls to parents, or anything beyond your work day. It's saying YES to anything that prioritizes your mental and emotional well-being. Playing an hour of video games is my self-care. For others, it’s not talking to people when they get home. Consider the following ways to care for yourself:

  • Set Boundaries: (Boundaries are for you, not others.) Create a clear boundary between work and personal life. Set specific hours for work and commit to stepping away when those hours are over. That could mean scheduling one night a week when you work late so you avoid bringing work home.

  • Focus on Your Physical Well-Being: Ensure you're getting enough sleep, and hydration, eating nutritiously, and engaging in regular exercise. Physical health plays a significant role in managing stress. We all know that walking is magical for our health, so come on, let’s just do it, go for a damn walk.

  • Prioritize Your Mental Health: Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques to stay centered. Consider journaling or meditation to clear your mind. It works it works it works, I promise! Yogic breathing is powerful for regulating your racing heart and high blood pressure. Writing in a journal is easy, cheap, and helpful. And you don’t have to journal positive things or gratitude, you can journal your deep dark thoughts. It’s ok, I give you permission. No one cares and no one is reading your journals.

3. Focus on being good, not perfect

“Perfect is the enemy of good". It's unattainable. You will never be a perfect parent, child, spouse, friend, or teacher. Focus on being a good parent, a good partner, a good friend, a good teacher.

Here are some ways to be a good teacher:

  • Learn to Say No: While it's admirable to go the extra mile, it's essential to set limits and learn to say no when necessary.

  • Follow Effective Time Management: Identify your most critical tasks and tackle them first. Break large tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Use your technology to keep you on schedule: set alarms for every transition, duty, and appointment.

  • Delegate When Possible: Don't hesitate to delegate responsibilities when appropriate. Students and colleagues can often assist with various tasks.

  • Set Realistic Expectations: Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a given day or week. Overloading yourself with work can lead to burnout.

  • Make Time for Activities You Love: Outside of work, engage in activities that bring you joy. Whether it's a hobby, spending time with loved ones, or simply enjoying nature, these activities provide essential balance in your life.

  • Embrace Mindful Teaching: You can also incorporate mindfulness into your classroom by teaching your students mindfulness techniques. Talk to your school counselor for tips and tricks. Encourage moments of stillness and focus in the classroom, which can help both you and your students manage stress. Look– 5 minutes of sitting quietly is a long time, but it will help and teach your kids so much. They need these mini breaks throughout their day.


If you find yourself struggling with overwhelming stress or burnout, don't hesitate to consult me or another mental health professional. We can provide valuable tools and strategies to help you navigate these challenges effectively.


Remember, your well-being is paramount. By prioritizing self-care, seeking support, and implementing effective stress management strategies, you can not only manage the demands of teaching but also thrive in your life.


If you have specific questions or need more personalized advice, please feel free to share, and I'll do my best to assist you.


You're making a significant difference in the lives of your students. It's equally important to care for yourself as you care for others.


Take care and stay well--

Leslie



References


Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311


Vercambre, N., Brosselin, P., Gilbert, F., Nerrière, E., & Kovess-Masféty, V. (2009). Individual and contextual covariates of burnout: A cross-sectional nationwide study of French teachers. BMC Public Health, 9, 333. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-333


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