Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Accompanying podcast episode (audio version of this blog post, read by Richard):
Teaching is definitely a stressful job. In fact, a February 2019 study by England’s National Foundation for Education Research found that 20% of teachers feel tense about their job most or all of the time, compared with 13% of those working in similar professions. Additionally, as if that wasn’t startling enough, a recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey found that teachers in England have one of the highest workloads in the world.
The statistics themselves are worrying enough – that’s one-in-five teachers in England carrying a burden of worry and stress on a regular basis.
As a teacher myself, I have certainly had my fair share of work-related stress over the past 16 years. Some of the problems I encountered were the result of self-sabotage and inexperience, and some were beyond my control.
Whatever the causes of your stress are, there are effective ways to deal with them and I’d like to share what I’ve found to be the best ways to do just that.
Stress Tip #1 – When your lessons are not going well
This is often a result of poor or rushed lesson-planning and is normally avoidable. I have fallen into this trap many times in my career – using my ‘free periods’ to write rough lesson plans or spending a few minutes before a lesson to think about what I’ll actually do.
Sometimes this works. Sometimes it causes problems.
Take the time to spend a whole morning or afternoon each week to plan a week’s worth of lessons (I use my Sunday mornings for it). Get a good teacher’s planner and think about:
- The starter activities you will use (read this blog post about starter activities). Make sure you plan for your lessons to begin promptly (this blog post about a prompt start will help).
- Where the kids will sit at different points during the lesson. Will they need their books at all times? Do you need a seating plan so that ‘problem’ students are not sat next to each other?
- Breaking up the lesson into ‘chunks’ – variety is key if you want your lessons to be engaging and ‘fun’. Read my blog post about learning games you can use here.
- Syllabus content you will cover – with some classes you’ll have a lot of content to get through in a short space of time. Get your PowerPoints, presentations, quizzes, and other resources ready well in-advance of these kinds of lessons. You might also want to read my blog post about keeping up with your teaching schedule here.
Stress Tip #2 – When you have too much marking to do
Marking tends to come in ‘waves’ in teaching: There are times of the academic year when you’ve just got normal, regular homework and classwork to mark; and there are times when high-intensity marking hits us like a bolt of lightning. For example:
- When a ‘work scrutiny’ comes up and a line-manager wants to see your class notebooks
- When you have a load of end-of-unit tests or exam papers to mark
- When parents’ evenings/parents’ consultations come up and you need to mark a lot of work so that you have some good points to discuss in the meetings
Marking can be a big-problem for teachers, but again: it’s easily avoidable when a little bit of time is spent planning in-advance:
- In your weekly planning, think of peer and self-assessment techniques you can use to quickly deal with homework and classwork. Read my blog post on peer and self-assessment here.
- Use the technique of ‘Live Marking’ to keep those notebooks up-to-date. Live-marking is basically when you either call the students to your desk one-at-a-time and mark their work in front of them, or you walk around the classroom with a pen in-hand and mark student notebooks in ‘real time’. Read my blog post about ‘Live-marking’ here.
- Take a deep breath and plan your time – if you find yourself with a tonne of exam papers to mark within 48 hours (I’ve been there), then the first thing you must do is sit somewhere quiet and plan your time for an hour. Think about your targets – which papers need to be marked by when? Should some papers be marked before others? Is it possible, or appropriate, to use peer/self-assessment for some exam papers?
- Try using stamps and stickers – they’ll save you some writing time
- Make sure you’ve got a set of model answers ready for your kids – this will save you writing out the correct answers for the kids by hand in their books (never do that, by the way).
Stress Tip #3: When you’re in trouble with your boss over something
One of the main causes of stress for teachers, I believe, is that we are held to a far-higher professional standard than those in most other professions. As ‘role-models’, we have to be extra careful about:
- What we say and do in society
- What we say and do on the internet (e.g. with social media – read my blog post about good social media etiquette for teachers here)
- How we interact with our colleagues (Read my blog post about working with colleagues here)
- How we interact with our students and former students
We do need to be mindful of these things on a daily basis, but even then we may make mistakes. If you are called to a meeting with your boss over something, then don’t panic! Take a deep breath and think about your side of the story and the facts of the matter at hand.
In your discussion, focus on:
- Solutions to what’s happened (‘How can we solve this?’ should be your mentality).
- If you’ve done something wrong, then admit it. Covering something up will only cause more problems later on.
- If you feel that you’ve been unfairly treated then speak with a union representative or a lawyer before making any big decisions (e.g. choosing to resign).
I know that this is not a nice subject to talk about, but unfortunately it’s one that does come up. Protect yourself and your reputation, do your best everyday and just let life roll – some things are just beyond our control.
Another thing, by the way, is that absolutely everyone makes mistakes. I know that’s cliched, but it is true. Keep a written record of the mistakes you’ve made in life somewhere, and read over it on a weekly basis at least. When people tell us to ‘learn from our mistakes’, they can sometimes miss the fact that in order to learn from mistakes we have to remember those mistakes. Keeping a record and consistently reading over it is a good way to do this.
Stress tip #4: When student behavior is poor
It takes time and experience to build up our skills as good ‘behavior managers’.
Things to bear in mind are:
- ‘Boring’ lessons can cause some kids to play up. Try to introduce a variety of activities into your lessons if possible, and be vigilant in watching your students carefully during practical activities, computer-based work and group work.
- Praise, when used effectively and with sincerity, can be one of the most powerful behavior management tools out there. Read my blog post about The Four Rules of Praise here, and take the time to watch my video below:
- Good behavior management can only really be achieved with a long-term strategy: effective lesson planning, good use of praise, fair and consistent use of sanctions if necessary and good use of ‘professional intelligence’ to reinforce our students’ sense of self-worth and character. Read my blog post on Subtle Reinforcement here.
There are many facets to being a good behavior manager, but it basically all comes down to the relationship, or ‘rapport’, that you build with your students. Please read my blog posts on building rapport and behavior management.
Stress tip #5: When a colleague doesn’t like you (or is causing problems)
When you begin to have a positive effect on your students and you gain a reputation as a ‘good teacher’, you may create some enemies. Some of your colleagues may not like you simply because you are ‘better’ than they are.
You need to be careful in these situations. Here are my tips:
- Control your speech at all times when in the presence of your colleagues. Off-the-cuff remarks like “I’m behind with my marking” or “I got totally wasted on Friday night” can be used against you by conniving and jealous colleagues who want to secure your destruction.
- Don’t gossip, and don’t associate with gossips. Gossips are notorious for being negative and untrustworthy. Just don’t do it. If you’re asked directly or prompted to gossip about a colleague, for example, you can respond with a “I don’t think I should talk about that” or even a “I don’t like to gossip about people”.
- If a colleague is genuinely causing problems for you, then make a record of all interactions with that person (hand-written if necessary). Speak with your line-manager about it and ask for suggestions. It’s much better to tackle this issue in a professional way from the outset, rather than submitting a formal complaint when the problem has gotten out-of-hand.
- If appropriate, speak with the colleague you are having issues with. You may wish to ask a third person to attend as a witness. Be polite. Be respectful. Show that you are the mature person in this scenario.
- Keep all discussions with colleagues academic in nature. Try not to discuss politics or ‘touchy issues’ in society (e.g. Brexit, 2SLGBT+ rights, third-wave feminism, etc.). We live in a time, unfortunately, in which people can be easily ‘triggered’ by an alternative view you might have that challenges their perception of the world. Feel free to discuss this stuff with close friends or family outside of work, but don’t make the mistake of believing that your colleagues are your friends – they’re not. Your colleagues are the people you work with, and all interactions with them need to be professional in nature. If something is not related to your work or the curriculum, then you don’t need to discuss it. It’s that simple.
Teachers today are more stressed than we have ever been in history. Relax, plan-ahead, deal with issues head-on and don’t worry.
Two books I highly recommend for consistent worriers are given below:
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ by Dale Carnegie (click on the image to buy the book):
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (click on the image to buy the book):