If I look through a window pane and see teaching as weather, teaching would be the thunderstorm. And as we sail our classroom ship on this maelstrom of hormones, stress, conflicting priorities, and distractions, it takes rock-solid habits of mind and life to be the kind of self-assured captain who can weather the storm.
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bre1ad.”
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Health professionals believe that 80-90% of all disease is stress related. Gallup’s 2014 State of American Schools reports half of teachers claim they have significant daily stress. (The highest of all careers polled.)
Here are some time-tested research-proven ways to be that Teacher-Captain with nerves of steel.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #1: Kill Worry By Accepting the Worst and Working to Improve It
“Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear.” Corrie ten Boom1
Many teachers house an internal storm between their ears. Worry rips through peace and electrocutes purpose.
The best technique for dealing with anxiety comes from Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Carnegie interviewed Willis H. Carrier the engineer and founder of the Carrier Corporation, the company many of us use for our air conditioning system. Early in his career, Carrier had made a mistake and installed a massive air handling system that didn’t work. After nights of not sleeping, Carrier adopted three steps that changed his life.
- Analyze the situation fearlessly and honestly and figure out the worst that can happen as a result.
- Accept the worst outcome
- Calmly devote time and energy to improve upon the worst which has already been accepted mentally.
When I’m worried, I grab pen and paper and start by listing the worst thing that can happen. I go ahead and accept the worst, and then, I start improving it. As it says in Luke 12:22,
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #2: Interrupt Negative Thought Loops and Replace Them With Positive Ones
Your thoughts can swirl into a tornado — taking you to places of purpose or pathetic places of self-induced agony.
Your thoughts create a mental momentum that spills over into your physical world.
On a recent episode of Every Classroom Matters, Sir John Hargrave, author of Mindhacking, talked about “thought loops.” Thought loops are those repeated loops of things we say to ourselves. Part of self-awareness and metacognition is the ability to pull back and observe your thoughts from a distance.
For example, early in my career I was struggling with classroom management. I found myself thinking “I can’t manage my classroom.” The more I said this, the more helpless I became. I quickly switched this stinkin’ thinkin’ to “I will learn how to better manage my classroom and become a better teacher.” I did.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with his dirty feet.”1
Sometimes we’re the one with dirty feet and the negativity comes from ourselves. Sometimes our thoughts echo negative things people have said to us that we won’t let go. We can master our thoughts and redirect our abilities. Interrupt your negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Even if you have to talk to yourself. Redirect your thoughts and regain your mind.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #3: Keep a Joy Journal
Looking for joy is like looking for a color. When you look for the color blue, you see it everywhere. Start noticing and writing down things that bring you joy. You’ll re-set your mindset and become happier.
Research has shown that keeping a joy journal will improve your “long term well being” more than winning a million dollars in the lottery.
Most of us are naturally tuned to notice certain things. Some people always see the negative, like old Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh.
Winnie the Pooh: Lovely day, isn’t it?
Eeyore: Wish I could say yes, but I can’t.
Some of us just need to re-set our mindset. Listing five things a day will have you looking for those things. The kind word, the fun time you had playing with the dog, the romantic dinner you had last night, the surprise phone call from an old friend. We all have moments of joy if we start noticing them instead of feeling blue.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #4: Make Sleep a Priority
A tired teacher is a powderkeg looking for a match. Set an evening alarm to remind yourself that it is time to go to sleep. Sleep loss makes it harder to think, harms your health and worsens your mood. Women who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to be obese. Norbert Schwarz says,
“Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”
Brooks and Lack found that a ten-minute nap was ideal, but that even a five-minute snooze was better than nothing.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #5: Drink Enough Water
Take time to drink water. Seventy-five percent of Americans suffer from chronic dehydration. Dehydration is shown to impact your mood and cognitive processes negatively. The effects of dehydration are real and especially detrimental to teachers who must stay positive and think clearly.
Many suffer not from lack of water, but an inability to take time to drink it. Apply the “mud puddle principle” and put a glass by each sink in your home. Drink a whole glass of water at the beginning of break and lunch. Drinking water must become part of your habits, so you do it automatically.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #6: Exercise (preferably outside)
Sitting is the new cigarette. Every 90 minutes a human needs to move. We’re not stuck on a ship, after all, we can walk around the building or visit a friend across campus. Some of us can even walk to work.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #7: Make Time for Faith
“If patience is worth anything, it must endure to the end of time. And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm.” Mahatma Gandhi
A strong correlation exists between religion and positive mental health. Research-proven ways of handling stress include meditation, deep breathing, aromatherapy, listening to music, visualization and prayer.
Mother Teresa worked in the harshest of situations with the poor in Calcutta. If there has ever been a person sailing a ship on the red blood of despair, death, and poverty, it is this precious woman. She said,
“The simplicity of our life of contemplation makes us see the face of God in everything, everyone, and everywhere, all the time.”
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #8: Develop deep relationships
As humans, we need intimacy. But just being together is not enough. Be careful that your stressful career doesn’t ruin your close relationships. While journaling your problems is shown to reduce stress, just talking about them with another person is not. And cynical gossip has an intensely negative impact on your life.
Build healthy relationships of mutual respect and common interests. Do fun things together. Take time off from work-worries and just be a human being, not a human doing.
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #9: Make Physical Affection Part of Your Day
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia, Author
Teacher Stress Busting Secret #10: Unplug, Recharge, and Focus
A distracted captain can run his ship aground. A distracted person is a danger to himself and those he cares for most.
Constant interruptions can make you feel like a human doing and not a human being.
Unplug. First, we need at least an hour before bed when we are not looking at or around our brightly lit devices. Technology devices wake us up an interrupt our circadian rhythms, making it difficult to sleep. Stop using technology one hour before bedtime.
Recharge. Charge your phone outside of the bedroom. Even in airplane mode and do not disturb, some apps can wake us up.
Have a Do Not Disturb Time. You need uninterrupted moments of DND (Do Not Disturb) time. Any time you’re at an event and want to focus on the event, set your phone to DND, particularly if using your phone as the camera. This way, you won’t be interrupted with an “urgent” email when you go to snap a picture of a never-to-be-repeated moment. You will also be more productive at work. Teachers who mess around with computer instead of focusing on students, make a mess of great teaching opportunities.
Teaching: An Epic Quest for Excellence
It would be nice to calm the storm and sail quiet seas all the time. But some of the most hated weather by sailors is dead calm. You have nothing to propel you forward — no wind. When you teach, you have to accept the weather we navigate. What you do not have to accept is that you have to stress out about it and have no quality of life.
For, when I read Walt Whitman’s words, I always think of a teacher.
Oh Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
Here’s to you, teacher. May you weather the storm and laugh in the rain. This profession may be stressful but is is never boring. Our destination is purposeful. We captain a great ship on an epic quest to educate the minds of men and women. We sail towards tomorrow.