Guest Blog: Managing Teacher Stress This Fall by Mike Anderson

Oct 16, 2020

Schools will need to pay attention to protocols of physical safety this fall: hand sanitizer, masks, dots spaced six feet apart in hallways, etc. Let’s also not forget the critical role that teachers’ emotional health will play in helping school get off to a good start for students.

Stressed-Out Teacher Stress Out Students

A few years ago, researchers in British Columbia conducted a fascinating study. They had 400 elementary school students spit into test tubes. (Gross, right?) They measured students’ levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). They then compared those results with teachers’ self-assessment of their own levels of workplace stress. You probably won’t be surprised to find that teachers who reported higher levels of stress had students with significantly higher levels of cortisol in their saliva. Stressed-out teachers stress out students.

This is important at any time, since there are such clear and compelling links between students’ emotions and their learning. It is especially important right now—as we’re all preparing to head back to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With so much uncertainty and so much at stake, we should expect that as teachers, we will experience some pretty significant stress.

Be Proactive About Stress-Management

It can feel selfish to make our own wellness a priority. We’re teachers because we’re care-givers, after all. We get our energy from helping others. However, if we don’t take good care of ourselves, we won’t be in a position to help students and parents who will need us to be our best selves. We must get into healthy habits that will give us the mental, physical, and emotional reserves needed to be welcoming, calm, and positive in the face of parents and kids who will likely be really worried about coming back to school. Here are a few tips, pulled from my book about this topic, The Well-Balanced Teacher.

  • Exercise: Make time in your daily schedule to move. Get your heart pumping and your blood flowing. Exercise helps reduce stress while also having positive impacts on sleep, digestion, and cognition.
  • Eat Well: Eat lots of healthy foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein), and avoid starchy and sugary junk foods which lead to sugar-highs and crashes. Good foods fuel long term energy.
  • Schedule Downtime: Be conscious of when you’re putting down work and getting away from the computer. Don’t wait until your work is finished (it’s never finished) to get some rest and relaxation. Making time for R&R gives you better energy and helps you be more productive when you are working.
  • Enjoy Social Connection: We can be physically distant while still engaging in social connection. Go for walks with friends. Take a family hike or bike ride. Schedule an online card game with your parents. (Our family’s favorite site for this is Cardzmania.) 

Use Strategies to Manage Stress in the Moment

No matter how well we set ourselves up to be healthy and balanced, we will still experience stress. So, we need strategies for managing that stress when it occurs. I was recently working with a group of educators, and together we brainstormed strategies they use for calming themselves down when they are starting to feel nervous or upset. See the table below for some ideas.

What Can School Leaders Do?

Just as teachers need to set their students up for success, so too, school leaders need to set teachers up for success. School leaders are the ultimate tone-setters for a building, so you also need to practice self-care and use strategies to manage your own stress.

This fall, you might also want to do some really specific and proactive work with faculty around setting and maintaining healthy habits. Here are some resources to get you going…

Set Up a Quiet Room

Schools reopened in many countries in the spring. In a video call with several school leaders who had already welcomed children back to school, one head of school said that teachers were surprised at how little tolerance they had for noise and commotion. The school set up a quiet room in the school–a place teachers could go for a few moments of peace when their nerves were getting frazzled.

Staff Meeting Lesson Plan: Make Stress Your Friend

Try this short PD activity that you can facilitate yourself. Staff get to watch a highly engaging and thought-provoking TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, in which she encourages us all to reframe how we view stress. Here’s the plan as a PDF (Plan, Make Stress Your Friend) so it’s easy to view. Here’s the plan as a Word document (Plan, Make Stress Your Friend) so you can tweak it and make it your own.

LiveBinder of Resources: Becoming a More Well-Balanced Teacher

This binder is packed with free resources you can use to support teacher health and balance. There are practical articles and videos as well as several other staff-meeting length PD sessions to facilitate with your faculty.

Book Study: The Well-Balanced Teacher

Many faculties have facilitated book studies on The Well-Balanced Teacher to support teacher health. The book is written in a conversational style that teachers find helpful and supportive. Here’s a link to a free study guide offered through ASCD to support book study groups.

Looking for More Ideas?

A few years ago, I facilitated a retreat for school administrators in a district in Maine. They brainstormed 17 ideas for ways to take care of their staff using the five categories outlined in The Well-Balanced Teacher: basic needs, belonging, significance, and fun. You can see their ideas in this blog post.

Our students will need us to bring our best selves to school this fall, so let’s set educator health and wellness as one of our top priorities as we get ready to reenter school in whatever form that’s going to take!

About Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. A public school teacher for 15 years, he has also taught preschool, coached school swim teams, and taught university graduate level classes. He now works as a consultant providing professional learning for teachers throughout the US and beyond. In 2004, Mike was awarded a national Milken Educator Award, and in 2005 he was a finalist for NH Teacher of the Year. In 2020, he was awarded the Outstanding Educational Leader Award by NHASCD for his work as a consultant. A best-selling author, Mike has written eight books about great teaching and learning. When not working, Mike can be found hanging with his family, tending his perennial gardens, and searching for new running routes around his home in Durham, NH.

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