How Do Educators Handle Work-Related Stress?
By Cindy Long
The minute Katelyn Hutchison gets home from school, she laces up her running shoes and jogs for a few miles to clear her head. After seven years in the classroom, she’s learned she needs an outlet for the pressure that builds up during the day.
“Running gives me some time to myself to let go of whatever causes my stress that day,” says Hutchison, a first-grade teacher from Illinois. “It’s easy for teachers to carry our stress with us, whether we’re worrying about a student or thinking about the million things we have to do. So I try to find a way to let those things go and not take them home with me.”
Hutchison goes for a run; other educators may walk their dog, head to a yoga class, or maybe find a less healthy way to unwind–Chardonnay, anyone?
“To be honest, I often eat sweets, especially chocolate,” admits Maria Schrenger, a teacher from Louisville, Kentucky.
But whatever the coping mechanism, every educator shares a need to decompress after spending another day in a demanding, pressure-cooker profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75 percent of Americans say their jobs are stressful. But what a lot of educators experience isn’t the everyday variety of workplace tension. It’s nerve-jangling, sleep-robbing, heart-pounding stress that comes from all directions and can leave them constantly anxious and fatigued.
If the unruly students, uncooperative parents, and unsupportive administrators whom educators sometimes run into weren’t stressful enough, they also grapple with budget cuts, ballooning class sizes, and a bone-deep exhaustion that comes from spending almost every evening and weekend grading and planning.
For most people, it could seem like too much. But educators aren’t most people.
“Educators go into the profession because they care very deeply about the work they do and the results they strive to see in their students,” says Nora Howley, manager of programs at NEA’s Health Information Network. “When you care that deeply, you’re going to feel it.”
Katelyn Hutchison cares that deeply, and she doesn’t want stress to interfere with her desire to help children learn.
“My students are the reason I’m there, and even on my most stressful days, they make it all worth it,” she says. “In any career you choose in life there will be stress, it’s a matter of how you handle it that makes all the difference.”
It makes a big difference. Those who handle stress well can lessen the impact it has on their bodies. But those who struggle to manage their stress can experience serious health problems like heart disease.
That’s why Nora Howley and the staff at NEA’s HIN lead workshops for members called “Kill Stress Before it Kills You.” The 90-minute session helps educators define stress, identify its causes, and figure out ways to manage it.
“We want to help educators understand that stress is doing harmful things to our bodies–that it has physical manifestations,” says Howley. “But when you manage stress with exercise or relaxation techniques, it removes the negative impact stress has on the body, even though the stress itself doesn’t go away.”
And let’s face it— stress isn’t going anywhere. It’s been plaguing us since the dawn of humankind. Stress is the body’s response to danger or the fear of danger. But back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, what we feared were predators, like a saber-tooth tiger, not an overbearing principal or helicopter parent.
The stress response is designed to protect us, and when we experience stress our bodies go into fight or flight mode. When faced with a charging saber-tooth tiger, cave dwellers had three options: run for their lives, fight and kill the beast, or fight and be killed. Whatever the outcome, their stress was burned through their emergency response—as a result, prehistoric cave people didn’t suffer from ulcers or take pills for high blood pressure.
Here in the 21st century, our stressors aren’t as dangerous, but our responses to them—like a racing heart rate—are. We don’t have to fight off tigers, but our bodies act as though we do when we experience stress.
The most common stressors that Howley hears from educators at her training sessions are a lack of support from parents and administrators, a lack of awareness of how very hard educators have to work, and a lack of respect from the public at large. On top of all of that, they feel they’re being blamed for all the problems in education.
Atlas couldn’t carry that much weight on his shoulders, but educators are walking around with it every day, and it starts to take a serious toll. Over time when high levels of stress aren’t properly managed, the responses can range from anxiety disorders, migraines, and joint problems to heart disease and stroke.
So how does a stressed-out educator properly manage the day-to-day pressures of school life?
First, identify the stressor and determine if it’s changeable, Howley advises. Are you stressed by the lack of communication in your grade-level team? Take a look at your schedule and set a time each day, or each week, for everyone to meet, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
Regular meetings with colleagues can also help reduce conflict by increasing communication and understanding. Meetings foster relationships and can create friendships—having a colleague to enjoy a coffee break with is an excellent way to relieve tension.
Communication with administrators is equally important, says Ted Warner, a special education and language arts teacher from Northampton, Virginia.
“Most of what worries us can be resolved if we sit down face-to-face with the people in charge,” he says. “We obviously can’t have a meeting every day with every administrator, but ‘Can I sit down with you for ten minutes after fifth period?’ will almost always get a yes. And, of course, armed with information, you’ll feel better.”
Educators should also determine if their stress is short term, like testing season, or long-term, like having your job performance evaluated by test scores. If it’s short term, you know the level of stress will come down eventually, which makes it easier to manage. If it’s long term, you need to work harder to find effective—and healthy—ways to cope.
The number one strategy for successfully alleviating stress is to exercise. Like cave people fighting or fleeing a saber-tooth tiger, we need to find a way to burn off stress.
“If you don’t have a physical output for stress, it stays in the body, the symptoms don’t go away, and they lead to more permanent health problems,” says Howley.
If you’re not a runner like Katelyn Hutchison, experiment with other forms of exercise. Try a Zumba or Karate class. Go for a bike ride, or at the very least, take a walk.
“If you’re not doing two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, find at least one way to add more physical activity to your life,” Howley recommends.
Schrenger, the chocolate-loving educator from Louisville, gained 15 pounds last school year because of stress—much of it related to the new Common Core standards and losing her teaching assistant to budget cuts.
“I teach first grade and am often there 12 to 13 hours a day, and I take work home, too,” she says. “The best thing I do for stress is to go for five- to six-mile walks with a friend and work out at the gym. These two activities help me shed stress and anger and help me feel stronger.”
When you start to feel stressed during the school day, it’s also important to find time for a break, says Howley. Take a walk around the building. Join a game with students on the playground. Or practice relaxation exercises with your class.
She also recommends meditation and relaxation exercises (see sidebar) to minimize stress for those who are unable to be more physically active. Proper breathing from the diaphragm and visualization are proven ways to reduce heart rate and ease stress symptoms.
“Finally, we want to emphasize the importance of plain old fun,” Howley says. “Everyone needs to find time for fun, whether it’s enjoying free time with family and friends, going to the movies, watching or playing sports or participating in your favorite hobby.”
Maria Schrenger goes to a comedy club because “great laughs are like therapy.”
The most important strategy of all is to remember to keep things in perspective. You know you’re going to have problem kids and students who struggle, and sometimes you won’t be able to give all of your students the attention they need.
But even when you’re stretched too thin, and it seems like you’ll never get out from under, something magical happens that makes it all worthwhile.
Back in Katelyn Hutchison’s class in Illinois, a student struggled with reading but eventually overcame the obstacles to become a competent reader. Hutchison wrote him a note to tell him how proud she was of his hard work, and when she handed it to him, she asked if he wanted help reading it.
“No, I can read it!” he told her. He then proceeded to read it aloud without stumbling once.
“Those are the moments that remind me of why I became a teacher,” she says.