Teacher stress is real. Anyone who enters the teaching profession should be prepared for hard work.
Of course, every job is hard. But there’s something unique about the challenge of teaching.
Many jobs are demanding in one or two ways. Some demand long hours. Some jobs challenge us mentally. Others require an intense emotional investment.
Teachers have to deal with all of the above. We’re asked to forge meaningful relationships with 30, 50, or even 100 students a year. Not to mention their parents.
We spend most of the day on our feet, giving presentations. And once everyone else leaves, the administrative work of planning and grading can begin. A study by the Gates Foundation showed that teachers work an average of 53 hours per week.
Some settings are more demanding than others. I’ve worked in schools where I had the freedom to try out what I wanted. Or where students did pretty much anything you asked of them.
And I’ve worked in schools where I always worried that a student might just ‘go off.’ In one school, a student punched the principal during recess. He was back in my classroom the next week.
So no matter how well we manage our time, or how much experience we have, teacher stress is inevitable. Which is why it’s crucial that teachers do all we can to protect ourselves from burnout.
When we eliminate unnecessary sources of stress, we have more time to plan engaging lessons. We have more to give our students emotionally. Simply put, we become better teachers.
My Journey to ‘Less Is More’
It was 3 am. My grades were due at 8 am. Though I could probably turn them in by the end of the day without catching too much heat.
The problem was that I only had one 40-minute prep that day. And coaching after school. Even if I went to bed now, it would be a struggle to get through the day.
Entering the grades wasn’t really the hard part. The hard part was that I still had 30 papers to grade before I could calculate the averages. I opted for coffee and an all-nighter. (At the time, I was in my 20’s and could still do that sort of thing).
I had started on this particular stack of papers a few days ago. And if you looked at the first papers in the stack, you would see great attention to detail. Ample proofreading marks. A long narrative section at the end, with plenty of “Great Job”s and other pleasantries.
The last few were all business. A few marks on the first page, with one or two more sprinkled throughout. And bullet points at the end.
When I was a student, I had received both the ‘top-of-stack’ feedback and the ‘bottom-of-stack’ feedback. I finally understood what had been happening at the other end of the pen.
This all-nighter was an exceptional experience. But late nights and extreme stress were standard during my first years in the classroom.
At the time, I thought it was all part of the job. Teachers do whatever it takes to support our students. Isn’t an all-nighter a great way to show we care? And besides, we have summers off. Working crazy hours during the school year just balances the scales.
Five Habits That Cause Teacher Stress
One problem with this thinking is that most of us work summer jobs.
And overwhelmed teachers can’t be fully present for our students. In order to be inspiring, supportive, and engaging, we need to practice self-care.
And by self-care, I don’t just mean meditating and eating healthy. The best way to care for ourselves as teachers is to keep our workload reasonable.
Over the years, I found five bad habits that were making my job more stressful than it needed to be. Once I eliminated these habits, teaching stopped feeling like a triathlon. It started to feel more like a nice invigorating hike.
I never got to the point where teaching was a walk in the park. But I was able to achieve a healthy balance.
As a result, I became a better teacher. I could give more to my students. When they acted out or failed to meet my expectations, I could stay calm and focus on their needs, instead of reacting.
If you’re feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, you may have one (or more) of the five habits below. Break even one of these habits can seriously cut down your stress levels.
1. Assigning too Much Work
I used to have a habit of assigning too much work.
I didn’t realize it was a problem until a few of my students wanted to re-do everything. Homework, classwork, even extra credit.
If I graded it, they wanted to re-do it. If I said no, I got an e-mail from their parents.
It seemed crazy to me. I understood retaking a test, but homework? When they made one mistake? I kept thinking, “What’s the big deal? These assignments aren’t even important.”
That thought led to another — “If it’s not important, why assign it?”
I guess I felt that the more grades in my book, the more evidence I had for report cards. Besides, wasn’t assigning work just what teachers do?
But these reasons weren’t good enough. Before assigning anything, we should make sure it helps students develop necessary skills.
And if I assign it, I owe them feedback. If the feedback is meaningful, they should want to revise.
The problem wasn’t their desire to revise. The problem was that I was drowning in work to be graded. I couldn’t fathom grading the same assignments 2 and 3 times.
I eventually cut back on the amount of work I assigned. Instead of piling on worksheets and exercises, I focused on a few meaningful assignments per quarter. Revision was built into the process. I also set my classes up with personalized learning, so those who wanted more practice could get it.
Soon, I stopped feeling like I was constantly digging out from under a pile of paperwork. My students got ample, meaningful, feedback on their work. I could also be there for them in other, more meaningful ways.
By saving myself time, I was actually producing better results.
2. Trying to “Control” the Class
Another stress-inducing habit I had as a new teacher was trying to control my students. And nothing causes teacher stress like an out-of-control classroom.
But the idea that we should control our students is a bit misguided. We can urge them in the right direction. And we should make clear the consequences of their decisions.
But at the end of the day, students control their own actions. I can remember several times that I tried, unsuccessfully, to ‘keep a student in line.’
Once it was literally about getting in line. It was my first year, and I was bringing my class in from recess. One student absolutely refused to line up.
I spoke sternly. I threatened consequences.
He continued to strut around the playground singing, “I do what I want, I do what I want.”
I felt trapped. I couldn’t physically drag him into the school. The whole class was watching the showdown. What would the principal think if I couldn’t control one 12 -year-old? What would the other students think?
Were this to happen today, I would let the student know that he can make his own decisions. I would inform him of the consequences. If he refused to comply, I would just take the other students to class and notify the office.
I’ve come to realize that telling students they are in control tends to immediately defuse most tense situations.
“It’s up to you. Are you sure you want to do this?” When students are looking for a conflict with authority, decline to play the part.
Instead of trying to control the class, opt for a partnership. Be the guide that helps them make good decisions. It may seem like a subtle distinction. But you’ll save yourself loads of emotional energy.
3. Managing Parents
When people hear I’m a teacher, a lot of them say things like, “I don’t know how you do it. Kids are so tough!”
But I always found working with kids to be relatively easy. The tough part for me was the parents.
They would ask me to change grades that were fair and accurate. Some liked to tell me how their taxes or tuition payments paid my salary. Others would chuckle and ask if I’d ever heard the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Hilarious.
But looking back, I wasted too much time and energy trying to manage parents.
If a child didn’t do their homework, I emailed home. To me, this was a mandatory notification. But to them, it was a command: “Make Billy do his homework.”
I recently saw a picture posted by a teacher in a Facebook group. It showed a backpack with a note stapled to the outside. “Make sure you sign the permission slip this time. It’s in the bag.”
“Maybe I’ll get the permission slip back for once,” she wrote. The parent, furious over the ‘ruined backpack,’ contacted the principal.
What a waste of time and energy! If the parent doesn’t sign the permission slip, the child misses the trip. But too often, we stress ourselves out trying to manage parents.
What happens in the home is important. But it’s not our job. And that includes homework.
We need to save our energy for managing what happens in the classroom. Do our best with what’s within our control, and let the rest go.
4. Excessive Feedback
Students deserve feedback on their work. And providing timely feedback is one of the most important, and most time-consuming, aspects of our work.
But we’ve all witnessed what can happen when we return a major assignment. We go through the work carefully. Find every error. We don’t just correct it, we explain exactly how to fix it.
And as soon as we hand it back to students, they flip to the back to see the grade. Many never actually process the constructive criticism. They just want to know “how they did.”
I once attended a powerful workshop on writing instruction. The presenter hammered the mantra “Don’t fix the writing. Teach the writer.”
This mantra applies to any subject. Our goal is to educate, not to correct. And written feedback does a poor job of teaching.
Explaining, in writing, how to factor a polynomial or fix a dangling modifier is a massive waste of time. Even if the student reads this, they probably won’t process it. They’ve heard it and seen it before. And they still made the mistake.
Limit feedback to a few bullet points per assignment. And instead of fixing their mistakes, show students where the mistakes are. Then, have them reflect on their mistakes and make corrections as a class activity.
You’ll cut your grading time in half. And your students will learn a lot more from the process.
5. 10 Pounds of Learning in a 5 Pound Sack
Some people think that teachers are resistant to change. In my work as a consultant, I haven’t found that to be the case.
Instead, I find that most educators are hungry for new ideas. We understand the challenges facing our schools and our students. We’re more-than-willing to try anything that will help them.
The problem, as I see it, isn’t that we’re unwilling to try new things. But that we’re less willing to part with the old ways.
In my workshops on personalized learning and inquiry-based learning, teachers tell me they would love to try these models of instruction. They plan to use them to “supplement” their current approach. But they have a hard time telling me what they will stop doing to make room for the new strategies.
I’ve found that the educators who are the most eager to innovate are also the most likely to suffer from teacher stress (myself included).
This tendency is true of teaching methods, resources, websites, you-name-it. The reality is that school schedules already have 10 pounds of learning stuffed in a 5 pound sack. Every minute of instructional time and planning time are usually spoken for.
So before you commit to putting anything new on your plate, first decide what you will take off.
When Teacher Stress is Unavoidable
While following these tips can reduce teacher stress, they cannot eliminate it entirely.
Teaching will always be a challenging job. And even if you reduce your stress levels, they are still likely to be higher than in many other professions.
Some teachers may lack the autonomy to even follow these tips. Your school may mandate the amount of homework to be assigned or the type of feedback you must give students.
In these instances, teachers need to be creative about fulfilling administrative mandates while also doing what is best for themselves and their students.
Teacher stress also varies greatly from school to school. In some schools, the only classroom management you need is to count down from 3 to 1. In other schools, your students would tell you where to stick your countdown.
You can go the entire year without speaking to parents in some schools. While in others, parents will request a meeting any time their child receives a B-.
If you’ve tried all of these tips and still feel overwhelmed with stress, it may be time to consider a change of schools. No job is worth your health and mental well-being.
Relieving Teacher Stress
For many teachers, working with an instructional coach can help relieve stress and improve performance.
A coach can help you with planning, content, or classroom management. A good instructional coach can also just be there to listen and help you decompress.
The first step to working with a coach is to reflect on your teaching practice. Our Reflective Teaching Guide includes self-assessments and goal-setting activities that will help you take charge of your professional growth.
About the Author
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff