Stressed Out

For many teachers, tensions linger long after class is dismissed

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Teaching is stressful. On a typical day, a teacher must cover a strict lesson plan, customizing the approach to reach several dozen students, each with different needs and abilities. At the same time, the teacher must watch and listen to everything happening in class and be ready to break up fights, intercept notes, and maintain order. All the while, 30 pairs of eyes scrutinize every move, making it impossible to yawn, sneeze, or stretch without being noticed.

Add to these pressures a squawking PA system, a heating system that can't be regulated, windows that won't open, a workload that intrudes on evening and weekend hours, uncomfortable confrontations with angry students and hostile parents, and a mea ger 2 percent pay raise. Even at home, teachers are bombarded with newspaper and television reports about failing students, poor schools, and the sad state of the teaching profession. Indeed, stress and teaching are as hard to separate as two pieces of bread in a peanut-butter sandwich.

Most teachers see stress as nothing more than an unpleasant reaction to classroom pressures, but it is actually a survival mechanism. Stress is the physiological response to danger that allows the body to react quickly. “When primitive man came out of the cave and was confronted with danger, the stress response gave him the opportunity to survive,” says Scheldon Kress, a physician in Springfield, Va., who treats stress-related disorders. “It gave him the energy to take on the enemy and fight or flee.”

Physically, the body responds to stress by pumping adrenaline through the blood, which in turn speeds up the heart rate and blood pressure. Digestion slows because blood is diverted to the muscles and the brain, and breathing quickens to oxygenate this blood. The body is tense and ready to move.

Being tense and ready for action isn't a problem when someone needs to run for the hills or stand tall and fight. But when stress comes from a misbehaving student or a disagreeable principal, the body is, in a sense, all revved up with no place to go. The muscles that are tense and eager to move simply get stiff and sore. Blood that's diverted from the digestive tract and sent racing to the brain causes headaches and gastrointestinal distress. And all the unused adrenaline can add up to body aches, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability.

“What's stressful about teaching is the number of people teachers are involved with,” says Laura Brinkman, a special education teacher at Denver's Abraham Lincoln High School. “Teachers have to work with students on one mental level and everyone else in the building on another, and then parents on another.

“During the school day, there are so many interruptions: other teachers coming in, students coming in, phone calls,” adds Brinkman, who also serves as a counselor, senior class adviser, environmental club sponsor, and vocational coordinator. “There's so much work to get done, and I can't get it all done. That's stressful.”

But Brinkman doesn't let stress get her down. She counts on regular exercise to relieve physical tension and meets with friends to soothe her frazzled psyche. “It's very important to have a social life,” says Brinkman. “On Friday night, I have to get out and get around a different group of adults, people who are not teachers, so I don't talk shop.”

John Specht, a veteran English teacher at the same school, doesn't find the everyday routine of teaching stressful. “What's stressful is all the exceptions to the routine, such as a student acting up in class, arguments, a student's loud or obscene fashion of speaking.” What causes the most stress, he says, is “the anticipation of resolving the problem.”

For Specht, stress is not confined to the school year. As the days of August shorten and the evenings cool, Specht's body reacts with what he calls his “annual back-to-school problems”: insomnia and a chronically upset stomach. Many teachers experience this kind of anticipatory stress response, according to Kress, who has treated teachers for stress-related problems. “I repeatedly see teachers who have panic attacks, tension headaches, and who become despondent on Sunday nights.”

Like Brinkman, Specht counts on exercise to relieve the daily school pressures. “By exercising, I tire myself out somewhat and don't have the energy to worry about school,” says Specht, who regularly jogs and rides his bicycle. “That reduces stress.”

Specht and Brinkman teach at a large, urban high school, but stress afflicts rural teachers, too. Paul Windsor, a teacher at Sioux County High School in Harrison, Neb., is one of eight faculty members at a school with only 37 students. Windsor's stress problems come from wearing too many hats: In addition to teaching his business classes, he's the school's athletic director, the head coach of the girls' basketball team, and the sponsor of the school's Future Business Leaders of America group. During a typical school day, Windsor has to tend to such wide-ranging tasks as repairing a broken scoreboard, writing a request for new typewriters, and making sure the satellite feed is working properly. “And because we have so few kids,” he says, “I might do two or three subjects in a given class period. By the end of the day, I'm mentally drained.”

When he feels overwhelmed by his multitudinous commitments, Windsor says that he “backs up, slows down, and says a prayer.” He also reminds himself to say “No” to new commitments. “I make sure I go home and spend time with my family,” he says. “You have to learn to leave things undone. There are limitations.”

Somewhat different stresses plague elementary school teachers. “I am responsible for 30 little children, their moods, their learning,” says JoAnn Swafford, a 4th grade teacher at Pierre S. duPont Elementary School in Wilmington, Del. “I am their friend, their teacher, their mom, their disciplinarian. A lot of children are lacking in attention at home, so teachers have to fill all their needs.”

To relieve the stress that builds up after spending a day with a class of 10-year-olds, Swafford turns to her colleagues for comfort. “I talk to my peers,” she says, “and we end up laughing about [our problems], and that lightens the load.”

Experts claim that the first step in reducing stress is recognizing its source. Melinda Ashton, a counselor at the Alexandria (Va.) Counseling Center, says she helps people deal with stress by teaching them how to set limits. “We try to help people become more realistic about what they can accomplish,” Ashton says. “We encourage people to be more assertive, to take charge. Once people learn these skills, they find the stress eases immensely.”

Paul Bracke, a clinical psychologist in Oakland, Calif., says he encourages teachers to make their personal happiness a priority. “I ask teachers to look at the list of things they're planning to do the next day,” Bracke says, “and I ask if the list includes something that is pleasurable to them, something that will let them relax. We need to start encouraging teachers to see themselves as a precious resource they need to conserve. Even machines need to shut down once in a while.”

Both Ashton and Bracke offer several stress-reducing tips:

  • Give yourself a break. Take time off for bathroom and lunch breaks. “If you can't have lunch,” Ashton says, “then a nutritious snack during the day is essential.” Before or after lunch, walk around the block or out to the football stadium to get some fresh air and a change of scenery.
  • Prepare for discipline problems. “If you have difficult kids, work out a strategy with the guidance counselor or principal before behavior problems begin,” Ashton urges. “That way, you'll know exactly what you're going to do ahead of time.”
  • Make a schedule of meetings, and then adhere to it. “Teachers have to schedule their phone calls and conferences,” Ashton recommends. “They should set the meeting time, set the tone, set the agenda, and stick to it. I think that helps to diminish the sense that they're always at someone's beck and call.”
  • Talk to colleagues. Teachers need to find a network inside or outside of school for support and professional companionship.
  • Limit time spent working at home. “Give yourself permission to take time off,” Ashton says. Respect your limits, even if it means letting things go undone.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise or activity will help release some of the tension that builds up during the day.
  • Ask for help. When stress at school or at home becomes overwhelming, consider talking to a professional counselor.

One of the most important things for teachers to maintain when trying to relieve stress is a sense of realism.

“Teachers I have seen who are happy with their jobs are ones who are realistic with their role,” Ashton says. “Teaching has become a very difficult job: too many subjects, too many standardized tests to prepare students for, children with short attention spans because of too much television. Successful teachers realize their job is to teach. They cannot be all things to all people.”

Vol. 02, Issue 04, Pages 58-59

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