As the challenges continue unabated in schools, educators find themselves dealing with an unprecedented level of stress and anxiety. They feel the weight of responsibility required to keep their students safe while also feeling concern for their own health and wellbeing. Amidst the noisy debate about whether to have remote learning, in-person classes, or some type of hybrid model, teachers are on the front lines in striving to ensure that children learn—no matter what venue of teaching prevails.
Our hearts go out to all of you in the teaching profession as you dedicate yourselves to doing your best under extraordinary circumstances. We’d like to suggest five strategies to help you navigate the day-to-day challenges of teaching so that it becomes less stressful and more rewarding.
1. Engage in positive self-talk and self-reflection.
Avoid self-doubt and self-nagging. You have never had to work in an educational environment like the one you find yourself in right now, so be generous in assessing your performance. You don’t need to wait for a big accomplishment to celebrate success. When you have even small successes—such as holding the attention span of remote learners, for instance—pay yourself a compliment. You’re awesome as you have the courage to confront new challenges—and your students are, too! Identifying your strengths helps reinforce a can-do attitude.
2. Make it manageable.
If you start to feel overwhelmed by the diverse responsibilities of teaching during these unprecedented circumstances, take a few moments to identify your priorities—what must be done and in what order—and create an achievable, step-by-step plan to accomplish those tasks. In the socially distanced classroom, consider what you can do to achieve classroom participation and independent learning exercises. It’s less stressful and easier to maintain a positive attitude if you can actually see that you're making progress.
3. Embrace the little joys of teaching.
In socially distanced classrooms and remote learning environments, you may have to adjust your definition of what your daily joys entail. Perhaps it’s having a student who is normally quiet in your virtual classroom finally having the confidence to speak up. Perhaps it’s having the majority of your on-site students remaining focused enough to complete their in-class writing assignment. Purposefully staying in the moment of those small, incremental successes, instead of letting your mind wander to other tasks and nagging dilemmas, may help you stay attuned to the many rewards this profession can and still provides—even in these unusual circumstances.
4. Become more resilient.
Enhancing your ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks can help stave off stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. Psychologist Richard Davidson reports on research indicating that people with greater activation on the left side of their prefrontal cortex recover more quickly from reacting to events that produce feelings of anger or fear. Through mindfulness training, or by focusing their thoughts on calming down in an adverse situation, subjects in Davidson’s study were able to increase their resilience.
When confronted with a situation that makes you angry, anxious, or stressed out, you can choose to hit the “pause” button rather than obsessing about those negative feelings. You can train yourself to focus your thoughts on how amazing it is that you have the power to control your emotions and steer them into more positive and productive territory.
5. Set your problems aside for a while.
Approaching your work with practical optimism won’t make the many challenges facing teachers today disappear. Life inside and outside of the classroom has gotten more complicated, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. Even simple tasks like shopping for groceries or buying supplies for your classroom can add stress or anxiety to your day. If you find yourself bringing your anxiety into the classroom at school or home where you teach virtually, we recommend something we call the Coat Hanger Strategy:
- Identify the problem that is distracting you from the activity at hand.
- Consider: “Do I have control over this problem? Are there steps that I can take right now to resolve or alleviate it?”
- If the answer to both questions is “no,” imagine draping the problem on a coat hanger and leaving it outside your door so that you can return to your current activities without distractions.
Keeping the Passion Alive
By regularly employing these strategies, it’s possible to develop a more consistently positive and productive outlook on teaching and to lessen your stress—even in these most trying of times.