The study notes that teachers who have unmanaged levels of stress and poor stress resilience compromise their quality of life, their physical and mental health, their sleep, and their work performance. This often leads to:
- Increased absenteeism;
- Higher rates of educator turnover; and
- Higher educational costs for schools.
It’s clear that social-emotional learning for educators, and giving teachers like you the mental and physical tools and strategies to better manage stress, is crucial on every level. But what exactly is stress?
Stress 101: Understanding the physical response to stressful situations
One of the most commonly-reported sources of teacher stress is high job demands, such as unrealistic expectations or lack of resources. You’ve likely experienced this yourself in the past year with the sudden pivot to virtual instruction.
When your administration came to you with a new policy and little to no training, how did you react? If you’re like most educators, you might have noticed your heart beating faster, or the muscles in your jaw clenching, or perhaps a few beads of sweat forming.
This was your body’s natural fight-or-flight response kicking in. It traces back to our ancestors’ prehistoric days when we needed to react quickly to a hungry predator or an impending physical threat. Your body and brain evolved to trigger this automatic physiological response, with stress hormones flooding your system and causing your blood pressure to rise and your heart rate to quicken so that you’re prepared to literally run from the threat.
The problem is that your brain doesn’t differentiate between actual physical danger—such as a prehistoric saber-tooth tiger—and the perceived threats of today (such as career and classroom stress). Your brain reacts to them all in the same way, leading to all the mental and physical burdens created by chronic teacher stress, including the teacher burnout that leads to so many educators making the drastic shift to new careers.
Stress resilience is about developing the ability to bounce back from this automatic, subconscious reaction. It’s about maintaining balance and helping your body return to a physical state of rest. Unfortunately, most of the common stress management advice given to teachers isn’t actually tailored to their specific challenges.
Getting a handle on chronic stress: A practical toolkit for educators
If you’ve been struggling with the physical effects of stress, you’ve likely heard all of the cliched wellness advice that’s out there. Get more sleep. Exercise. Eat a healthy lunch. But as you well know, teachers are already overworked and overburdened. How exactly are you supposed to fit a workout into your already hectic day?
Evidence-based practices for the classroom context demand a different approach.
1. Teachers need more support.
Social support is a well-documented strategy for managing stress, and includes support from your family, friends and your workplace colleagues. But for teachers, one of the most significant sources of support comes from school administration. Administrators must provide the right tools, resources, training, and professional development for teachers to do their job well and with utmost confidence.
For instance, there is a big focus on providing teachers with training on the science of reading. Often, teachers leave that training with wonderful knowledge but a question of “Now what?” This is where providing teachers with resources, such as evidence-based programs aligned to the science, makes it easier for teachers to take the science to the classroom and gives them access to not only effective resources but ongoing support during implementation.
2. Create routines.
A lot of teachers report feeling stressed about a lack of control. They might feel this way because of a lack of having a voice in key decision-making in their school, or because so many of the pandemic-related changes that are happening on the state or federal level are out of their control.
Creating a routine gives your brain a sense of structure, regularity, and predictability during times of stressful ambiguity or change. And it helps to center us and calm our physiological response to stressful situations. For example, routines may involve:
- Instructional design that provides structured beginnings and endings to your virtual classroom sessions.
- A specific post-work routine that helps you unwind and disconnect from work at the end of the day.
3. Activate your parasympathetic system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system helps to counter that initial fight-or-flight response I discussed earlier. If you want a high level of stress resilience, knowing how to activate your parasympathetic response is key.
Breathing exercises, such as taking six breaths every 60 seconds, can help to slow your heart rate, center your thoughts, and bring your blood pressure down so your body returns to a state of balance. Other options that may work for you include taking a walk in nature, splashing some cold water on your face, and even humming. All these practices can be incorporated into your day without pulling you away from the classroom for an extended period of time.
These times we’re all living in are stressful. Building stress resilience starts with little changes that make a big difference. Add these simple strategies into your life and in your classroom to improve your well-being and student outcomes. We are here to help.
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