How Do You Spell 'Stress Relief'?
With teachers under pressure to do more in the classroom all the time, stress can be inevitable. But stress can take a toll on a teacher's health and effectiveness as an educator. Several people who have conducted stress-reduction workshops recently shared their advice with Education World. Included: Exercises and activities to relieve teacher stress.
With more to do in less time while under more scrutiny, teachers are feeling more stress. Combine those issues with handling more special needs students, parental pressures, and the weight of high-stakes testing and some educators are heading down the path to burnout.
Several school counselors and other professionals who have worked with teachers and offered stress-reduction workshops say relief is possible. They recommend relaxation exercises, strategies, and activities that can keep classroom teachers from feeling overwhelmed, even as demands on them are increasing.
"I think stress levels [among teachers] are very high because expectations are high and demands are much higher," says Albert Madden, a guidance counselor at Stevens Elementary School in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who has conducted stress-reduction workshops for teachers. "Part of the reason teachers experience burnout symptoms is they do care so much and there is so much they can't control."
In 1996, a survey done by the National Education Association (NEA) showed that the majority of teachers chose to leave the profession because of stress factors, explains Angela Oddone, mental wellness program coordinator for the NEA Health Information Network. And a lot has changed since then.
From what Oddone has observed, the introduction of high-stakes testing has forced teachers to rearrange their priorities, and many feel they have lost their autonomy, she says, which further adds to stress.
Teachers also are reluctant to eliminate a responsibility when another is added on, making it more important for them to prioritize assignments, states Colleen Lanier, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators in North Carolina. "I'm seeing new people so frustrated, they don't know where to turn. They say they are ready to quit. ... I've also been hearing more often in the past five years teachers saying they never felt like this before."
Madden, the Williamsport guidance counselor, said he often talks with individual teachers about stress they are experiencing. He began offering stress reduction workshops about 15 years ago after he saw a lot of good teachers "getting tired and developing physical symptoms."
During his workshops, Madden talked about common sources of stress, and asked participants to identify what stresses them and how they react to those triggers. Madden also demonstrated deep-breathing and relaxation exercises teachers can use to slow their heart rate. After trying one relaxation exercise, a teacher told Madden, it was the first time in 12 years she did not have a headache in school.
Madden encourages teachers to prioritize their responsibilities, rather than trying to do everything perfectly, as some strive to do. "Decide what things are the most important, and get those done today," he recommends.
Lanier also demonstrates relaxation techniques teachers can do at home or at school during her workshops. One done at home involves lying down on the floor, propping the feet up on a chair, and placing a rolled towel behind the head to form a pillow. She recommends doing it at least three times a week for ten minutes at a time.
During the school day, if teachers have a few minutes alone, they can shut off the classroom lights, close the door, and pretend they are not there to get a few minutes to recharge.
Another exercise can be done in the classroom, according to Lanier. Students and teachers stand up straight, let their arms hang by their sides, pretend the only way to breathe is through the soles of the feet, and take deep breaths.
Even during the toughest times, there always is one easy-to-access stress-reliever: humor. Janet M. Smith, a counselor at Grover Elementary School in Kings Mountain School District, Grover, North Carolina, said it is her top recommendation during workshops. "A sense of humor and laughter are the number one things," Smith tells Education World. "You have to laugh at situations and yourself or get out."
She also encourages teachers to form relationships with people both inside and outside of school who have positive outlooks. "You need to be with people who don't leave you drained."
EXAMINE YOUR OWN LIFE
To avoid bringing tension into the classroom, teachers also have to identify and address the stress in their personal lives, recommends Lanier.
In fact, Hadyn Hasty, a former teacher and president of MindSpring Consulting, a personal development consulting company in Asheville, North Carolina, maintains that the teacher, not the students, creates much of the conflict in classrooms. During his stress-reduction workshops, "we talk about the trigger situations that bring out the worst in yourself and how to address those," Hasty tells Education World. "I have never seen a teacher who is feeling bad produce positive outcomes."
Hasty challenges teachers feeling stressed to ask themselves how they want to experience themselves with a particular class or student and then decide what they have to do to reach that point. They also should determine what is needed to help a difficult child succeed.
On the other hand, Hasty notes, because teachers deal with students all day, they can get little relief if they are feeling overwhelmed by personal problems; they can't quietly hide behind a computer screen for the day. "I can't think of a worse environment to be in than the classroom when you are, say, going through marital problems," Hasty remarks. "It's hard to stay on, when you want to collapse and hide. There are just too many relationships to maintain."
Because of personal and workplace stresses, Lanier says, she encourages teachers to set aside a few minutes each day for themselves. Frequently, teachers get so involved with their responsibilities that they tell her they don't have time for a stress-reduction workshop. Of course, Lanier says, "the ones who say they don't have time, usually need it the most."
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