A Teacher’s Guide to Managing Stress
Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers had stressful jobs. Managing multiple classrooms full of students, keeping up with teaching standards, preparing learners for standardized end-of-year tests – not to mention ensuring they complete all of their professional development requirements each year – can leave educators feeling like there’s never enough time in a day to accomplish all their tasks. A 2018 study by the University of Missouri confirmed what many may have suspected about these professionals: Approximately 93% of surveyed elementary education teachers reported feeling high levels of stress.
But it’s not just elementary educators feeling this way. K-12 teachers across the board report elevated levels of stress. A 2019 report found that teachers experienced more stress than other professionals, with 41% stating they did not have enough leisure time. For many teachers, chronic stress turns into mental health concerns. A 2017 national survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers found that 58% of educators stated their mental health was not in a good place – a significant rise from two years earlier (34%).
These numbers should be alarming to anyone who cares about the future of education. Within five years, 44% of new teachers leave the profession because it’s too stressful. Only a third of teachers leave due to retirement – the remaining find other work before reaching that point. Finding and keeping educators will become an increasing challenge in the coming years if stress levels continue to rise.
Whether you’re a teacher or school administrator, it’s time to educate yourself about the causes of stress, how to manage it, and what self-care looks like. We cover all of these topics and more in the guide that follows.
What Causes Stress Among Teachers?
Stress for teachers comes in many different forms but typically originates from wearing many hats and going above and beyond for their students. Doing this for long stretches of time can be extremely taxing. Some of the top causes of teacher stress are identified in this section.
Balancing a Heavy Workload
People outside the profession may think that teachers only work the hours that they are teaching classes, but this is very rarely the case. While many teachers sign contracts for 180-day work cycles, in reality, the hours logged tally to working 42 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Most teachers spend approximately six hours a day leading classes, but so much more goes into their jobs. A report by WeAreTeachers gave a breakdown of annual hours and found teachers work 2,200 hours each year, including:
Caring for Students With Learning Disabilities
Some teachers lead inclusion classes, meaning they educate students with and without learning disabilities alongside one another. The benefits of inclusive classes for students with learning disabilities are known, but that does not change the pressure and responsibility of ensuring these students understand the material while keeping other students engaged.
Many of these teachers develop compassion fatigue due to the mental exhaustion and emotional toll working with these students can take over time – especially when not receiving adequate support. A 2018 report by Education Week found that the national figures for trained special education teachers has dropped by a substantial 17% over the past decade, leaving teachers who lack the specialized training to pick up the slack.
Managing Children With Behavioral Issues
Disruptive and disrespectful students can wreak havoc on both classroom management and teachers’ stress levels. Students who act out distract from lessons, create an uncomfortable environment, and make it difficult for other learners to focus and participate in the lesson. This is especially true if the problematic behavior includes bullying, as this can leave the victim feeling unsafe sitting in the same classroom as the bully.
Trying to manage problematic behavior alongside complicated student-to-student relationships—all the while attempting to keep up with teaching standards—can seem impossible. This becomes especially true when educators aren’t getting the support needed to deal with behavioral problems.
Dealing With Interpersonal Relationship Issues
Teachers must work closely with other educators, school administrators, and parents to do their jobs effectively. But what if those interpersonal relationships also cause stress? Whether dealing with an overbearing principal or an unsupportive parent, navigating these situations can feel fraught with difficulty.
Teachers who think they don’t get the support or backup needed from their administrative team may feel alone in their work, while those who face passive-aggressive teaching partners may dread heading to school each morning. It’s important to remember that in the vast majority of cases, every party involved wants the best for the child—each person may simply have different visions of what that looks like.
Tips for Managing Stress
What can be done to manage stress in teachers and avoid more substantial mental health challenges? When you find yourself stressed out at school, it’s important to step back and find constructive ways to alleviate the problem. We look at several actionable tips for immediately managing stress in this section.
Analyze the Situation
When something seems overwhelming, it’s natural to feel panicked and stress over what to do next. When possible, try to walk away from the situation for a short time and figure out the best way to proceed. Does it require your immediate attention? Can you call in support from your administrative team? Rather than diving headlong into the first solution that comes to mind, don’t be afraid to sit with it for a while to figure out if that’s the best solution available.
Give Yourself Time to Respond
Whether you encounter an angry parent, a short-tempered administrator, or a student showing behavioral issues, take time before responding. Our first responses are often our most emotional but in many cases, these responses do not help diffuse the issue. Think about the outcome you would like from the interaction and try to find a response that can help you reach that goal.
Break Tasks Into Manageable Subtasks
Grading 400 tests may sound daunting when taken on its face, but there are ways to divide larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. Rather than feeling like you need to do everything all at once, work backward from the deadline. If those grades are due in five days from now, try to grade about 80 per day. All of the work will still get done in the end, but you won’t feel as burdened by the task as a whole.
Accept What You Cannot Change
Despite your best efforts and most sincere wishes, sometimes there are things about your job, your students, or your administrators that you cannot change. Try to acknowledge what these are early in the school year. You can address the ones that feel adaptable but don’t waste your time or emotional energy on those outside of your control. Instead, try to find ways of limiting how that person or situation affects you and your school day.
Figure Out Priorities
For some teachers, getting eight hours of sleep is their top priority. Others need to know their lessons for the next week are fully planned out prior to leaving the building on Friday afternoon. Create a list of your priorities at the start of the year. Decide which ones are the most important to you and put them in that order. If you find yourself spending ample time or energy on something that isn’t on that list, it may be time to take a step back and refocus.
Interrupt Negative Thoughts
If you catch yourself getting in a negative spiral about a person or situation you can’t change, make yourself back away from that thought. Negative thoughts can often overtake us without proper boundaries—especially if others in your school echo these thoughts or talk about them over lunch or planning times. Keeping a positive mindspace is critical in stressful situations, so remember to divert your thoughts to something else if you feel them creeping in.
Leave Your Work at Work
While it may not always be possible, leaving as much of your work in the building when you head home can go a long way in being able to actually rest and rejuvenate during your time off. Ask yourself if the task you’re thinking about bringing home is critical to the success of the next day. If not, try to work on it throughout the day while at school. Remember to create strong boundaries around your time and don’t be afraid to exit a situation that is taking up your time but not adding value to your day.
What Are Some Self-Care Tactics for Teachers?
Limiting and diverting points of stress are critical to getting through your day, but it’s also important that you take time to care for yourself and do things that support your physical and mental health. As more teachers experience burnout from working long hours and handling difficult situations, engaging in self-care is more important than ever. Consider some of the ideas given below.
Get Enough Sleep
A study conducted by Ball State University found that 43% of teachers said they got less than six hours of sleep a night. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is between seven and nine hours, meaning nearly half of teachers are facing busy days without being fully rested. Lack of sleep can lead to irritability, mental fogginess, and eventual burnout, making it incredibly important that you get the shut-eye you need.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
When you feel like you’re always on the go, cooking a healthy meal at the end of a day is sometimes the last thing you want to do. But maintaining a healthy diet—that includes the recommended daily amount of water—can go a long way in keeping you from getting sick and ensuring you get the nutrients needed to function at your best. If cooking sounds like a terrible idea, you can always get premade salads, cooked proteins, or high-quality frozen meals. If you have more time on the weekends, try batch cooking for the week.
Find Enjoyable Movement
Whether that means doing a yoga class from the comfort of your home, going on a run with friends, or participating in a group fitness class at your local gym, finding a type of exercise that you enjoy means you will likely stick with it. Exercise has been shown time and time again to elevate moods, release dopamine, and contribute to an overall healthier lifestyle. Don’t feel you need to sweat it out for hours—even a half-hour walk around your neighborhood with a good podcast can create a noticeable shift.
Step Away From Your Devices
Did you know that the average person unlocks their phones between 100-150 times per day on average? Research by UCHealth found that every time our phone makes an alert sound, it activates our sympathetic nervous system and sends adrenaline into our bodies. It can take up to 30 minutes to come down from each of these episodes. If you feel like you can never truly be “off” with a device around, consider powering them down one or two nights a week. Even taking a few hours away from them can give you time to truly rest and relax with no distraction.
Take Short and Long Breaks
Taking a 10- to 15-minute break every couple hours increases productivity and creativity while also giving your brain some time to relax. Taking breaks throughout your teaching day is important for staying present, but longer breaks are just as important for your overall mental health. In addition to using your summer holidays to get away, try to find long weekends for short trips that allow you to be in a different environment. If at all possible, don’t take any work with you.
Set Healthy Boundaries
One of the most powerful forms of self-care is the ability to say no. Whether you say it to additional responsibilities at school or to an invite to dinner, remember that you know yourself best and it’s OK to turn things down. Setting healthy boundaries can give you more time in your day to relax, pursue personal interests, and spend quality time with loved ones.
The Relationship Between Student and Teacher Stress
As much as teacher stress continues to rise, this is also true for students. A report by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of today’s teenagers say anxiety and depression are major problems in their lives. It’s no secret that stress contributes to teen anxiety, including stress from school.
As anyone who has been around a stressed-out person knows, that energy can affect others. Teachers facing stressful situations can sometimes unknowingly transfer their stress to students (or vice versa), creating a compounded cycle. Because of this, it’s important to keep everyone’s stress levels down. A few situations to be aware of if you don’t want to contribute to student stress include:
1. Unchecked Classroom Behavioral Issues
When a student acts out in class, their behavior doesn’t just affect them and you—it also affects other students in the room. Creating and maintaining a calm study atmosphere can go a long way in keeping stress at bay.
2. Standardized Test Scores
Teachers feel immense pressure to prepare their students for end-of-year subject tests and ensure they have the tools needed to succeed. This stress can sometimes travel to students, who can sense their teacher’s nerves over the impending exam.
3. Too Many Meetings
When teachers feel they are pulled in too many directions by staff meetings, professional development requirements, and other obligations, they can often seem overwhelmed or unprepared. This nervous energy can transfer to students and leave them feeling like the teacher doesn’t have time for them.
Tips for Making Your Classroom a Low-Stress Zone
Creating a low-stress classroom benefits both you and your students, making it a win-win decision. Small changes can make a big difference in how the class goes while also creating structure and rhythm within otherwise hectic days. A few ideas to consider include:
Create Designated Quiet Time
Setting aside even one minute at the start or end of class for quiet time can help both you and your students reset and prepare for the remainder of the day. Students can use that time as they wish, but they must remain quiet for from start to finish. While they may be unsure of this activity initially, most learners come to appreciate the little break in their day.
Allow for Standing Desks or Floor Work
For some students, working at a sitting desk simply isn’t conducive to their style of learning. If the budget allows, consider bringing in standing desks to help with blood flow and alertness. If you don’t have the funds to cover these, you could also get a few rugs and let them spend part of the class working from the floor.
Build in Time for Organizing
Some learners feel stressed when disorganized but creating routines and structure can help reduce these feelings. At the end of class, allow for a few minutes to repack backpacks, put away new homework, and replace any tablet devices used during class. This can also help with keeping your classroom clean and organized.
Play Relaxing Music
Data from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environment found that playing the appropriate type of music in a classroom can reduce anxiety and stress, assist learners in regulating their emotions, improve concentration and behavioral issues, and make it easier for students to process speech and language. Try setting up a Spotify or Pandora playlist the next time you sense stress in your classroom.
Even taking a few big breaths and centering yourself at the start or end of class can do wonders for stress levels. To support this effort, the app Headspace provides free access to K-12 educators. Here you can find a large selection of guided meditations of all lengths to fit the needs of your classroom.
Decorate Your Classroom and Allow Students to Decorate Their Desks
Creating a sense of ownership and place can help students feel like they have a spot in school where they belong. While they won’t be able to use permanent materials, there are plenty of removable, non-adhesive, and washable crafting supplies that will work for this project. You can also decorate the classroom and include projects that mention each of your students by name so they feel known.
Model Good Self-Care
K-12 students are sponges, sometimes mirroring the behavior of adults in their lives. If the teachers in their lives do not model self-care, they likely won’t either. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, consider the advice you would give your student or a friend. Try to take your own advice, slow down, and show care to yourself throughout the school day.
Do a Read-Aloud
No matter the grade you teach, a read-aloud can slow things down and help students be still and quiet. You can either read aloud to the students each day or take turns passing the book around. Learners can also look forward to hearing a little more of a story each day, a treat that may help them stay focused and engaged during class time.